Kampala — The Judicial Service Commission's Henry Kyemba, one among an eminent generation of Ugandans who completed university education at the stroke of independence, has been a prominent political figure since the 1970s. His 1977 book, A State of Blood, is considered the definitive account of Idi Amin's tyranny. Speaking to Rodney Muhumuza for this series, he shed new light on serving Amin
I was born on February 8, 1937. I am the last born of my father and mother. We were seven brothers, but we had other sisters and close cousins [living with us]. We come from Bunya in the present Mayuge District, where Luba was the great chief during the time of the Nubian Rebellion. We were moved from our ancestral home early in the 19th Century because of sleeping sickness.
My father was moved from Mayuge to Kamuli, where Daudi Mutekanga was a very powerful figure. In fact, it was there that my father met and married my mother, who was a very popular girl in Mutekanga's household. The family's firstborn, David James Nabeta, was born at Nakakabala in 1920, midway between Jinja and Kamuli, where my father had been appointed as a chief. It was the beginning of his long assignment as a chief in various places.
I started my early education at Nambaale Primary School and later went to Masese Primary School, where my brother Adonia Katagwa was teaching and where my other brother, R.L. Kisaja, was working in Jinja town. Only three of my brothers and myself went to Makerere University, as some dropped out to earn a living and assist the family. But all the children studied up to some level---and I give credit to my father, who, in spite of the limited resources, insisted that all my brothers went to at least Junior Secondary Three, then a high grade.
My father died on January 4, 1954, when I had just passed my exams to enrol for Senior One at Busoga College Mwiri. He died soon after retiring from public service, and I was for the most part in the hands of my mother and other brothers. My brother David, with whom I lived for most of my childhood, was in fact 17 years older than me. In many ways I was his first born son. I was able to go to Busoga College Mwiri and Makerere University, and to get into the public service.
At Mwiri, I was under a British headmaster, the Rev. F.G. Coates, and as you know, the school has been one of the melting points for future Ugandan nationalists. At Mwiri, you immediately forgot that you were from Busoga; you had students from West Nile, from Acholi, from Lango, from Kisumu, from Mbale, from Bunyoro and particularly from Kigezi--and many of them speaking more Lusoga than their traditional languages.
The Rev. Coates was a real leader who taught us responsibility. I was with [Information Minister] Kirunda Kivejinja in the same class; we sat on the same desk from 1954 to 1956. He was one of the first Muslims I got to interact with at school. Kirunda was a pleasant student, and he was good at mathematics and scriptures, while I was good at history. At Mwiri, I thought I would go on to study law; I used to write "LLB" on my books, thinking I would be a lawyer. But by the time I went to Makerere, at the beginning of 1957, there was no law course there. Soon I realised that the only course I would take was the BA (Hons) in History. I had been given a scholarship to study at the University of Rangoon, Burma, but I decided that I was far better off staying at Makerere.
In 1954, the colonial government was looking for members to go to the Legislative Council. That being an uncertain period, the Busoga Lukiiko [kingdom parliament] didn't nominate anyone. So the colonial governor appointed my brother David to become a member of the Legislative Council, and in 1955 when they negotiated the return of the Kabaka of Buganda and there was reorganisation of the colonial government, he was appointed assistant minister--the title was actually Parliamentary Secretary--of local government. David was appointed together with other ministers such as the late Apollo Kironde, Yusuf Lule, Zakaria Mungonya and Gasper Oda. That was the core group of colonial ministers. They were later joined by William Rwetsiba, John Rwamafa, and others.
By the time I went to Makerere, in July 1957, I had been residing with my brother in Entebbe, and so I just moved across to study. I was staying in the old Mitchell Hall, where the Rev. Wellborn was the warden. At Makerere, I wasn't very political, although I had my sympathies. I was observing what was going on: Abu Mayanja was very active in the politics and Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere was soon to leave the university to join Benedicto Kiwanuka by the time I joined. Life at Makerere was good; there was Mary Stuart Hall to go to, even though some students were more interested in contacts across the valley-Mulago Nursing School. I did go there myself to learn country dancing.
