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The Daily Telegraph: If only the Queen had asked him to tea

Thirty years ago, Idi Amin announced the expulsion of 80,000 Ugandan Asians. Trevor Grundy remembers those fevered days and explains how a better understanding of the erratic dictator's flawed character might have p [incomplete text at source]

August 2, 2002 4:05am

During the early hours of Saturday August 5, 1972, General Idi Amin, Life President of Uganda, Conqueror of the British Empire and the Last King of Scotland, had a dream. Still in his pyjamas, the six-foot three-inch former British Army sergeant called some of his senior military advisers into the State House in Kampala and told them that God had ordered him to expel the Indian/Asian community.

That morning in Nairobi, I and other editors of the tabloid newspaper The Nation read the first news agency reports describing how The Almighty had also ordered Amin to take over Asian-owned hotels, mills, breweries, sugar refineries and cotton factories.

In Amin's dream, God told the general to nationalise all of the houses and flats owned by Uganda's 80,000-strong Indian community, made up of Hindis, Muslims and members of the Aga Khan's small but wealthy sect, the Ismailis. The Ugandan Life President gave non-citizens just 90 days to leave the country.

That same day, 18 leaders of the Indian community - wealthy, usually optimistic men - were summoned into Amin's awe-inspiring presence. They shook their heads in disbelief when they heard what he had to say.

They had all "milked the Ugandan cow without feeding it", and had ripped off the economy by sending millions of Ugandan shillings to relatives in Britain. They should make plans to get all the members of their universally detested community out of the country by November 9.

"If you don't go by then," Amin told them, "I will make you feel as if you are sitting on fire."

In Nairobi, the mood among Kenya's much larger and even more powerful Indian community was of good-humoured incredulity. Weren't Ugandan Asians Idi Amin's best friends? He had said so dozens of times since overthrowing the quasi-Marxist President Milton Obote the year before. In January 1971, Ugandan Asians had joined hands with blacks and whites and danced in the streets of Kampala when they heard that the "Redeemer" Amin had ended the corrupt and always menacing rule of Obote.

The day after Amin's thunderbolt announcement, I joined a close Ismaili friend, who worked as an accountant at The Nation, a paper owned by the Aga Khan, for a family picnic. Mansoor told me that Idi Amin was so erratic, he would probably retract his expulsion order within a few days. "He has probably had a row with the British High Commissioner, Richard Slater," he suggested.

"He was probably rejected by some Indian beauty and wants his own back," said Mansoor's wife, as we laughed and enjoyed our picnic.

But Idi Amin was in no mood to retract a single word. On August 9, he appeared on television to tell the Asian community that even Indians with British passports must leave within 90 days. They included teachers, doctors, nurses, business leaders, lawyers, building contractors and the men and women who ran the twin pillars of the Ugandan economy - agriculture and tourism.

"Asians," he said, in front of a sea of beaming black Ugandans, most of whom wore military uniforms, "have kept themselves to themselves and as a community have refused to integrate with Africans. Their main interest has been to exploit the economy. They have been milking our economy for years and now I say to them all - Go!"

At the start of October, I was called in to see one of the Aga Khan's advisers. He lived in Paris and helped oversee the spiritual leader of the Ismaili community's vast fortune. I was told that, for the next few weeks, he did not want to see hostile features in The Nation about Idi Amin. I should choose "light, bright" articles and avoid horror stories from Uganda.

Mansoor took me aside and said that the Aga Khan had sent his diplomats to Uganda, where they had reached an agreement with Amin. He would receive an undisclosed sum if the Ismailis left unharmed. Diplomats working for the Aga Khan had also made arrangements with Pierre Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, to "ease the way" for Ismailis. Large sums were invested in that country's embryonic tourism industry.

It was at that time that the first reports came through that Idi Amin had started to turn against his black countrymen. Anyone who criticised his anti-Asian policy was picked up, murdered and fed to the crocodiles.

