Sunday, November 05, 2006

Humanitarian Interventions -- Uganda, 1979

The least controversial of the three humanitarian interventions of the 1970's was also the least successful -- Tanzania's invasion of Uganda to depose Idi Amin.

Uganda's viability was doubtful from the start. When modern Uganda became independent, it consisted of the autonomous kingdom of Buganda and four other kingdoms, as well as various tribes, all combined into a single nation-state. Uganda was also divided between Nilotic-speaking tribes in the north and Bantu-speaking tribes in the south. The bulk of Uganda's business class consisted of much-resented Asians. Attempting to rule this complex conglomeration was the socialist Milton Obote. Obote ruled autocratically, suppressing the autonomy of the kingdoms within Uganda, and increasingly relying on the military to enforce his power. Although Obote packed the army with his own Lango tribe and the Acholi tribe, the leader of the army was Idi Amin, a Muslim (in a predominantly Christian country) and a member of the Kakwa tribe.

As Amin's power grew, Obote increasingly began to see him as a threat and planned his removal. Amin pre-empted the attack in 1971 by seizing power while Obote was out of the country. Ethnic and religious factors played a part in the brutality of Idi Amin's rule, but first and foremost was ineptitude and paranoia of an unbalanced man in a role far beyond his ability.

Amin began with a murderous purge of Lango and Acholi members of the military, favoring his own Kakwa tribe, and extended his reign of terror to the population at large. He expelled Asians from Uganda and confiscated their property, which was turned over to members of the army.

This expropriation of property proved disastrous for the already declining economy. Businesses were run into the ground, cement factories at Tororo and Fort Portal collapsed from lack of maintenance, and sugar production literally ground to a halt, as unmaintained machinery jammed permanently. Uganda's export crops were sold by government parastatals, but most of the foreign currency they earned went for purchasing imports for the army.


Idi Amin became known for his eccentric an erratic behavior that made him a laughing stock throughout the world. He was known for making absurd pronouncements, awarding himself meaningless medals and titles, calling himself "the white man's burden," and being carried around in a chair by four Englishmen. He cultivated a friendship with fellow Muslim and eccentric Muammar Qaddafi, though many people suspected his devotion to Islam was mostly an excuse to practice polygamy and share in Arab oil wealth. But his regime's complete lack of ability to manage as large a job as running a country was no laughing matter.

Because he was illiterate — a disability shared with most of his higher ranking officers — Amin relayed orders and policy decisions orally by telephone, over the radio, and in long rambling speeches to which civil servants learned to pay close attention. The bureaucracy became paralyzed as government administrators feared to make what might prove to be a wrong decision. The minister of defense demanded and was given the Ministry of Education office building, but then the decision was reversed. Important education files were lost during their transfer back and forth by wheelbarrow


Amin became increasingly erratic and paranoid and enforced his power largely by torture and murder. The number of people killed under his regime is unknown, but estimates range from 100,000 to 500,000, andy may have amounted to one Ugandan in 40.

In 1978, Amin's army invaded neighboring Tanzania and seized 710 square miles of territory. Tanzania's president, Julius Nyrere, a longtime enemy of Amin who harbored Obote in exile, saw this as a good opportunity to get rid of his rival altogether. Nyrere expanded the Tanzania Army from 40,000 to 100,000 and counter-invaded in 1979. The Ugandan forces crumbled before the Tanzanian advance. Qadaffi sent some 3,000 troops to Uganda to defend Amin, but they, too, were routed. In April, 1979, the Tanzanians seized the Ugandan capital of Kampala, and Amin fled to Libya.

Unlike the Bangladesh or Cambodia interventions, Cold War politics played little role in Uganda. Idi Amin showed some skill playing superpowers off against each other, but was no one's ally. His eccentric behavior, as much as his murderous brutality, had made him an embarrassment everyone was glad to be rid of. There was, therefore, little international opposition to the Tanzanian invasion, in marked contrast to the strong condemnation of Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, which had happened only a few months earlier.

The removal of Amin did not, however, bring peace to Uganda. After the route of Amin's army, it was replaced with a force of 1,000 Ugandans who had fought alongside the Tanzanians during the invasion. Ugandan leadership was divided among rival factions, who began forming their own private armies. Nyrere continued to manipulate events from behind the scenes, restoring the unpopular Obote to power in 1980 in an election generally believed to be rigged. Civil war broke out in 1981. Yoweri Museveni leading the National Resistance Army revolted against Obote and civil war ensued. Obote once again packed the army with Lango and Acholi tribesmen and set out to brutally crush the rebellion. Civilian deaths in this war have been estimated at 500,000, comparable to those killed by Amin. At least 750,000 people were also displaced. Museveni ultimately prevailed in 1986, brought an end to the civil war, and began Uganda's recovery. A small but brutal group of rebels known as the Lord's Resistance Army continues to be active in northern Uganda.

Given Tanzania's ultimate inability to restore order to Uganda and the ferocity of the civil war that followed, this humanitarian intervention must be judged as a failure.

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