How did Idi Amin Dada lead a successful coup in 1971? (Part 2, by William Miles)

How did Idi Amin Dada lead a successful coup in 1971? (Part 2, by William Miles)

The second strand I wish to analyse is that of the conditions in Uganda prior to the coup itself. For a successful coup, there must be discontent amongst the people of the nation and a desire for change. “Surtaxes have left the common man of this country poorer than ever before. Here are some of the taxes which the common man has to bear: development tax, graduated tax, sales tax, social security fund tax. The big men escape these taxes or pass them on to the common man. The prices which the common man gets for his crops like cotton and coffee have not gone up and sometimes they have gone down; whereas the cost of food and education have always gone up” This quote is from the radio broadcast delivered immediately after the coup had taken place and reflected the people’s discontent but the situation in Uganda was a complex one and I am going to use Obote’s address to the national assembly on the 20th April, 1970 to aid me in analysing it. In this speech, Obote highlighted the key problem present in Uganda in the lead up to the coup, stating “We are all aware of the heavy incidence of job seeking in towns. This is partly a phenomenon which comes from development” . This condition is key to understanding the problems which affected Ugandans at the time.

Obote was indeed correct that there was rising unemployment in Uganda.. This had been as a result of the increasing education in the country, a policy adopted enthusiastically by Obote. As Listowel shows, 28% of the budget was devoted to education which had resulted in an increased number of children receiving it; primary education rose from 435,000 in 1962 to 636,000 in 1969, secondary school education from 9,500 to 42,000 and university students from 1,500 to 3,400 . However, although this was a sign of increased development in the nation, it was achieved too quickly for employers who didn’t have enough openings in urban areas to accommodate the sudden increase in size of the labour force. Education “not only led to congested urban areas, with thousands of unemployed hands, but also increased both social and physical mobility, resulting in intense competition for jobs, promotions, appointments and scholarships” . Unsurprisingly, this bred discontent as many young educated Ugandans were left in limbo, unable to find work in the towns but at the same time alienated from the traditional agricultural way of life.

Simultaneously, the revenue received by Ugandan farmers had been reducing due to falling prices of the main cash crops of Uganda, cotton and coffee. Obote tried to argue differently in his speech; “coffee production has more than doubled and cotton production has gone up more than 50%. The solid work done by the Uganda farmers in these two crops and in food production has since expanded” . The evidence, however, is against him. Gukiina in ‘Uganda: A case study in African Political Development’ highlights this decline, stating “Coffee fell in price from 21 cents per pound in 1955 to 11 cents per pound in the early 60s and as low as 4 cents per pound in 1968. This happened at a time when prices generally had been increasing” . Obote was responsible for the general higher prices because, aware that he required the support of the army to stay in power, he invested heavily in it; “he had to increase their salaries as a means of keeping them satisfied and loyal to his government, hence a defence budget of $17,025,000 in 1966, which is 10.2% of the national budget and nearly as large as the combined defence budgets of Kenya and Tanzania” . This increased expenditure meant higher taxes which resulted in higher prices of sugar, salt, rice, meat, medicine and clothing whilst farmers became poorer through falling coffee and cotton prices. Such a situation would inevitably breed resentment, something Gukiina emphasises when he says “The peasantry remained unhappy with the national government and Obote because the coffee and cotton prices had been on a gradual decline since independence” .

However, this is not the whole story. Whilst admitting unemployment, Obote sought justification by claiming general success achieved in Uganda since independence, saying in his address “One of the most popular and leading labels often put on developing countries by their detractors is that the Governments of such countries are unable to deliver the goods. That label, certainly does not apply in the case of this Government ” and in a speech on the 31st December 1969 “the last ten years have been years of unqualified success and unprecedented development” . There was truth in this as shown by the education stats above and, as Listowel states, the fact that “by 1969 eighty percent of the civil service was manned by Africans; all agricultural production and distribution, including various marketing boards, were in African hands; forty-five percent of the retail trade belonged to Africans, and they had begun to play a part in commerce and industry” . Further, as Gukiina highlights, under Obote “medical services have more than tripled…the GNP was increasing at a rate of 10 to 12% per year compared to less than 4% before independence” .

However, what Obote failed to recognise in is address was the seriousness of the failings which Uganda experienced since independence. The rising unemployment and falling crop prices affected the Ugandan peasantry and therefore the majority of Ugandans. For them, conditions had deteriorated under Obote. They had been promised a better way of life but their President had failed to deliver. The main problem for Obote was that the peasantry did not understand the complexity of economic trade and felt that if crop prices were falling then Obote must have been to blame; “The peasantry did not understand the economic world and merely saw Obote as the one who fixes the price whilst 100% of US exports amounting to $5.62 million was paid by profits of coffee and cotton. The farmers came to view Obote as corrupt and responsible for the low coffee and cotton prices” . Therefore, although Obote did make deserved claims to the successes of his government, he failed to recognisee the extent of the unrest and this unrest built as conditions worsened and offered Amin a population keen on an alternative government. “Dr Obote was bound to remain in the eyes of most Ugandans, a ruthless, cold, morally corrupt power grabber. All possibilities considered, Obote was destined to hold on to power for as long as the police and the army were prepared to enforce his authority” . In other words, he had lost the support of the people.