No one was sure what Amin was up to. Rumours flew around Kampala, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam that he was having trouble holding together the army and needed the wealth of departing Asians to placate powerful officers from tribes other than his own.

In state-controlled newspapers and on radio and television, black Ugandans were being whipped into a frenzy about the way Asians had ruined the economy. Almost overnight, Kampala became a city of queues - for injections, for passports, for the tiny amounts of currency they were allowed to take with them: less than pounds 50 per family. In addition, no family could take more than two suitcases of possessions.

Houses were abandoned, furniture was left in derelict buildings. The cost of secondhand cars dropped dramatically, while the price of unworked gold rose from pounds 50 to pounds 125 an ounce.

By September, with the November deadline for expulsions approaching, rumours swept Uganda, and reached Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The British would be the next to go, it was said, then the Americans and finally all Europeans would be slung out of Africa. Amin had set a stunning racial precedent which Africa's poor and downtrodden might applaud and copy.

Terrified fathers heard stories of Indian girls being raped by out of control soldiers. In their hundreds, they packed into trains, known as Kampala Specials, and fled to the East African coastal cities of Mombasa and Dar es Salaam.

By the end of October, as many as 30 flights a week were leaving Kampala for London. On the way to the airport, police put up roadblocks and stole the few possessions that Indian families were trying to take out with them. More than once, the giant Amin appeared at the airport, his massively decorated chest puffed up, to laugh at the Indians who had once seen him as their protector. "This is wonderful," he told his cronies. "Wonderful."

The Old Etonian British High Commissioner wondered what to do next. Unknown to him, and the confused diplomats in Kampala, a young social psychologist, Mallory Wober, could have offered some sound advice.

Wober had entered Uganda at the end of the 1960s, under the auspices of Edinburgh University, to study the impact of rapid industrialisation on rural Africans. But as the expulsion crisis continued, he decided he wanted to psychoanalyse Amin. Courageously, Wober wrote an article in the Ugandan magazine Transition in which he suggested that, despite his great bluster, strength and determination, Amin was a dependent type who was desperate to be told what to do by someone in authority. Good at receiving orders, he craved the approval of the Queen, of organisations such as the British Government and Army and, above all, of hugely respected new African leaders, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania in particular.

Nyerere had won international approval in 1967 after launching his Fabian-style blueprint for socialism, the widely acclaimed but disastrously unpractical Arusha Declaration, which effectively stole all Asian wealth in Tanzania. Wober said that Amin thought he would gain the respect of Nyerere by kicking out the Indians, but Nyerere continued to ridicule Amin, referring to him privately - and later, in public - as an idiot.

Throughout his dangerously erratic military career, Amin kept a picture of King George VI wearing a kilt over his bed and always referred to the English king as "my old commander in chief". Just before his downfall in 1979 (at the hands of his old idol Nyerere) he wrote to Prince Charles and told him not to marry Diana, because she came from a different station in life. "You will live to regret this," he warned.

As well as analysing the dictator's character, Wober pointed out the part that Libya's Colonel Gadaffi had played in this African tragedy. Soon after Amin came to power, he visited Libya, where Gadaffi was in the process of booting his small but economically powerful Italian community out of the country. Gadaffi urged Amin to do the same to the Israelis who lived and worked in Uganda and, upon his return home, to declare Uganda a Muslim state, despite the fact that only six per cent of the population was Muslim.

"Idi Amin always needed someone powerful to give him orders," said Wober. "First, it was the British Army, then it was Milton Obote. Next came Gadaffi and finally, God.

"Amin both loved and hated Britain and used the Asians in Uganda as a weapon to try to punish people for not taking sufficient notice of him. Perhaps if the Queen had invited him to Buckingham Palace for a cup of tea and a sandwich in August 1972, the whole East African tragedy might never have taken place."

Copyright 2002 The Daily Telegraph. Source: Financial Times Information Limited - Europe Intelligence Wire.