Former minister, MP, now member of the Judicial Service
Commission, HENRY KYEMBA, worked closely
with both former presidents Milton Obote and Idi Amin. In
his acclaimed book, The State of Blood, Kyemba gives an
account of Amin’s tyranny.
In My Life in Exile this week, Kyemba tells
MICHAEL MUBANGIZI (with additional reporting from
his book) how he lied to Amin in order to flee to exile.
He recounts how the government forces then arrested his
wife, sister-in-law and children, and locked them up at
Gaddafi barracks in Jinja. Amin only released them after
Kyemba ‘convinced’ him on phone that he was
still loyal to the dictator!
I had no interest in politics but my brother David James
Kisakye Nabeta was an active politician before independence.
Together with people like former president, Prof. Yusuf
Lule, Apollo Kironde and Zachary Omwonya, he was among the
first ministers in the colonial government.
He was also the first Musoga Sir Andrew Cohen [governor]
appointed in the Legislative Council (Legco) in 1955.
By that time I was studying for a degree in History at
Makerere University. There were few graduates at the time
and the sky was the limit for one to choose where to go.
I applied to join the civil service.
Henry Kyemba during an
I thought it would give me the stability I needed. I hoped
to be appointed a district commissioner but I was instead
posted to Prime Minister Benedict Kiwanuka’s office
as Assistant Secretary in charge of Ceremony and Protocol.
So I was close to politicians. My brother Nabeta was later
Minister of Health in Ben Kiwanuka’s government. I
thought one brother in politics was enough. Little did I
know that when I was appointed Assistant Secretary, I would
serve near politicians.
When Obote became Prime Minister, he appointed me his Private
Secretary in 1963. So I got even closer to politicians.
I thought that was a short-term appointment because I did
not want to lose my promotion prospects in the civil service.
But I was assured that my promotion would be measured along
my performance in the same place. So I served until 1971
when Amin overthrew his [Obote] government.
The coup took place when I was in Singapore with Obote [attending
a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting].
I had been close to Obote, so I didn’t know whether
Amin would allow me back. To my surprise, Amin knew the
difference between Obote and the officers around him. He
had no suspicion that I was involved in some underhand activities
before the coup. I was told that I was free to come back
with those who wanted.
On arrival, Amin sent one of his bodyguards to pick me
from Entebbe Airport. I was taken to his Command Post in
Kololo. There, Amin told me to go back to my office and
serve in the same position I had served under Obote. So
I became his Principal Private Secretary and later Secretary
to Cabinet and Permanent Secretary in the President’s
Office. I got more involved in politics while serving in
Cabinet because I was close to ministers.
This was a period of great uncertainty; things started
going astray. Nobody knew what was going to happen when
Amin overthrew the constitutional government and parliament.
Amin knew his inadequacies. On taking power, he appointed
senior Permanent Secretaries to ministerial jobs. Nobody
was seeing military men in Cabinet and offices. They saw
Kyemba who had been close to Obote still in office.
| Away from home: Henry Kyemba
(L) with Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi (R) in exile in
He wanted to give people a feeling that nothing was going
to change much but then gradually people were getting killed
in the army.
Amin’s concern at the time was dealing with dissidents,
or people who did not support him inside the army, or supported
Obote militarily. These killings were going on in barracks
in Mbarara, Moroto, even here in Gaddafi barracks (Jinja).
But civilians later painfully [found out] what was happening
when people like Michael Kagwa - president of the industrial
court, Chief Justice Ben Kiwanuka, and many other people
were killed after the aborted 1972 invasion [from Tanzania
by Ugandan exiles]. That is when my elder brother, Kisajja,
who was a Personnel Manager, Nyanza Textiles Industries,
was also killed.
Off to exile
Going to exile was a very difficult decision for me to
make, yet it would have been suicidal to remain here after
the killings and murder of innocent civilians, including
my close relatives.
