Why Uganda’s Idi Amin rejected Jomo’s free flight offer from Nairobi

President Jomo Kenyatta says kwaheri to his Ugandan counterpart Gen Idi Amin as he flew back to Uganda. (File, Standard)
The bombastic general could not have come calling at a worse time. The atmosphere in the region was toxic, akin to a party where guests hold on to their drinks even in the washroom for fear of being poisoned.

General Idi Amin, the President of Uganda, went where he pleased, without any diplomatic shackles. However, when his commodore twin-engine private jet developed mechanical problems on his way to Entebbe from Ethiopia, he detoured to Nairobi.

Amin who had just been from Ethiopia, Somalia and Zaire came to Nairobi with a request for transport back home.

At the time, Amin and Mzee Jomo Kenyatta were not the best of friends, and the two countries were not seeing eye-to-eye.

The relationship between the two countries had worsened a year earlier, when one of Kenyatta’s buddies, 70-year-old Kungu Karumba, mysteriously vanished on June 15, 1974 while on a business trip to Uganda.

Karumba, intelligence reports would later reveal, had been murdered and his body dumped in the dense Mavila Forest. The body was never recovered.

According to intelligence reports, Karumba had been killed by Army commander, Lt Col Isaac Maliyamungu after a disagreement with his wife, following a Sh19,000 debt arising from clothes which he (Karumba) had delivered to her shop in Jinja.

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So, when Amin arrived in Kenya a year later, he found a high-powered delegation, headed by Vice President Daniel arap Moi, waiting for him.

Others at the airport were Cabinet ministers Robert Ouko (East African minister for Common Market), Paul Ngei, and assistant minister Babu Wood.

Despite the bad blood between Kenya and Uganda, the government agreed to provide a plane for him, which Amin, on second thought, rejected for fear that a bomb could have been planted in it.

To allay these fears, Kenya not only offered a plane, a Cessna 5Y-ATL, but also assured him that no harm would come to him while in the plane.

Amin’s return is captured in a one-minute video clip, which shows the burly President wearing his trademark Kaunda suit, majestically strutting to the plane, accompanied by two white men, one in uniform.

At one point, he wags a finger after he is introduced to Ngei and other ministers who are seeing him off, to stress a point.

Fears of being blown up

He then gets onto the plane, followed by Moi and his bodyguard Kikemboi Yator. The plane then takes off.

The media reported on July 9, 1975 that Amin had arrived at Embakasi Airport, where he was met by Moi before he proceeded to Nakuru for talks with Kenyatta, in the presence of Moi and Uganda’s minister of State Paul Etiang.

Amin’s fear of being blown up in the plane was somehow justified, because in the short stint he had been in power after he toppled Milton Obote, he had made enemies in Uganda, East and South Africa, as well as Europe.

Although Amin stayed in Kenya for two days lobbying Kenyatta not to boycott the Organisation of Africa Unity (OAU) summit, where the Ugandan head of state was  to be elected chairman, back at home, a crisis was waiting for him.

For three months, a British-born Makerere University lecturer, Denis Hills, had been in detention for describing Amin as a village tyrant, in an unpublished manuscript.

Thes detention, coupled by the expulsion of British citizens, many of them of Asian descent whose assets had been seized by the state, had infuriated London. As Amin was rallying his neighbours not to shun the OAU summit he was hosting, Britain was busy publicly canvasing African states to stay away from Kampala.

Behind the scenes, Britain was also negotiating with Amin for Hills’ release and had entrusted the delicate job to another African dictator, Mobutu Seseko of Zaire, who was expected to talk Amin into seeing sense.

While Amin was being entertained by traditional dancers at Nakuru State House, British Foreign Secretary James Callaghan was cooling his heels in Kampala after a nail-biting meeting with Mobutu.

After the talks with Mobutu, who had relayed Amin’s demands, Callaghan flew to Kampala to await Amin, praying for the release of Hill.

When Amin finally met Callaghan, he released the lecturer who was flown home by the Foreign Secretary after a brief 'handing over ceremony' witnessed by Zaire’s Foreign Affairs minister Busa Mandungu.

After Hill was freed, Amin hosted 19 leaders of African governments and representatives of 24 other nations as he formally took over the chairmanship of OAU.

In his 13-minute acceptance speech, the Amin promised his colleagues that, “I will not embarrass you because you have  show your confidence in me by electing me to this position.”

Despite Amin’s best intentions, there was a major embarrassment in the course of the summit on July 29, 1975, when news of a coup in Nigeria filtered back to Uganda, and the mood of the summit changed.

Military coup

“General Yakub Gowon appeared calm, seated in the OAU summit conference hall after he had been informed of his overthrow in a military coup. There was a prolonged silence among the assembled heads of state and government,” reported The Standard.

Soon after this, the conference was adjourned as Gowon rushed back to his suite at Nile Hotel in Kampala to contemplate life as a former military ruler after nine years of leading the continent’s most populous country.

He was later offered a military plane by Amin, which took him to Togo after having assured the soldiers who had toppled his government that he would not resist their move and was available to serve his country in any other capacity.

With this problem solved, Amin marked his achievement by wedding Sarah Kyolaba Tatu Namutebi in a grand ceremony timed to coincide with the OAU summit. This was the second time the president was marrying Sarah, whom he had met when she was just 19.

Apparently, Amin was fascinated with aeroplanes and had a penchant for borrowing planes from other presidents. To impress Sarah, when he saw her dancing during a function in Masaka in 1974, he ordered that she be delivered to him on a plane in Kampala.

Thereafter, Amin called his friend, Col Muammar Gaddafi, who lent him a jet that took Sarah, served and guarded  by at least 20 agents, to Frankfurt and Bonn in Germany for shopping.

The strongman must have been devastated when Israel, with the assistance of Kenya, raided Entebbe and destroyed all his fighter jets. This, intelligence would later explain, is what motivated him to kill yet another close friend of Kenyatta.

On May 24, 1978, Bruce Mackenzie, who had served as Kenyatta’s minister for Agriculture, died when his plane exploded  as a result of a time bomb that was sneaked into it, moments before it touched down in Kenya after a trip to Uganda where he had met with Amin.

Intelligence reports indicated that Mackenzie, who was a British spy, was killed by Amin in retaliation for lending his plane to Mossad on July 2, 1976 who flew to Entebbe, pretended they had some emergencies and photographed the airport, which was vital in the ensuing rescue of hostages held by terrorists in Uganda.

Long after Amin had been deposed, another Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, was blamed for the death of Sudan’s John Garang, who died on July 30, 2005 in a borrowed plane. Garang was riding in Museveni’s plane, which reportedly went off the radar for sometime and when it was finally traced after intensive search, all the occupants were found dead.

Garang, who had just been appointed the vice president of Sudan, had just held talks with Museveni before his death.

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General Idi AminIdi AminPresident of UgandaJomo Kenyatta