'Dada' always rubbed 
Kenya the wrong way


A warm handshake for visiting President Amin from President Jomo Kenyatta as he arrives at Mombasa's Port Reitz Airport .
Photo by Mohamed Amin - Camerapix

Idi Amin's rule in Uganda altered Kenya's history in a big way, much more than it did for other countries in the region, and the dictator had more historical links. Those links date back to Kenya's pre-independence days of Mau Mau war.

Born in 1925 in northern Uganda near the Sudan border, Amin was one of the first East African officers to serve under the British colonial army known as the Kings African Rifles. He served along with Jackson Mulinge, who would go on to become the Chief of General Staff of the Kenyan armed forces.

When British colonial campaign against the Mau Mau guerrillas erupted in the 1950s, Amin was assigned to hunt down the Mau Mau.

The recently published Encyclopaedia Africana says Amin's reputation as a ruthless man was established in the way he handled the Mau Mau guerillas.

He was so successful at killing many of these fighters that his British superiors assigned him other duties that required a man with no qualms about using brute force.

When the Mau Mau uprising erupted, Amin was deployed with the King's African Rifles to Murang'a District. By that time, he had been promoted to the rank of Corporal and in 1953 he fought the stubborn Mau Mau fighters in Tuso, Kairo, Kangema, and Kinyona.

With Amin as part of the action, the African Rifles murdered the Mau Mau General Gitau Matenjagwo and paraded his body for days around the village in Muranga. 

He was later taken for Sergent’s training in Lanet in 1955. During these years, he gained a reputation as an insatiable womaniser. On one occasion in 1955 he was seen fleeing nude and panic-stricken down a street in the town of Nakuru to escape after being caught red-handed in bed with another man’s wife.

His nickname, "Dada" was from Kenya. Every time he was caught with a woman in his tent, he pleaded that she was his "dada" (sister), in order to be let off the hook by his commanders.

By 1962 he was already a Lieutenant and was assigned to quell the cattle rustling between Uganda’s Karamojong and Kenya’s Pokot (Suk) nomads. Amin’s platoon devised an easy method: they shot many Pokot warriors and left them in the open for hyenas to feed on.

In order to disarm the Karamojong of their spears, he ordered captured men to line up at a table, each one with his penis lying on the table. He threatened to cut the men’s organs off unless they revealed where they had hidden the spears.

On one occasion, Amin personally cut off the organs of eight screaming men, before the others could reveal the hiding places for their weapons.

In April 1962, Kenya’s Commissioner of Police, Richard Catling and Uganda’s last Colonial Governor, Sir Walter Coutts had asked the Prime Minister Milton Obote to prosecute Amin for his atrocities in Uganda and Kenya, but Obote hesitated.

Then in one prophetic warning, Sir Walter Coutts told Obote: "I warn you this officer will cause you trouble in future." That future came in January 25, 1971, when the 46 year-old Major-General Idi Amin seized power in a bloodless coup that he had been rehearsing for five days starting on January 19. The Kenya Government obviously had to deal with Amin's regime when he finally became president.

Uganda under Amin had embarked on a large military buildup. The buildup raised concern in Nairobi. Early in June 1975, Kenyan officials impounded a large convoy of Soviet-made arms en route to Uganda at Mombasa port.

The tension reached climax in 1976. It was February that President Amin suddenly announced that he would investigate the possibility that large parts of southern Sudan and western and central Kenya, up to within 32 km of Nairobi, were historically a part of colonial Uganda.

The Kenyan government response came two days later in a stern statement that said Kenya would not part with "a single inch of territory."

Amin finally backed down after the Kenyan army deployed troops and armoured personnel carriers in defensive positions along the Kenya-Uganda border. 

In June, another incident further eroded Uganda-Kenya relations. On 5 March, a student at the Faculty of Law at Makerere University, Paul Serwanga, was shot dead by an army captain who had developed an interest in his girlfriend.

A Kenyan student at Makerere, Esther Chesire, was arrested at Entebbe airport by agents of the dreaded secret police, the State Research Bureau counter-intelligence agency just before she boarded a flight to Nairobi.

She was booked on the flight with her friend and fellow Kenyan Sally Githere. Chesire was never seen again. 