Makerere was an attractive place. There were East African students on campus, and I did go to school with many dignitaries such as former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa, whom I campaigned for when he stood for the guild presidency. He was a very powerful speaker. David Mwiraria, [Kenya's new minister of environment and natural resources], was my classmate, and so was Tanzania's Justice L. Makame. When I was at Makerere, one of the topical things was the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya: many Kikuyu students who were at Makerere--Mwiraria and others--couldn't go for holidays because of the state of emergency back home.
I graduated in March 1962. But in 1961, when we were doing our final exams, we were inundated with all sorts of appeals to join this or that workplace. Companies were competing to get graduates. Many, including [UPC stalwart] Sam Odaka, had already joined the private sector, although I thought I needed security of tenure, not just working for the highest bidder. We were visited by the permanent secretary in the prime minister's office, Mr Allen, who interviewed us at Makerere.
Through my brother David, who was a member of the Legislative Council and a minister, I was fortunate to have known many of these colonial officers long before I joined government. I was in fact teaching some of their spouses Luganda, and earned some money doing that--even though it's not my mother tongue. We were persuaded to join the civil service as assistant district commissioners, the highest paying job for any Makerere graduate at the time. I applied for the job, and there were a number of people who were interested, including [former minister] Paul Etyang. When I was asked where I wanted to be posted, I requested to be posted to Kabale, which was my first choice, followed by Mbale and Fort Portal. I wrote that I did not want to be posted to Jinja, because I believed it would make it difficult for me to make independent decisions from there.
The next thing I heard was that I had been posted to Entebbe as assistant secretary in the Prime Minister's Office, which should normally have been a promotion. It involved a lot of assignments, which included protocol, licensing, assisting in elections, etc. It was the first and last posting I was to have, because soon after [Apollo Milton Obote] came in as prime minister, I was assigned to assist in the foreign affairs department. I was also appointed to the committee that set up the Organisation of African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, in 1963. I was also serving the Defence Commission of the OAU and travelled to Ghana for its first meeting.
Obote had had a private secretary, someone from Lango, but eventually, in 1963, he appointed me to the position. I had not really had any informal chat with Obote before that appointment, but being the G6, the man responsible for organising functions, inevitably Obote became aware of my presence. He also knew that I was the brother of David, who taught him at Mwiri and who was a ranking politician of the time. I think Obote knew at that time that I was safe, as private secretary, to do my work. Generally, one was not expected to be a private secretary for more than two or three years. I also thought it shouldn't take too long, because the position of private secretary was a dead end at the time, a job that was likely to affect promotion in the civil service. I was later assured that I shouldn't worry about that, as long as the president was satisfied that my performance was good.
Those who wanted the job might not have known that there were disadvantages associated with it, the idea that any mistake you made would be known by the president. I had to be around the president most of the time, going to bed only when he did. Obote had married Miria by then, and I moved to live within the compound of the State Lodge. I was Obote's only principal private secretary until he was toppled in 1971. It was the experience with Obote that I will always treasure. He was a product of Mwiri, and he came to power when the ideals of professionalism were paramount in everyone's mind.
Mwiri, in that aspect, had given him a good education. Politics at that time was, of course, mainly between the Democratic Party and the Uganda Peoples Congress, parties that were based on religious grounds. If you were a Catholic, you were obviously supposed to be in DP, and the Protestants and Muslims in UPC. Of course, there were exceptions to that understanding, which is why [former minister] Matthias Ngobi, a good Catholic, was in UPC. We also had Protestants who were strong DP supporters. I was later to ask if [former Makerere University chancellor] Senteza Kajubi, a strong DP man, was Protestant or Catholic.
It would probably be unfair to try to compare the situations of a presidential private secretary today with that of my time. Uganda had a population of only 4 or 5 million people at the time, a really small country. The competition [to meet the president] was not as great as it is today. People today are just too impatient; they don't want to wait. They want to buy even things they can get for free: if you give someone a form to fill without asking for money, they will think that the form is not worth the paper it is written on. But if, say, the form costs Shs1,000, he/she will tip you with another Shs1,000.
This kind of mentality has meant that our society is distorted beyond repair, and we will have to work hard to revert to the situation I served under. At that time, to give somebody a bribe would be very embarrassing; you would want to run and report immediately.
