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Idi Amin

Book Review: The Man Who Helped Idi Amin Craft First Cabinet

posted onMay 8, 2024

By Dennis Katungi

Trailblazer - Sam Baingana 90, tells it all in his ‘90 Good Years Memoir’. The Book reads like a blockbuster Netflix movie. Waxing through his uncertain childhood due to the loss of a mother at an early age, his itinerant school life, and with good luck -  going on to graduate from Makerere, he moved on to a life of glitz and glamour as a Foreign Service Officer. He was the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when Idi Amin usurped power. 

Sam Baingana’s Memoir is a must read. It combines a compelling narrative and a thrilling action sequence, immersing the reader not only in his very interesting life but also that of his country Uganda. It is a story of life in colonial as well as post colonial Uganda. It blends the serene rural setting of his childhood into an eventual urban jet-set lifestyle.

Born to School Teacher, turned clergyman the late Rev. Ernest Nyabagabo and Enid Kagore in 1933 in Rujumbura, Rukungiri District, he studied at Kinyasano, then Kigezi High School and later, Busoga College Mwiri. He joined Makerere University in1955 to study Economics, Political Education & English.

Sam baingana

Below, I share an edited extract of a chapter picked at random from his Memoir. ‘Working with Amin’.

As soon as he got rid of President Milton Obote in a coup detat in 1971, Maj. Gen. Idi Amin Dada realized that he needed to form a government. The task of putting together a line-up for the new Cabinet fell on me, together with Amin’s Principal Private Secretary, Henry Kyemba. Justus Byagagaire was co-opted onto our small kitchen cabinet to put together the national Cabinet. In the end, Amin got credit for forming the best post colonial Cabinet in sub-saharan Africa. As these things go, we had just put it together for him. With minor alterations here and there, Amin adopted our line up almost in its entirety. 

We proposed professionals like Prof. Banage, formerly of the Dept. of Zoology at Makerere University, as the new Minister for Animal Industry, Game and Fisheries; Wilson Lutara, who had been the first Secretary to the Cabinet in Obote’s government and later a Director General of East African Airways Corp, we proposed as Minister of Commerce and Industry.  Appolo Kironde we proposed as Minister for Planning and Economic Development; Yekosofat Engur we put down as Minister of Culture, Eng. Zikusooka, a former PS and Chief Engineer, we proposed as Minister of Works; Abu Mayanja we proposed as Minister of Education; Nkambo Mugerwa for Attorney General; Dr Gesa who was formerly PS and Chief Medical Officer we proposed for Health; Justus Byagagaire himself, then PS in President’s Office, we proposed as Minister of Labour.  Wanume Kibedi was our choice for Minister of Foreign Affairs. Idi Amin was pleased with our selection and went on to announce his first Cabinet over the radio.

I kept my role as Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and worked closely with Amin. He often called me, sometimes at night, to give me assignments.

One night he called me to complain that the British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC] was giving him bad publicity. He sought my views on what could be done about it.  He assigned me to listen in to the BBC and formulate a response. Later he called back to ask if I had listened in and what I thought.  I convinced him that since the people had accepted him and loved his government, the opinion of the British was not important.  He agreed to drop the fight with the BBC.

Amin was an intimidating character and the experience of receiving a call from him in the dead of night could be quite unsettling.

Rumour had it that his Private Secretary, Justus Byagagaire, always answered Amin’s calls on his knees. Notwithstanding Amin’s excesses, which became increasingly glaring with the passage of time, I worked well with him in the early years. His government had a multiplicity of foreign policy issues, and initially, he relied upon us to do the diplomatic work for him. He was almost totally illiterate and spoke English haltingly. Once or twice I jumped in to correct him when he blundered in his statements, especially in matters of foreign policy. As things progressed, however, he begun to express a distrust of educated people and even suggested that we were the cause of Uganda’s problems. After that, we took great care not to cross his path.

