When Kenya nearly went to war with Uganda


Mr Kenyatta followed that up by sending the military to the border with Uganda, where they were greeted by large crowds in Malaba where Amin was burnt in effigy.

Idi Amin Dada’s coup against Milton Obote in the third week of January 1971 was greeted with great jubilation in Kampala.

Crowds lined the streets to hail the lanky head of the military when the fall of Mr Obote’s regime was announced reflecting the widespread dissatisfaction with his government’s stewardship of the nation in the early years of independence.

Within months, those cheers had turned into muffled jeers.

Amin proved to be a bloodthirsty, erratic and dangerous tyrant bent on consolidating his hold on power by any means possible, including the killing of any church leaders, politicians or security officials who opposed him.

Thousands of members of the armed forces whose only crime was being members of the Lango tribe of President Obote were killed.

His expulsion of Asians from Uganda and his poor grasp of policy issues sent the economy on a free fall.

Western leaders, who had initially welcomed the march into power of a man who was once a highly regarded commander of the British colonial forces in Kenya, soon deserted him.

The US ambassador to Uganda Thomas Patrick Melady advised Washington tha Amin was a “racist, erratic and unpredictable, brutal, inept, bellicose, irrational, ridiculous, and militaristic” leader with whom the United States should cut ties.

Save his regime

Faced with all these problems and a population that was growing increasingly restless with the economic problems at home, Amin had an idea that he thought would help save his regime and rally his countrymen behind him: he would wage war against Kenya.

It is 35 years since the Ugandan dictator threatened to invade Kenya triggering military mobilisation on a scale not seen before President Kibaki ordered the military to enter Somalia 10 days ago.

Amin’s threat to march to within 32 kilometres of Nairobi to reclaim parts of Nyanza and Rift Valley, which he insisted belonged to Uganda, sparked a reaction that mirrors the situation in Kenya today.

A nation that was usually reliably divided along ethnic lines rallied together in support of the military, which was deployed to the border with Uganda in Western Kenya.

Just as many ethnic Somalis in Kenya and Somalia support efforts to fight al Shabaab, so did many Ugandans throw their weight behind Kenya in the conflict with Amin hoping a military confrontation would help topple the tyrant.

Veteran Nation journalist and author Joseph Karimi recalls it as a time of great tension and uncertainty.

“Uganda at the time was undergoing considerable economic difficulties because of Amin’s mismanagement of the economy,” he says.

“The government did not have adequate foreign exchange to pay for fuel and other services rendered by Kenya at the port in Mombasa.

Ugandan farmers were growing coffee but were not being paid a cent for their produce. All the foreign exchange was going to equipping the Ugandan military which was armed to the teeth.

That is how Ugandan farmers started smuggling coffee into Kenya.

“With all these problems, Amin had to find an external enemy to consolidate support at home and he decided that he would mobilise his forces to face Kenya.”

In truth, Amin’s claim that large parts of Kenya had previously fallen in Ugandan territory was not entirely false.

As the writer Bamuturaki Musinguzi reported in The EastAfrican recently, many present-day Kenyan districts were in the British “sphere of influence” that the colonialists called Uganda in 1902.

Musinguzi was quoting a document signed by the then British colonial secretary of state Herbert Asquith, transferring some parts of Uganda to Sudan in 1914 and to Kenya in 1926.

The British divided Uganda into six provinces and several of them had districts that were later demarcated as part of Kenya.

Turkana fell in Rudolf Province while Eastern Province comprised Nandi, Kavirondo, Eldoret, Naivasha and Maasai. Mumias was in Central Province.

Other areas originally in Uganda were West Pokot, Trans-Nzoia, Bungoma, Busia, Kakamega, Central Nyanza, South Nyanza, Narok, Kisii, Kericho, Nakuru, Uasin Gishu, Elgeyo, Marakwet, Nyandarua, Nandi, Kisumu, Eldoret, Tambach, Gilgil, Nakuru and Lake Baringo.

The British later mapped these areas as falling in Kenya. Since one of the founding principles of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was that all member states would respect each other’s sovereignty and the inviolability of their borders, Amin had no legal leg to stand on.

Nevertheless, the dictator told his countrymen that Kenya had “stolen” Uganda’s most fertile lands, which was why the country was prosperous while Uganda was struggling.

