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The Monitor (Kampala)
March 31, 2002

Britain and Israel were the real force behind the 1971 Idi Amin coup against Milton Obote's government, recently declassified British Foreign Office documents show.

According to the documents declassified after the mandatory 30-year period, while Britain came on board on the day of the coup, Israel, through its military attaché in Uganda, Col. Bar Lev was in the thick of the plot.

The documents quote then British High Commissioner in Uganda, Richard Slater, as informing the Foreign Office that according to Col. Bar Lev, Amin's plan on Jan. 25, 1971 was to shoot Obote dead at the airport upon his return from Singapore. Amin however changed tactics because of the difficulties in simultaneously taking out Obote and sorting out anticipated pockets of resistance in the barracks.

Obote was in Singapore to attend the Commonwealth heads of government summit and was due to return Jan. 25.

The first public signs of animosity between Obote with Britain started about a month earlier when one minister (the documents do not name him) alleged in a speech that the British colonialists had tortured Obote's grandfather by hanging him by the hair for several hours.

The weeks that followed, the British High Commissioner in Kampala frantically tried to confirm the alleged torture from the Foreign Office.

For many months, the documents say, Britain had begun to worry about Obote. He bitterly criticised British arms sales to South Africa and he had nationalised British companies in Uganda worth millions of pounds. He was expected to give Edward Heath, the then British prime minister, a hard time at the Commonwealth meeting.

London was therefore excited by the telegram from its envoy that Obote had been overthrown.

"There is a good deal of interest here and we are receiving a number of enquiries" writes Sir Alex Douglas-Home, the Foreign Secretary. By the end of the first day the Foreign office was already considering recognising Amin's rule. But in Tanzania, President Julius Nyerere was already accusing Britain of organising the coup and the British were afraid of being too close to Amin too soon. They decided not to lead the way in recognition but be close behind others that do. After a few days they persuaded Kenya to lead the way in recognising the new regime.

In London, the Foreign Office's assessment concluded: "General Amin has certainly removed from the African scene one of our most implacable enemies in matters affecting Southern Africa? Our prospects in Uganda have no doubt been considerably enhanced providing we take the opportunities open to us? We now have a thoroughly pro-Western set up in Uganda of which we should take prompt advantage. Amin needs our help?"

So when British intelligence picked information that Obote had arrived in Khartoum on Jan. 29 and may try to re-enter Uganda from the northern border, the foreign secretary ordered that a warning message be sent to Amin through the Kenyans.

Britain later sent out a Foreign Office minister, Lord Boyd, who met Amin on April 3. Amin, he reported, wanted a signed portrait of Queen Elizabeth and a royal visit as soon as possible. Amin also told him he had written to her Majesty "a very nice letter".

The British High Commissioner in Kampala cautioned his government to proceed cautiously but the Foreign Secretary Sir Douglas-Home swept aside the advice and Britain proceeded to send military advisors and supply weapons. The honeymoon was however short-lived as both Britain and Israel lost favour with Amin in 1972.