I knew the true cause of Archbishop Janani Luwum and ministers
Erinayo Oryema and Oboth Ofumbi’s death, and the terrible
lies that were told thereafter. I was at Nile Mansions [now
Serena Hotel] conference hall when the archbishop and the
ministers were accused of all sorts of crimes. Within a
few minutes, they were taken to State Research Bureau near
the present State House [Nakasero] and killed. Later, Amin’s
cronies staged an accident near Sheraton Hotel where they
claimed the three had perished.
Amin wasn’t able to control the flow of information,
and this information got to me.
As Minister of Health, I was told, “these people have
died in an accident” and their bodies were being sent
to Mulago Hospital. But they took a long time to arrive,
yet the scene of the “accident” was near the
The military spokesperson, who was Amin himself, was issuing
reports of their death on behalf of my ministry, and I knew
these were lies. It was really embarrassing. They were saying,
“The ministry of Health [headed by Henry Kyemba] has
said this and that…” I would be giving credit
to these stories if I remained in office.
Amin had also done that in the story of the Israeli hostage
Dora Bloch, another person I knew facts behind her death.
She was picked from Mulago Hospital and killed. I was Minister
of Health and Amin forced me to distort facts about her
No one is sacred
In those circumstances, you wish you weren’t there.
But when my mother who was about 70 years old and was staying
with me heard that the archbishop and the ministers had
been killed, she told me, “my son you must go, they
will kill you.”
Once she told me that, I knew I had clearance from her
to go, and from February 17, 1977 when the archbishop and
the ministers were killed, it was a question of planning
how to get out. When the archbishop was killed, I knew that
no one was sacred before Amin. If Archbishop Luwum and ministers
who were close to Amin could be killed, what I am doing
here? I said to myself, “How long can I wait for my
name to be used?” I said enough is enough, I have
to go. But it was never my intention to go into exile because
I had no business in Kenya, London…
Yet I couldn’t resign and remain in Uganda.
I had a feeling that I could influence events but I later
realised I couldn’t do anything because Amin was very
slippery. He would talk to you now like I am doing, when
he is ordering his henchmen to go and get rid of you.
Once I made the decision to go, implementing it wasn’t
difficult. It was a question of keeping it a secret so that
As the then chairman of the African Health Ministers, I
had an official reason to leave Uganda because I had to
attend the annual World Health Organisation conference in
Geneva, in May 1977. This gave a foundation for my escape
plan. I discussed my decision to flee with no one, not even
my wives; Teresa and Elizabeth.
Since anything left behind would be snatched by Amin, I
began to give away my possessions to family members and
friends. But my sudden generosity sparked rumours that I
was about to vanish. I tried to give every impression that
I was not leaving the country to counterbalance any rumours
that could reach Amin. I mentioned to a minister, a friend
of Amin with known connections in State Research Bureau,
that I needed land to expand my farm.
If the possibility of my defection ever came up, he would
say, “The man is looking for land; he can’t
possibly be leaving for good.”
I also bought an Austin Princess car that I had no intention
of using in partnership with a friend, and we formed a small
company, Wedding Bells, to rent the car for festivities
like weddings. To be in position to reclaim my property
or seek compensation, I had my property, like a 70-acre
farm; house in Jinja, assessed. I also recorded all details
of my fixed assets. But the Geneva conference was disconcertingly
I had two excuses to leave earlier. As chairman African
Health Ministers, I had been tasked to hold consultations
in Brazzaville, Addis Ababa and Cairo before the May assembly.
So my first trip was to Egypt, and Amin was all for it.
Disturbed by the decline in the number of doctors in Uganda,
he had asked President Anwar Sadat to provide some from
He asked me to follow up on this request, in addition to
my other business.
I was due to have medical treatment to correct a dented
septum and a small irregularity in the division between
the upper nostrils. So in early April, I would be in Cairo,
later in Geneva for the conference, and finally, I would
make my final move to safety.