With the enlargement of government now, even with the best principal private secretary, it is no longer possible to monitor what is going on [in the office of the private secretary]. People want access to the president, and obviously the head of state has his own people who would like to see him. There were many accusations and all sorts of complaints against me. Many people, some of whom are still living, would complain to Obote in the expectation that I would be fired.
They would give him interesting notes that would eventually come back to me. But Obote knew that I did always mention to him all deserving cases and that I could not say no to any appointment he desired. I laugh sometimes when I read in the papers that President Museveni's principal private secretary is very powerful. Which private secretary is very powerful? Incidentally, Prof. Ali Mazrui, in a letter he wrote last year, referred to me as [Idi] Amin's 'very powerful private secretary'.
It was in connection with the way I saved one lecturer, Mr Oculi, who was picked up from Prof. Mazrui's office and taken by State Research Bureau agents. Now Mazrui had the presence of mind to telephone me and ask if I could do anything about it. He mentioned the name of an officer who was among the arresting party. This was a very difficult time, but I promised to try to help.
I called the army officer to whom Oculi was being taken and just asked what was happening. It was not because I was powerful; it was more of a preventative thing. I remember asking the officer: "Is it true that you picked Oculi from Makerere? I just want to know." He said: "Yes." And I told him: "If he has done nothing wrong please send him back." I rang Mazrui to say that I had located Oculi and that he would be back. I said: "Please let me know if he does not return in a few hours." Mazrui rang me after one hour to thank me for saving Oculi. It's not fair when people criticise me for serving Amin for so long; even saving one life is like saving a million. Every life is extremely important, and I am happy that I was around to help Oculi.
By the time we went to Singapore for the Commonwealth Summit, the president had got access to a lot of information. By January 1971, it didn't need much for anyone to know that things were getting out of control. Decisions had to be made on whether Amin was to be arrested. There were such divergent opinions that Obote should have made a quick decision before he left for Singapore. At the airport, Amin, despite being army commander, was seated in one corner. Obote was in another room with David Oyite-Ojok, who was Amin's junior, and other senior government officials.
Surely, Amin should have wanted to know what the president was saying to the other junior officials. It was very clear that something was wrong, and Obote didn't need any more insight to understand that. When we went to Singapore, and eventually things started moving fast, one had to ask: Why have you come? When we got there, telephones in our hotel rooms were ringing off the hook. We were being told by the police commander that the army was on the move. I will say that there was a lot of sheer ineptitude in the handling of that situation. Stateless, we left Singapore for exile via Nairobi, where we were treated as fallen leaders. We proceeded to Dar-es-Salaam the next day.
I was a civil servant, but my posting meant that I was with a politician fulltime. Even if I was sympathetic to the UPC, I had no UPC party card. But I was always dealing with them, attending their party meetings. I thought at that time that I was, maybe, too close to Obote to be accepted [by Amin]; I had actually resigned myself to a life in exile. But I was pleasantly surprised when Amin said I could come back.
A good friend in Kampala rang me in Dar, as the telephone lines had not been cut off during the Amin coup. Somehow people were getting through to Kampala, and I got a call from a friend who was asking me when I was coming back. When I called the president's office, I was surprised to find that my secretary was there. I asked her if it would be alright for me to come back, and she promised to find out from Amin when he returned to office. Fortunately, she rang back to say: "You can come back, but let [Amin] know when you are coming back."
The coup had happened on January 25, and I was back in Kampala on January 31 or February 1. The night before leaving for Kampala, I met with Obote to discuss our return. Various people were telling him that they would return to Kampala. Obviously, he didn't like it. "Are you also going?" he asked me. I said I was leaving, and he bade us farewell that night at the State Lodge in Dar. I returned with Obote's deputy principal private secretary, the head of his guards, one Ojulong, and a number of other bodyguards. Interestingly, the guards, who were very scared, asked me if they should return with their guns.
I told them that it would be compromising if they left their weapons behind. So they carried their pistols, and when they got to Entebbe Airport they feared to alight from the plane with the guns. I took responsibility to take the pistols and hand them over to the authorities. I was surprised that Amin had sent one of his bodyguards, Ismail Sebbi, an illiterate man who later became animal industry minister, to welcome us on the tarmac.
Amin, he said, was waiting for us at his Kololo residence, the so-called command post.
