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St. George's Day in Kampala

In 1968, Kampala, the capital of Uganda was not the city of fear it later became under Idi Amin's reign of terror. During the relatively placid presidency of Dr. Milton Obote, Kampala vied with Nairobi as a flourishing centre of African commerce and industry.

The intrigue and distrust, plot, counterplot and the shifting mercurial alliances among the politicians and ambitious military commanders was carried on below the surface of the city's socio-economic life. The industrious Asians with their shops and bazaars, the expatriate Europeans and their Ugandan business partners brought prosperity to this temperate land as never before in the country's history as a protectorate or since.

Uganda never was a colony and more than one observer has commented that this fact was Uganda's loss, not its gain. If Imperial Britain did nothing else for its colonies, observers note, it gave its subject peoples each a civil service managed by its own people to which India, Pakistan, Kenya and other former possessions of the British Empire testify. Being but a British protectorate only, Uganda achieved nationhood without the benefit of a well-developed civil government administration.

Even so, British domination and influence was strong enough to give the country a measure of economic and cultural stability. Its infrastructure of public and private enterprise, communications and highways were the basis of a prosperous future. Service clubs abounded: the Rotarians, Lions, Kiwanis and Knights of Columbus held regular meetings attended by a diverse cross-section of the African-Asian-European community and the Royal Society of St. George never failed to celebrate the day of England's patron saint every 23 April at the Kampala Country Club.

It was a day for which lavish preparations were made. That true English ale might overflow 'ye olde African tankard', fresh barrels of the best brews available were flown to Entebbe International Airport the day before the event took place. With huge barons of beef that accompanied them they were escorted by police outriders to the club on the hill, there to be settled, de-bunged and tapped for the great event.

No detail was too small to be overlooked for this important occasion. Union Jacks were taken out and draped from the beams of the Country Club's baronial hall: a large standard of St. George, resplendent and magnificent, was hung on the wall above the head tables; and colourful clusters of national flags were set on the rows of tables that would together seat five, six and seven hundred guests. Extra waiters were hired and instructed in their duties; table were laid with double damask dinner napkins; tankards were hired; the washing, cleaning, dusting and polishing was done for days by an army of hired help, for was not St. George at the very heart of unity and good fellowship?

During the morning of the last St. George's Day before Dr. Obote took early retirement, my host drove me to the Kabaka's former palace, by then transformed into military headquarters of the Ugandan Army. My host, an expatriate construction contractor who had built most of the high-rise buildings in the city, much of the country's civil works and its highways, had an important meeting and thought I'd like to tag along. There might be a good story in the offing.

Approaching the main gates of the former palace, I was instructed to behave with great calm and move slowly. "No fast, impetuous moves, mind. The Ugandan military shoot first and ask questions later." I kept very still. "Like the U.S. military?" I asked, staring straight ahead.

A large white board with black lettering, a warning 'NO POLITICIANS ALLOWED', was fixed to one of the stone pillars at the main gates; a simple notice, clear and direct. Sentries at the gate lowered their automatic weapons to inspect our papers and waved us to enter. My companion parked in the inner courtyard. He had been here before.

In the warmth of the life-giving African sun, the Kabaka's former palace stood cold and inhospitable. Following the driver's lead, I gingerly mounted the flight of grey steps leading into the building and reported to yet another pair of sentries toting automatic weapons. Everything was done in twos in this place. The sentries inspected our papers and motioned for us to enter.

A lowly captain bristling with authority bid us wait while he made a telephone call, then himself led us up a long flight of stairs to the second floor. Moments later we were standing in the presence of a female African secretary, a beautiful young woman: intelligent brown eyes with the white of them standing our magnificently against her black as ebony skin.

"Please wait," she said, in Oxford-accented English.

I had barely become accustomed to the change of light from the bright efficient light of the secretary's office to the subdued and muted light of her boss's space, the general's office. Despite the lack of bright light, the room had a blood red decor in sharp contrast with the rest of the cold grey structure of the building. His spacious room, equipped with rich, dark furniture, was dominated by red curtains draped from the ceiling to floor, completely obscuring the windows. A massive teak desk behind which sat a large figure of a many in uniform was richly polished. Three heavy, upholstered chairs and matching the sofa of dark, tanned-red leather reflected a sheen from the light of three standard lamps and a desk lamp, all with dark shades. The easy furniture centred on and equally robust-looking coffee table on which a scale model of a camp, some sort of military establishment, provided a centre piece to the room. Its multi-coloured design of blue roofs to the miniature buildings, grey and brown access roads and green lawns provided a relieving contrast to the darker aspect of the room.

The huge occupant behind the desk, dressed in a tropical khaki uniform with red tabs on his shirt colour, rose from his seat and stepped forward to greet us. He was of enormous build. Dark eyes dominated his massive bald and shiny head. He had a body to suit. One felt oneself to be in the presence of an African Hercules.

Whether he was the Quartermaster General or Adjutant General I could not tell. His shoulder insignia indicated his rank as that of a brigadier. I missed his name when we were introduced and didn't get it straight until after we'd left the building. I had no part in the discussion that followed. Civil construction was not my field. The discussion centred on a set of architectural drawings (prepared in Czechoslovakia) that had been unrolled, the general using a swagger stick to point to various features of the model. The drawings, rolled back into their previous state, were handed over, the contract agreed orally and a nod by the general given to affirm that the work should begin. The military installation, a well-armed ordnance depot, was to be constructed in a particular district of Northern Uganda, the general's home turf I gathered.

The business concluded and we were ready to take our leave when my companion asked the general if he would be attending the St. George's Day dinner that evening. Everyone who was anybody in Kampala was expected to be there.

In a voice rich and deep with the peculiar twang of Ugandan Africans, the general said, "No, my friend, I'm afraid not, but you make hay while the sun shines as your countrymen say. I have other fish to fry.

The dinner was a roaring success. The vast majority of men among the more than six hundred guests were in evening dress (tuxedos as they say in the States) and the women in ankle-length gowns of every colour and design. Throughout the evening, members and guests all bellowed allegiance to the Standard of St. George and the Queen, God bless her.

"Come! Let us drink the ale of merry old England,' roared the president.

"Aye! A goodly soak!" shouted a lone, already merry voice.

"What was the name of that general we met today, again? I didn't get it," I asked my host.

"Brigadier Idi Amin," he said. "Why do you ask?"

"His obsession with red," I said. "There's something sinister and macabre about it."

"Aw! That's nothing. You've got a reporter's warped imagination," he replied. "Drink up. The night is young."

I never mentioned my impression again, even though the country was soon awash with blood.

Journal Entry for April 1968

Idi Amin in the days of his gory fullness


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