It would not be just slipping out, I would be breaking
permanently with Amin, so I had to think about the implications
it would have on my family.
In the last weeks of my flight, I turned my attention to
my family. Amin would not, I believed, take revenge on two
young children and their mother, for a minister’s
defection. But I nevertheless took some precautions.
I had Teresa pack three suitcases of children’s clothes
and give them to a friend who often travelled to Kenya.
After my departure, he would ferry the clothes across to
Nairobi. The children were to escape, if necessary, with
their mother (Elizabeth.)
Until mid 1975, Teresa [my other wife] was a matron at
Mulago Hospital and was known to Amin, so it would be dangerous
if she stayed behind. Officially, wives accompanied their
husbands to major functions, like the conference in Geneva,
but I could not risk going with her to Cairo. We therefore
planned for her to come with three men who were to make
up the rest of the ministry’s delegation.
At a small gathering of ministers, shortly before I left,
I told Amin that I was going and he said, “Greet President
Sadat for me and wish everyone well.”
I left on April 13 with my bodyguard, Vincent Masiga to
Cairo, where I began discussions on the possibility of Egypt
supplying Uganda with doctors it badly needed on April 16.
Meanwhile, in Kampala rumours started: “Kyemba won’t
be back…he has given away too much.” Some of
them even telephoned Teresa and asked if I had gone for
good. She wisely decided to get out through the border to
Nairobi and later to Geneva where I arrived on April 21.
By pure coincidence, she caught the same plane as the ministry
delegation and arrived on April 29.
Trouble started almost immediately. Masiga telephoned his
Kampala headquarters telling them to inform Amin. This may
seem to be a disloyal action, but he had his reasons.
When the Justice Minister, Godfrey Lule, defected a few
weeks before, his bodyguard had been blamed for not warning
his Special Branch bosses and got some rough treatment for
it. Masiga did not want to risk a similar fate.
Amin’s reaction to people going to exile differed.
Sometimes if he missed getting hold of you he would not
bother about your wife and brothers; sometimes he would
go for your relatives.
When Amin was told that I may not come back, so he swung
into action. He was my neighbour, his Jinja residence being
just behind mine. He knew my spouse and children, so he
ordered about 10 of his soldiers to seal off my residences
in Kampala and Jinja.
My official residence in Kampala was empty but soldiers
attacked my private residence in Jinja, arrested my wife,
her sister and children, and took them to Gaddafi barracks.
Amin telephoned our Embassy in Paris and dispatched Ambassador
Akisoferi Ogola to Geneva to find out how the delegation
was. On arrival, he was surprised to see that not only was
I still at the head of the delegation, but I had also been
elected Vice President of WHO. He told me about the rumours,
my bodyguard’s report, and Amin’s telephone
call. He then telephoned Amin to tell him that I was still
leading the delegation.
Amin, of course, did not know that I had been told about
the arrest of my children. He asked me, “Are you coming
back, what is this?”
I told Amin, “How can I go to exile when I am leading
your delegation in Geneva?
How can I be elected [Vice President of WHO] when I am
He told me that he had heard rumours that I had defected,
and that Masiga had started the rumours by telephoning Kampala.
Amin pretended to be very annoyed with Masiga, and said
he never wanted to hear that sort of thing again. He then
added, rather strangely, that if there was any truth in
the rumours he wished me to leave without embarrassing him.
Since he had my children under guard that was the last
thing I would do. I picked my words carefully and did my
best to sound confident; I told him there was no truth in
I discovered later that he had already announced that he
was investigating certain irregularities in the Health ministry,
which could have been an ominous prelude to further action
Amin also knew that part of my family was in Uganda, so
he got confused. He travelled to the barracks and told the
two ladies how good I was, how rumours were running around.
He told them how reports about my defection were malicious.
He eventually released them, and instructed them to return
home and send the children back to school.
