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December 20, 2007
I was smarter than Amin

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 earlier interview

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.

Amin coup

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.

Uncertain times

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 London

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 hospital.

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 death.

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.

Flight plan

Once I made the decision to go, implementing it wasn’t difficult. It was a question of keeping it a secret so that nobody knows.
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 far.

Fooling Amin

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 Cairo.
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.

Under siege

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.

Calling Amin

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 in exile?”
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 the rumours.

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 against me.

Family freed

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.

Exile dawn

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 you.
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.

Sustained campaign

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 Amin’s.
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 ousted

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 for positions.

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 in 1980.

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.

Not needy

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 to eat.

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 divide us.
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.



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