Was Uganda given a raw deal on territorial rights during colonization? If yes, should Uganda fight to correct such historical injustices? Well, those probably were some of the questions the former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin grappled with as he pondered and wondered “Should I or shouldn’t I?”
It appears Amin’s answer to the puzzle was “Yes, I should”. And indeed if he was going to tackle the delicate matter successfully, he needed an opportune moment to strike.
In this publication of Uganda In History, we look at how Amin tasked Kenya to return Uganda’s rightful treasure.
Amin was a dangerous despot who relied heavily on brutality to hold on to power, thus killing local and church leaders, judges, politicians, security officials and ordinary citizens who opposed or were rumoured to oppose him.
He would not let anybody from inside or outside the boundaries of Uganda undermine his authority or stand against his wish. He did not only rule by decree but also awarded himself all sorts of titles befitting of a continental conqueror, the likes of Napoleon, Hitler etc.
Due to terrible economic turmoil brought about by his gross mismanagement of the country’s economy, the population nosedived into deep indescribable poverty. Essential commodities like soap, salt, sugar etc were as scarce as hen’s teeth, and if sighted anywhere in the Magendo market system, they would be too expensive. Agricultural industry like coffee and cotton farming that used to bring handsome profits to Ugandan families in the 1960s collapsed on Amin’s face, as he diverted all foreign exchange to equip his army. Worst still was the scarcity of fuel in the country which fuelled up prices in the market.
Inside Uganda, the Field Marshal was facing an unsettling popular discontent; outside in the neighbour’s territory Tanzania, his arch rival Dr Obote was recruiting, training and preparing rebels with the help of most regional countries to invade his empire. At this point Amin knew he was up against some tough enemies. He needed to do something to rally the discontented population behind him.
There used to be an appealing claim that a large part of what is today Kenya was rightfully Ugandan according to the map used by the British colonisers during the initial demarcation of their East African territory. It was this early colonial territorial map that President Amin unearthed, dusted and floated it to Ugandans to stir up their emotions into supporting his adventure to annex Kenyan territories.
According to the colonial document, up until 1926, the British colonisers had divided East Africa into two administrative states namely: Uganda and East African Protectorate. Uganda with its headquarters in Entebbe did not only comprise the present day Uganda, but also included large stretches of territories extending deep into today’s Kenya and South Sudan. It was zoned into several provinces including Rudolf Province covering Turukana, Eastern Province covering Nandi, Kavirondo, Eldoret, Naivasha and Maasai, and Central Province had Mumias.
Present day Kenyan districts and regions like West Pokot, Trans-Nzoia, Bungoma, Busia, Kakamega, Nyanza, Narok, Kisii, Kericho, Nakuru, Uasin Gishu, Elgeyo, Marakwet, Nyandarua, Nandi, Kisumu, Eldoret, Tambach, Gilgil, Nakuru and Lake Baringo all fell in Uganda.
As a result of a protracted debate among British colonial leaders about effective governing of East Africa, a decision was arrived at to redraw the map of the region. Consequently, huge chunks of Ugandan territories were transferred to South Sudan and Kenya in 1914 and 1926 respectively.
50 years later in 1976, Uganda under its hot-headed ruler Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada placed a claim over its lost territories.
While speaking during the opening of a self-help mobilisation scheme in Lotuturu in Kitgum District on February 14, 1976, Amin demanded the return of the Ugandan territories from Kenya.
Speaking of the fertile Kenyan Rift valley Amin fumed, “God was not a fool to have given these fertile districts to Uganda”. He promised to get back the Uganda’s stolen fertile lands.
In a concerted effort to motivate fellow countrymen to stand up to Kenya and claim their land, Amin published a book in 1976 titled “The Shaping of Modern Uganda And Administrative Divisions” in which he promised to create a nationwide awareness about the theft.
“In order to educate the public mind of all the sections of Uganda, I will be providing geographical and historical facts as documented by the British colonial administration on the transfer of Uganda’s lands, thereby affecting its boundary.” He wrote.