“God was not a fool,” he said, to have given these fertile districts to Uganda and promised to fight to get them back. The reaction from Kenya was one of unqualified fury.

Displacement of Kenyans

“The government in Nairobi already had frosty relations with Amin,” says Mr Karimi.

“There had been the issue of displacement of Kenyans and the disappearance of freedom fighter and politician Kung’u Karumba in Kampala. The threat to wage war was seen as the last straw.”

President Jomo Kenyatta’s response, which included one of the most strongly worded speeches he had ever given in a massive rally at Uhuru Park, unleashed a strong wave of patriotism that saw anti-Amin demonstrations held in nearly every town in the country.

“There are people that are envious of our independence and sovereignty,” he said.

“But whoever they are, black or white, I warn them that I am warlike, and we will not tolerate anyone playing about with our sovereignty.

I wish to warn those who may have designs on Kenya that even if they have guns and warships we shall deal with them ruthlessly. All that counts is self-determination and willpower.

“Our obligation and commitment is to defend our independence and borders day and night. We are not interested in provoking anyone, but those who want to play about with Kenya must know that they will be dealt with ruthlessly.

Kenya has no claims over anybody’s territory. We welcome good neighbourliness and cooperation. We shall, however, never entertain or tolerate anybody laying claims over our country, be they friend or a foe.”

Mr Kenyatta had spent a number of years in Britain in the lead up to the Second World War and his oratory had echoes of Sir Winston Churchill’s speeches to the nation when Britain faced an invasion from Hitler’s army.

He spoke, not just to the military, but to the entire nation saying that defending the country’s borders was a collective endeavour.

“If we stay united we shall have nothing to fear. The world will know we are not joking. Any spies and agitators will be kicked out of the country.

Those who say their country extends from present borders, I advise them to go to hell and dream there. We shall have no one lay claims over our territory. We shall not give away an inch – not even a quarter of an inch!

“We have no desire for anyone’s land and those who may have designs on ours must know we are ready to defend it.

“In fact, those who are “payukaring” (talking loosely) are only shelling words because if they were to act they would be promoting the welfare of their citizens.

“Our forces are ready and wananchi will use spears, simis, arrows, rungus or even blows and kicks to repel any threat.”

Mr Kenyatta followed that up by sending the military to the border with Uganda, where they were greeted by large crowds in Malaba where Amin was burnt in effigy.

Mr Kenyatta ordered the closure of the border which led to shortages of fuel and other commodities in Kampala. The President was quite advanced in age and that was his only statement on the matter.

Just as is the case now where President Kibaki has taken the backseat in the conflict with al Shabaab leaving most of the work to ministers George Saitoti, Yusuf Haji and Moses Wetang’ula, the most visible figure in the diplomatic efforts that unfolded to defuse tensions was Foreign Affairs minister Dr Munyua Waiyaki.

Dr Waiyaki visited several foreign capitals and the OAU headquarters and marshalled regional players into urging Amin to back down.

A committee of the heads of state of Ethiopia, Zaire (present-day Democratic Republic of Congo), Burundi, Rwanda and Zambia was formed to look into the issue although, by that time, Amin appeared to have called off his invasion plans.

The end of the standoff led to a semblance of restoration of ties between Nairobi and Kampala especially as Amin’s relationship with Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere worsened.

All the key actors in this drama shared a stage in August 1978 following the death of Mzee Kenyatta. Amin came to Nairobi for the funeral and, true to his populist style, he went by foot from his hotel, drawing considerable attention.

Mr Karimi briefly spoke to the towering dictator when he inquired about the programme after arriving at the ceremony.

Brief encounter

“It was a very brief encounter. He wanted to know what would go on in the course of the day but, of course, he was not one of the listed speakers.

“In the dais where heads of state were to sit, the protocol officials had taken precautions to avoid an embarrassing confrontation by placing Amin at the farthest end while the heads of state whose countries he had a problem with, such as Prince Philip and Nyerere, were at the other end. The idea behind the sitting arrangement was also that Amin would be the first to leave.”

That was the last occasion on which Amin would come to Kenya as a head of state. A few months later, Nyerere sent a group of Tanzanian and Ugandan troops who toppled the Ugandan tyrant.

His regime crumbled rapidly and, on April 11, 1979, the man who brought Kenya the closest it had come to a war with a neighbouring country fled to Saudi Arabia, where he died later in 2003.