Sometime in mid - 1972, I took official leave.  I hadn’t done so for a while. By this time I had other interests, such as cattle ranching in Kabula, which needed attention. In my absence, my deputy, Paul Etyang, acted as Permanent Secretary. When I reported back to work a few weeks later, my Minister, Wanume Kibedi, informed me that I had been transferred to the President’s Office and that Paul Etyang had taken over my post. The President’s Office, compared to Foreign Affairs was idle. A posting there was usually a sign that you were on your way out. I had been trained as a Foreign Service Officer and thoroughly enjoyed working as one for 10 good years, so, I was not exactly thrilled to be transferred to an idle post.  

It had been clear to me for a while, however, that Wanume Kibedi did not like working with me, and some clues soon emerged as to why this was the case. Months after Amin’s take over, some of his foreign backers had began to see that Amin was incapable of running a government, and this became a source of embarrassment to them.

As a remedy, a plan was mooted to have Amin appoint a Prime Minister to take over the day-to-day running of government while Amin remained a ceremonial Head of State.  Two names were proposed for Prime Minister: Benedicto Kiwanuka who was then Chief Justice and Grace Ibingira, my brother-in-law, who was now Ambassador to the United Nations. From these two, Amin was to pick one.

This proposal aroused resentment among some who nursed their own ambitions. It was rumoured that the abduction and murder of Kiwanuka, could have been a result of that resentment from some quarters.

According to that story, Grace Ibingira was also to be eliminated to remove the possibility of Amin appointing him Prime Minister. We got to know all this from Stephen Karamagi, a fellow FSO, who had stumbled on information of the plot. Mr Karamagi was not only a colleague, but he and his wife Margaret, were good family friends. He passed this information on to us so that Grace could be warned not to return to Uganda under any circumstances.  According to Mr Karamagi’s information, Grace Ibingira would soon be summoned to Kampala under some official pretext, and while in Kampala he would be eliminated.

My wife had to get this information to her brother Grace Ibingira very urgently. We were aware that phone lines in Kampala were tapped, so, we took a quick decision to dispatch Muriel to Nairobi to make that call to Grace. As expected, Wanume Kibedi soon summoned Grace Ibingira to Kampala. By this time however, he had been fully briefed of the plot and was able to offer plausible excuses to avoid coming. A cat and mouse game then ensued between Grace and Wanume Kibedi, until they finally met at a conference outside Uganda. By this time, Grace had made up his mind never to return while Amin remained President, so he was able to confront Wanume directly with the information he had. Shortly afterwards, Grace resigned his position as Ambassador to the UN and opted to remain in exile In the United States.

It was therefore not hard to see why Kibedi had not liked working with me as his permanent secretary. I was Ibingira’s brother in law and could not be trusted. Wanume Kibedi happened to be Idi Amin’s brother-in-law. His sister, Maryam Kibedi, popularly known as Mama Maryam, was Amin’s senior wife. Amin had married her when he was stationed in Jinja. It appears Kibedi felt some sense of entitlement to high political office on account of his relationship with Amin.

Tragically though, in January 1973, Shaban Nkutu, his uncle, was abducted by soldiers and murdered. Soon afterwards, Kibedi announced his resignation and fled the country, and his sister Mama Maryam, followed suit, abandoning Amin and her children. Amin was livid.  He divorced her on Radio and television before accusing Kibedi publicly of having been behind the abduction and murder of Benedicto Kiwanuka. In return, Kibedi became a virulent critic of Amin’s government.

Amin then appointed Paul Etyang, a seasoned Foreign Service Officer and a very fine man, to succeed Kibedi as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Paul and I would remain friends for life. Not long after my transfer to the President’s Office, the country was informed by radio announcement that Amin had retired 25 permanent secretaries: “in the public interest”. I was one of them. I was only 39 years old.  Looking back, it was perhaps a blessing in disguise to be retired early from Amin’s government.  He lasted another six years and, as things progressed, became an increasingly vicious murderer.

Had I stayed around him longer, there is a strong chance I might also have become one of his victims.  As it happened, I was now released to pursue my own private business and quietly look after my family.

90 Good Years, a Memoir by Sam Baingana will be available in Bookshops soon.




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