Apparently when the news about my houses being surrounded
and my being out of the country went out, a news agency
reported that I had defected. I telephoned Amin; he had
a telephone number 2241, it was like a mobile [phone] because
wherever you rung 2241, it would connect you to wherever
he would be -Kabale, Fort Portal, Arua, Mbarara, and he
would talk to you.
Perhaps for security reasons, he never wanted any one to
know where he was at any particular time. But anyway, I
asked him about the origin of the news report and he told
me that he had also seen it. He told me to publicly deny
the report. I agreed, and he was delighted.
I summoned a press conference that afternoon over the same
matter and denied the report. It was immediately announced
on Uganda Radio and in Voice of Uganda newspaper.
But with the release of my family, the plan which I had
devised for the children and which Elizabeth had already
rehearsed was effected.
She allowed herself 10 days to re-establish a semblance
of normal life and re-assure Amin that all was well, until
May 15 when she left.
She left with the children in a taxi to the Kenya border,
as their luggage and clothing awaited them in Nairobi.
Now that my family was out of danger, my plans moved ahead.
On May 16, 1 informed the British Home Office that I would
be arriving shortly.
In another phone call, Amin had asked me to send Masiga
back so that he could discipline him. I knew of course that
he wanted Masiga to return in order to get further information
about me and my family.
By the time I left Geneva on May 17, he had travelled back
to Uganda. I left the Assembly Hall in the evening, got
on a plane to London Heathrow Airport, and went to London.
Amin’s response to my disappearance was typically
vacillating. He reversed his previous statements again,
declaring in public that there were after all certain things
he wanted me to explain in connection with the ministry.
That I had misappropriated Shs 300,000 ($37,000)!
I was flattered to be accused of taking so little.
In exile you become completely helpless; you have to go
to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to take care of
Here, I was a minister; there, the following day you are
nothing, not because you have committed a crime. It’s
very traumatic and humiliating. I had been to London many
times, but in a minute you are dumped at Heathrow Airport
the way Amin expelled Asians.
The most important thing was my children; what will they
eat, which schools will they go to?
Fortunately, the British Government took care of my family
and made sure my children went to school. They did not even
spend a single day out of school and that was most satisfying
for me because my children never suffered. They also provided
a house for them. Their mother was a nurse and immediately
she got there, she also started working as a nurse.
The only place where I am king is here (home). There is
no better place than home. The moment you leave this country
to go to America, Europe, it’s a question of numbers,
you are number one, two, three.
Here (Uganda), you can try to influence events. The process
may seem slow but it will be worse outside because you will
not be able to influence any of those things, yet they will
affect you. It’s better to be poor in your own home.
My first step in exile was to contact Sunday Times in London.
I gave them an interview about the situation in Uganda.
It was the first real outburst against Amin’s regime
by a person who had been close to him.
This led to the first forthright condemnation of Amin by
the Commonwealth. The body condemned Amin’s sustained
disregard for the sanctity of life and for massive violation
of basic human rights of Ugandans.
The British government hoped Amin wouldn’t attend
the Commonwealth conference that was scheduled to start
on June 7, 1977 in London, but Amin insisted on going. Finally,
he never went. Amin never wanted to put himself in a situation
where he wasn’t in control.
My advocacy against Amin was mainly through writing and
speaking. I was also appearing on many [radio] stations;
I was the first Ugandan to talk about Amin on CBS radio
in London for 60 minutes. I also appeared on Good Morning
America, Today Show, and many radios stations. Because of
these radio appearances, I travelled extensively to US,
Canada. I was also meeting a lot of people. I made sure
that Amin was uncomfortable wherever I went.
But I had to be careful because Amin had many hit men;
my security had to be considered by the US and British governments.
I fact, one time I met one of his aides who said that she
had been offered money to eliminate me.
Later in London, I joined my brother Nabeta who had gone
there before me. People like former Foreign Affairs minister,
Elizabeth Bagaya and [former president] Godfrey Binaisa
were also in exile in London.
