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'My family came to Britain with £700 and reinvented themselves. But the scars remain'

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Revealed: how Israel helped Amin to take power

By Richard Dowden

17 August 2003

When Radio Uganda announced at dawn on 25 January 1971 that Idi Amin was Uganda's new ruler, many people suspected that Britain had a hand in the coup. However, Foreign Office papers released last year point to a different conspirator: Israel.

The first telegrams to London from the British High Commissioner in Kampala, Richard Slater, show a man shocked and bewildered by the coup. But he quickly turned to the man who he thought might know what was going on; Colonel Bar-Lev, the Israeli defence attaché. He found the Israeli colonel with Amin. They had spent the morning of the coup together. Slater's next telegram says that according to Colonel Bar-Lev: "In the course of last night General Amin caused to be arrested all officers in the armed forces sympathetic to Obote ... Amin is now firmly in control of all elements of [the] army which controls vital points in Uganda ... the Israeli defence attaché discounts any possibility of moves against Amin."

The Israelis moved quickly to consolidate the coup. In the following days Bar-Lev was in constant contact with Amin and giving him advice. Slater told London that Bar-Lev had explained "in considerable detail [how] ... all potential foci of resistance, both up country and in Kampala, had been eliminated". Shortly afterwards Amin made his first foreign trip; a state visit to Israel. Golda Meir, the Prime Minister, was reportedly "shocked at his shopping list" for arms.

But why was Israel so interested in a landlocked country in Central Africa? The reason is spelt out by Slater in a later telegram. Israel was backing rebellion in southern Sudan to punish Sudan for supporting the Arab cause in the Six-Day War. "They do not want the rebels to win. They want to keep them fighting."

The Israelis had helped train the new Uganda army in the 1960s. Shortly after independence Amin was sent to Israel on a training course. When he became chief of staff of the new army Amin also ran a sideline operation for the Israelis, supplying arms and ammunition to the rebels in southern Sudan. Amin had his own motive for helping them: many of his own people, the Kakwa, live in southern Sudan. Obote, however, wanted peace in southern Sudan. That worried the Israelis and they were even more worried when, in November 1970 Obote sacked Amin. Their stick for beating Sudan was suddenly taken away.

The British may have had little to do with the coup but they welcomed it enthusiastically. "General Amin has certainly removed from the African scene one of our most implacable enemies in matters affecting Southern Africa...," wrote an enthusiastic Foreign Office official in London.

The man who argued most vehemently for Britain to back Amin with arms was Bruce McKenzie, a former RAF pilot turned MI6 agent. (Amin murdered him seven years later.) He flew to Israel shortly after the coup and, as if getting permission to back Amin, he reported to Douglas-Home: "The way is now clear for our High Commission in Kampala to get close to Amin."

But the cautious Mr Slater in Kampala remained reluctant. Urged on by McKenzie, Douglas-Home gave Slater his orders: "The PM will be watching this and will, I am sure, want us to take quick advantage of any opportunity of selling arms. Don't overdo the caution."

Shortly afterwards Amin was invited for a state visit to London and dinner at Buckingham Palace.

 

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