According to President Amin, Uganda’s border with Kenya should in all fairness fall somewhere around 30 kilometers east of Nairobi.
Kenya’s response through its leader President Jomo Kenyatta was swift and stern. In a very strongly worded speech to a massive rally at Uhuru Park Nairobi, Kenyatta unleashed a strong wave of patriotic rants sparking anti-Amin demonstrations in nearly every town in Kenya.
He told the charged crowd, “There are people that are envious of our independence and sovereignty; 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 desires on Kenya, he continued, 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.”
“Our forces are ready and Wananchi will use spears, simis, arrows, rungus or even blows and kicks to repel any threat.”
As the atmosphere between Uganda and Kenya tensed up rapidly, Mzee Kenyatta deployed large military contingents to the border with Uganda, where they were cheered by emotionally charged Kenyan crowds in Malaba. They protested against Amin’s belligerent character and burnt his effigies.
To make matters worse, there had just been an Israeli raid on Entebbe in which Amin accused Kenya of aiding the raiders. According to British media reporting on intelligence picked up by American satellite based in the Indian Ocean at that time; but also corroborated by an Amin soldier who had defected with valuable intelligence to Kenya, Amin and President Said Barre of Somlia were preparing a multi pronged attack on Kenya. Somalia had a land row with Kenya and there were reports of its leader forging an alliance with Amin in order to achieve its territorial claims.
With successive events unfolding rapidly to shape relations between Kampala and Nairobi, tension flared up between the two neighbours. And when President Kenyatta closed the border between Uganda and Kenya, Uganda was thrown into severe shortages of fuel and other essential commodities.
AMIN BACKED DOWN
Realising how weak he was and how organised and determined Kenyans were to defend their territories, Amin climbed down from his demand and mended ties with Kenyatta.
In fact by the time Kenyatta died in 1978, relations between Uganda and Kenya had warmed up quite significantly, and Amin against whom thousands of Kenyans had protested, was in Nairobi streets being cheered by the same admiring Kenyan crowds.
While in Nairobi, populist Amin walked on foot from his hotel to the funeral site drawing cheers and attention from Nairobians.
WHAT UGANDAN LEADERS SAID ABOUT UGANDA’S BORDERS
Uganda’s territorial integrity has remained a key factor in the foreign affairs policy of every government that rules this country. No wonder, Uganda has witnessed several rows with neighbouring countries over land since independence.
Some notable examples include the invasion of Kagera by Amin in 1978, the invasion of Migingo Island by Museveni in 2009, the on-going row over the floating islands in Lake Albert between Uganda and Congo, the recent border conflict between the Madi peoples of Uganda and South Sudan, the frequent incursions by Kenyan cattle rustling tribes into Karamoja, etc.
These developments have prompted Ugandan and regional leaders to express concerns, warnings and or threats of war against neighbouring states and communities.
President Amin’s written statement on Kagera annexation, “We inform the nation and the world at large that new Uganda-Tanzania border is now up to River Kagera. The captured territory will be made a full district of Uganda soon, although the army occupies it temporarily.”
“All Tanzanians in the captured area up to River Kagera must know that they are under the direct rule of the Conqueror of the British Empire, Field Marshal Idi Amin.”
President Nyerere on Kagera annexation, “We have reason, we have determination, and we have capability to defeat dictator Idi Amin of Uganda, the bustard who has invaded our country”
President Museveni on the colonial map, “The original world map of 1924 shows clearly that Uganda extends to almost Naivasha. It also shows that even Mombasa is not part of Kenya but Kenyans have refused to let it go”
“Kenyans seem to take anything that does not belong to them and this seems to be their culture. Those people have stolen a lot of our cows but we have kept quiet for the sake of peace”
President Kenyatta on Amin’s colonial map, “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!”
President Museveni on Migingo Island: “Wajaluo are mad! They have been rioting. I have been telling them that if you continue like that no Mujaluo will be allowed to fish there”
MP Jakoyo Midiwo of Kenya on Migingo Island, “If the government is unable to use diplomatic channels, let us go to war to protect our frontiers”