I did not have guns; the only weapon I had was a pen so
I decided to tell all I knew about Amin. That time, the
Commonwealth conference was about to take place in London.
I discussed it with my brother and he agreed that in the
interest of the people of Uganda, I had a special role to
play. It would be better if my revelations about Amin and
the situation in Uganda coincided with the conference.
Writing a book
I was encouraged to write a book about Amin’s excesses
and reign of terror to coincide with the General Assembly
[of the UN] in New York in 1977.
I spent sleepless nights at Oxford University working on
it with my friend John Miles. The publishers - Paddington
Press - knew that the demand for the book would be great.
So I don’t even have copyright for it. I was doing
it politically. I wanted to put the message across.
I wrote it over one month and a half because I had a deadline
to finish it before September. I had gone there around June/July.
The book was published simultaneously in London and the
US. I sent copies to all ambassadors at the UN, including
I enrolled for a Master’s degree in history between
1978 and 1979 at North Western University in Chicago after
completing the book because I wanted to utilise my time
in exile. I didn’t join any political grouping because
Ugandans abroad were suspicious of each other. But I had
a lot of friends, like the late John Wycliff Kazoora, George
Kanyeihamba, Prof. Yusuf Lule and Princess Bagaya.
Amin’s overthrow found me in Chicago with people
like the former minister of Education, Dr. Luyimbazi Zake,
and Bishop Edward Muhiima of Ankole. While there, I also
heavily interacted with Bishop Festo Kivengere (RIP).
Although I wasn’t [involved] in physical fighting,
I was very much in touch with people who were fighting.
But after the Amin regime fell, I never took part in fighting
I thought that once Amin was overthrown [on April 11, 1979],
and I was free to come back home, that was all. I came back
in May 1979. I wanted everybody to know that I had fought
Amin; I did not run away from him. My family came later
I must make one confession: I made a statement in my book,
that nothing could be worse than Amin’s regime. But
later, it was abundantly clear that the regimes that replaced
him - the UNLA/F of Paulo Muwanga, the Okellos and Obote
II, were much worse than Amin.
I have never seen people being killed [anyhow]. At least
Amin was selective; if he wanted you, he would come for
you [and leave the others].
Amin also looked for political or imagined political enemies.
There was, however, little respite during Lule’s reign
of 68 days, followed by Binaisa who had no power.
Life in exile is not a bed of roses. You are away from
your home and life there is so artificial and unfriendly.
In London we were sleeping well but we had to telephone
relatives in Uganda at night and in the morning. At night,
to check whether they have gone home; in the morning, to
check if they are still there, and in the evening to know
whether they were still around.
The good thing exile gave me was security. I will forever
be grateful to the British Government; I had no worry about
my security, being kicked left and right. So don’t
take me as one of those who were suffering in exile.
I wasn’t one of the needy people in exile because
immediately I got there, I was assisted and I started writing.
I travelled extensively and wasn’t worried about what
But the fact that you are in an enforced situation, away
from your home, relatives and friends, not particularly
appreciated by the environment - because when you are in
London and you are black, [it is bad enough]…
The exile experience has made me stronger, more appreciative
of other people’s points of view. People should be
tolerant and patient with one another.
I appeal to the governor and the governed that the only
country they can call home is Uganda, differences shouldn’t
From what I have seen over the years, honestly speaking,
there is absolutely no reason to force any one into exile.
I could have run back to exile because Obote (II) did not
particularly like me, because I left him in Dar-es-Salaam
[after Singapore when he was overthrown] and came back,
and worked with Amin. I am sorry that he passed away before
we could reconcile. But when Amin took over, I came home,
I was not coming to an office, I was coming to suffer with
other Ugandans. I never spoke to Amin that I was coming
back as PPS.
Looking back, I don’t regret going to exile, although
I tell people not to go to exile. I am very happy that I
went to exile. I think I made some contribution to overthrow
Amin. I was saved, spared to be able to serve my country,
and I am still serving.