New Vision (Kampala)

14 October 2012

Uganda: 'Idi Amin Was Not a Born Killer'

The Rev. Fr. Captain Joseph Kalyabe, 91, the assistant parish priest of Mulajje Catholic Church in Luwero, served as chaplain in the Uganda Army in the 70s. He told Mathias Mazinga about his life in the barracks and his interaction with Idi Amin . . . .

When I was appointed to be a chaplain of the armed force in the early 1970s, I was subjected to military training in Jinja, where I was passed out at the rank of Captain.

There were also other Catholic, Muslim and Church of Uganda chaplains, like Fr. Andrew Nkwabula, who worked in Masaka. Rev. Fr. Francis Musooka and Malik Oponya.

I was posted to Bondo barracks in Arua. I was given a uniport and a gun. As a soldier, I participated in all the activities of the army except combat.

We led a communal lifestyle and every day, we had a different programme that ranged from physical training to games.

Custodian of discipline

I commanded respect among the soldiers; they respected chaplains more than their commanders and errant soldiers would be referred to the chaplain for counselling.

In fact, if I failed to tame a soldier, he or she would be jailed! Can you imagine the soldiers used to refer to me as god? They would just see me and say to each other: "Mungu kushafika, (God has arrived)."

At first, I was not comfortable, but later, I understood that they made the reference out of respect.

Field Marshall Idi Amin used to visit the barracks regularly. Surprisingly, you could hardly notice he was a killer. He was a jovial, sociable and burly figure.

He was unpredictable, though.

Sometimes, he would come with a heavily-armed convoy and sometimes he would come alone riding a bicycle. I doubt he was born a murderer as some people think.

He became a killer due to fear. Sometimes, politicians are misled by their henchmen who think they must tell lies to gain favour.

Believe me, even politicians you think are educated will crush their opponents at the suspicion that there is a plan to kill the politician.

Amin liked me because I had gardens in the barracks, where I grew vegetables that he enjoyed eating. One time, during a meal in the Officers' Mess, Amin thanked me for improving the diet in the barracks.

He also praised me for instilling morals in the soldiers.

He then shook my hand and encouraged me to continue teaching his soldiers morals and patriotism.

Soldiers are noble

It is erroneous to generalise soldiers as cruel. My experience in the barracks showed me that soldiers were normal people with emotions like everyone else.

The calling of a soldier is as noble as that of a doctor or a religious leader. Ideally, soldiers have a constitutional duty to protect the country, her citizens and their property.

This is their responsibility, which they must fulfil without the fear of losing their lives.

Some soldiers behave mischievously, but this is because of individual weaknesses. Even civilians have committed atrocities.

For me, Amin was a good Ugandan, who nonetheless, had weaknesses, just like you and me. In fact, when he died, I prayed for him, I asked Allah to forgive him and take him to heaven.

When I was recalled from the barracks, after about 10 years, I resumed my priestly duties in the parishes. My current parish is Mulajje; I have spent 18 years here.

Life after the barracks has been easier for me because of the principle of hard work, which I took on in the barracks. At Mulajje, I have gardens, a farm and a forest that I planted a few years ago.

My policy of hard work has enabled me to be self-reliant; I have also taught many young men and women to work and meet their needs.

Problems are there, but because of my military and priestly training, I see them as challenges.

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