The Kenyan government pressed the Ugandan officials to launch an inquiry into Chesire’s disappearance and possible death. The warden of a girls’ hall, Africa Hall at Makerere, Theresa Nanziri Bukenya, was arrested by security agents. She was eight months pregnant. She had refused to testify before the commission assigned to investigate Chesire’s disappearance. Bukenya’s beheaded body was dumped near the Africa Hall grounds the next day. 

Kenya was again to be drawn into Amin's affairs with the raid on Entebbe by Israelis. On Sunday 27 June,1976, an Air France jetliner flight 139 that had taken off from Athens International Airport in Greece en route to Paris from Tel Aviv, Israel, was hijacked with 245 passengers and 12 crew on board, including 83 Israeli citizens.

After several African countries denied the desperate pilot permission to land, including an initial touchdown in Benghazi, Libya, Uganda’s President Idi Amin granted the plane landing rights at Entebbe on what he told the OAU summit meeting in Mauritius were "humanitarian grounds."

And so began a tense week that involved the governments of Uganda, Israel, West Germany, France, and Switzerland. 

The other government was Kenya’s. Kenya’s national security was under threat from Palestinian terrorists backed by Amin.

On 18 January 1976, as a jetliner of the Israeli airline approached the Embakasi International Airport for landing, five Palestinian guerrillas waited on the outskirts of the airport ready to shoot it down with bazookas that had been smuggled into Kenya with the knowledge of President Amin.

Just before the gunmen opened fire, agents of Kenya’s security services arrested them. 

The hijackers of the Air France plane demanded that, along with Palestinian militants in jails in West Germany, Switzerland and Israel, Kenya would face their retaliation if the five were not released by the Nairobi authorities.

Therefore, Kenya had more than a passing reason to get involved in the Entebbe crisis. 

In fact, Kenya would continue to be dogged by Middle East guerrillas seeing in the East African country a location from which to launch attacks on Israeli interests while at the same time taking advantage of the relative obscurity of the region to go undetected. 

On 5 July 1976, London’s Financial Times newspaper published this account of how Kenya entered the picture at Entebbe: "According to reports from Nairobi, large numbers of Israeli security men arrived in the city during last week and were much in evidence, along with Kenyan security forces, at Embakasi airport–"

Unknown to Amin, the Kenyatta government had granted Israel full use of its facilities at Embakasi International Airport for the rescue mission.

The commander of Kenya’s General Service Unit paramilitary force, Ben Gethi, told the Israelis that President Kenyatta would not object to the use of the airport facilities by the strike force.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Charles Njonjo said that provided all the laws governing international civil aviation were respected by the Israelis, the government found acceptable the idea of the airport facilities being put at the disposal of the Israelis.

The night of the attack on Entebbe, 3 July, the Israeli Lockheed Hercules C-130E and C-130H transport planes and the Boeing 707 operational command aircraft used in the raid were parked at the maximum security Bay A area of the Embakasi International Airport and immediately surrounded protectively by Kenyan GSU security agents. Three hostages died in the raid, the were flown to Nairobi then to Israel.

Angered and humiliated, Amin exacted his revenge. On July 4, the day after the Israeli raid, the Kenyan government imposed an oil transportation freeze on Uganda, permitting only one out of every 80 fuel trucks to enter Uganda from western Kenya. 

Ugandan agents also spread out across Kampala and Entebbe to hunt down the Kenyan community in the country. 

The Kenyan government said at that time that 245 Kenyans living and working in Uganda had been murdered by Uganda’s intelligence agents.

In 1977, the Kenyan minister for Agriculture, Bruce McKenzie, also believed to have been a key Israeli intelligence operative, visited Uganda. It was to be his last journey.

During his flight back to Nairobi from Entebbe, a bomb planted on the plane blew it up, killing all on board. At first there was mystery surrounding McKenzie’s murder.

But Amin and the State Research Bureau secret police knew the truth: it was McKenzie who had played an important part, as special advisor to President Kenyatta, in persuading the president to permit Israel to use Kenyan airport facilities to attack Entebbe. This humiliation of Amin could not go unpunished.

While the bizarre actions of the Amin regime continued to dominate relations between the two former British colonies, Kenya was becoming increasingly disillusioned by the economic bloc created in 1977, the East African Community.

Despite the souring of relations between Uganda and Kenya, when President Kenyatta died in August 1978, the unpredictable Ugandan leader led a delegation to the funeral and Amin sat gim-faced on a front row seat, evidently moved by the death of the old man of Kenyan politics.

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