The third and final strand I will analyse is how Obote alienated the Buganda tribe and added to the resentment towards his government. For this, I will refer to a series of newspaper articles from the Times, reporting the events of the Battle of Mengo Hill on May 24th 1966, the climax of a growing tension between the Buganda, Uganda’s largest tribe, and Obote. As one of the articles explains, “The tension has gripped Uganda since Frederick Mutesa was deposed in February from the office of President of Uganda by Dr.Milton Obote” . This was indeed the case. When Uganda gained its independence, Obote came to power only through an alliance with the Buganda. The Buganda, as Ibingira says in his book ‘The Forging of An African Nation”, had “concession granted to the Kingdom of Buganda in respect to certain legislative powers which the Lukiiko was to exercise independently of the Uganda Parliament…the Government have no constitutional power to determine the fate of the royal throne” . It was through this U.P.C/K.Y partnership that Uganda emerged as an independent nation.

However, to understand the mindset of the people it is important to understand where the root of their beliefs lay. The Buganda believed that these concessions were theirs of right and not something which could be taken away. This is highlighted by Gukiina who recalls a speech given by Apolo Nsibambi, a lecturer in political science, who said “Buganda felt that since Buganda as a whole was never conquered by the British and that since the British were freely invited by the Buganda to protect them, the Buganda retained their natural sovereignty and that they had the right to renounce British protection at anytime and regain the responsibility of protecting the nation of Buganda” .

The attack of Mengo Hill was a clear removal of the Bugandan people’s rights, rights they believed to be sacrosanct. And which were promised at the time of independence. One article highlights the reaction when it states “Tribal leaders are shocked and angry at the merciless attack on the Ruler’s palace by Government troops, in which it is believed that more than 1,000 people died” . However, this attack was only the beginning of Obote’s war against the Buganda.

On 8th September 1967 a new constitution was adopted confirming the abolition of the Kingdoms, dividing Buganda into four districts with the same status as those elsewhere in Uganda and considerably tightening the central government’s control over the districts, removing their autonomy. Gukiina writes “To the masses in other kingdoms, the downfall of the Kabaka did not mean a downfall of an enemy but a downfall of a great symbol of traditional rule. Since Obote could dethrone a King so powerful as was the Kabaka of Buganda, then the masses reasoned, their own leaders were in real danger from Obote” . His actions not only invoked fear from other tribes but also anger from the Bugandans. After the attack on Mengo Hill, the Bugandan people were encouraged to wage civil war on the government; “Buganda chiefs and political leaders were today urging two million ardent supporters of the Kabaka to civil war against President Obote and his central Government. Leaflets were scattered throughout Buganda telling the people to enforce the Kabaka’s ultimatum to Dr.Obote that the central Government must move from Buganda soil by May 30th” .

This was a clear separation of the tribe from the Ugandan government, something which worsened throughout the following years as Obote continued to tighten his control on them, culminating in Obote being shot outside the national convention of the UPC at Christmas in 1969. Although he survived, the message was clear. He had lost the support of the Bugandan tribe, providing an alternative leader with a large support base in the centre of the nation, a concept that Listowel supports when she writes “The mishandling of the Buganda made it certain that any well-organised coup effort would have the automatic support of the heartland of Uganda” .

Although only touching the tip of an iceberg, through the factors we have analysed we can see how Uganda was primed for a new lease of life. The people wanted change and they needed a powerful personality to bring about these changes. When these two requirements coincided, the success of the coup d’etat was without doubt. In this essay, I have ignored other factors surrounding Amin’s rise to power such as the argument made in Martin’s book that the critical factor which turned the tide against Obote was the involvement of at least 500 Southern Sudanese Anyanya guerillas and the fact that, at the time of seizing power, Amin had the support of Britain, as seen in newspaper articles from the Spectator “If a choice is to be made between quiet military men and noisy civil dictators then I prefer, in Africa at least, the military” or the New Statesman “So far as Britain is concerned, Amin will undoubtedly be easier to deal with than the abrasive Obote” for I just don’t have the space to analyse it all.

However, the three factors I have chosen are, I believe, the integral ones to his rise to power for without the character of the man himself and the desire for change within the people, a coup would never have been successful. As it was, when Amin gave his first speech, he did so knowing he was addressing a nation in support of change. Obote had managed to turn the people against him and his government, be it through his severe oppression of the Bugandan people and his removal of their traditional rights of self rule by actions such as on the 26th February 1966 suspending the 1962 Constitution or his inability to provide for the Ugandan peasantry the better way of life they had been promised at independence. Therefore, a man like Amin, physically strong, politically powerful, and supported by the people had been provided an opportunity through which a successful coup could be led, and on the 24th January 1971, he did just that.


Primary Sources:

• Obote, Milton, Communication from the Chair of the National Assembly on 20th April, 1970, ‘The Common Man’s Charter (Uganda, 1970)
• Schroeder, Barbet, General Idi Amin Dada – Autoportrait (Les Films du Losange, 1974)


Secondary Sources:

• Aasland, Tertit, Research Report No.26: On the Move-to-the-Left in Uganda 1969-1971 (Sweden, 1974)
• Gukiina, Peter M, Uganda: A Case Study in African Political Development (Indiana, 1972)
• Ibingira, G.S.K, The Forging of an African Nation (New York, 1973)
• Lissak, Moshe and Baruch, Kimmerling, Inner Dualism: An Outcome of the Centre-Periphery Relationship during Modernization Procesess in Uganda, (California,1973)
• Listowel, Judith, Amin (Dublin, 1973)
• Martin, David, General Amin (London, 1974)
• Mittelman, James H, Ideology and Politics in Uganda: From Obote to Amin (Cornell University, 1975)
• Mutibwa, Phares, Uganda since Independence, (London, 1992)

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