I was driven in Sebbi's car--it was a BMW--to Kololo, where we found the late Emmanuel Cardinal Nsubuga and other bishops seeing Amin. I was later ushered in to meet Amin, who happily asked me: Ondetedeyo ki (what have you brought for me)? He had actually asked me to bring him something from Singapore, which was a normal thing to ask of anybody travelling abroad. In that corner where he was sitting at the airport [when Obote's party was leaving for Singapore], I had walked over, sat and had a simple chat with him.
It's difficult to say why Amin thought he would work with me, but I suppose he imagined I had some sympathies for him. He must have had his own ideas. There, he told me to bring him something, and I actually did bring him a small satellite radio.
So in the meeting with Amin, after exchanging pleasantries, he asked me if I had transport back home. He gave me a driver to take me home. And when I asked him what I was to do, he replied: "You go back to your former office."
But soon after that, he made me permanent secretary in the office of the president. I was principal private secretary, permanent secretary in the office of the president, secretary to cabinet and head of the civil service--all in one. It was definitely too much work for one man, but before I did any particular prompting, Amin announced after a few months that there would be a new principal private secretary, Mr Ekochu, who had been my deputy during Obote I.
I think Obote had two sessions of alcohol--Obote I and Obote II. My information is basically on his first administration. I know that everyone used to say that his place was a bar fulltime, but during my time he was sober most of the time, at least until the evenings. He sometimes drank sherries when things were not going right in office. But out of office, he did drink some spirits, particularly at the Uganda Club. He dismissed a number of ministers after quarrelling with them over a drink and directed me to write letters of dismissal. Apart from that, I never experienced any excesses during office hours. Later, I learnt that alcohol was freely dispensed in his office.
The suspicion that Amin was a cannibal should not be taken out of context. He told me--and I was not alone--that he had tasted human blood. He also said that human flesh was salty. If human meat is salty, how do you know without tasting it? We were inside the State Lodge, I remember, when he freely said so. We were overwhelmed to learn that our president had tasted human blood. I remember he tried to explain it by asking what it is that you should do if you are alone in the forest and there is nothing else to eat. But he had exposed himself anyway.
Amin had been an officer in the army, selected by the colonial government as the best they had to administer the army. He used to take orders from a superior boss, but the problem came when he saw himself as the replacement of the old order. Amin's job had not been to think, but rather to execute. None of us thought that Amin, after the coup, would even dare to stay in that office for longer than was necessary. I thought he would call on the nearest person in politics to lead the country. But it was never to be. Military officers in other parts of Africa were taking over, and Amin was asking why he couldn't do the same. Amin was definitely inadequate, but he never saw himself in that light. He couldn't write; he had problems signing his own signature. When we travelled with him to places where forms had to be filled, he would just sign and leave us to enter the rest of the details for him.
We were surprised that Amin agreed to stay in power for that long. I think he misunderstood the joy that people showed on the streets of Kampala after the coup to mean that it was an endorsement of his presidency. In fairness to him, however, when Amin appeared at a graduation function at Makerere when he was supposed not to appear, he had the loudest applause from students. Was it an endorsement of Amin as a potential president? Or was it because the man who was supposed to be under arrest was still able to walk around?
I know I did make what I could call a conservative estimate of people who died in Amin's Uganda (100,000), but I want to say that it is absolutely wrong, even insensitive, to the people who lost relatives [for someone] to say that few lives were taken during that time. Just because the figures cannot be easily verified should not be used to make such a claim--remember that it was not possible to get a death certificate during that time. I listed 100 people who died during that time, all of them prominent figures known to me. What about the less noticeable ones, many of whom were killed despite having nothing to do with politics.
Many soldiers were killed; "mop up" operations were carried out all over the country. I have a farm on the other side of the River Nile, and when I was not active in town, I would be around to see that a special boat was being brought regularly to remove floating bodies.
One thing that bothers me a bit is: How much leeway did I give Amin, for example? If I had gone into exile in 1971, would it have made any difference in the number of people Amin killed?
I ask myself: If I had stayed in Dar, would it have made a difference to Ugandans here? But I know how many people I ferried across who couldn't have survived under Amin. When I left and went into exile in 1977, I had an armoury of evidence that he couldn't deny, which in retrospect made my continued stay [in Uganda] worthwhile.