Becoming "Amin's Soldiers"

Submitted by Katherine Bruc… on Tue, 07/03/2018 - 15:10

Research Report by Katherine Bruce-Lockhart

Postdoctoral fellow Katherine Bruce-Lockhart’s new research project examines uncomfortable questions for societies that have experienced mass violence: who is a perpetrator, and how should they be dealt with? She explores these questions through the case of “Amin’s soldiers,” the members of the Ugandan military who served under Idi Amin between 1971-1979.

Idi Amin is familiar to many, as he remains one of post-colonial Africa’s most notorious political figures. Popular and academic representations of Amin have often discussed his larger-than-life personality, sporting prowess, sexual exploits, and alleged psychological disorders. He is also known for his grand titles, particularly: “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, CBE, Lord of all the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.” Beyond this cult of personality and bombastic rhetoric, Amin is also remembered for overseeing a period of horrific violence: his regime is estimated to have been responsible for the deaths of 300,000 Ugandans. During this time, the military became the public face of Amin’s terror and also the main beneficiaries of his power. Soldiers assumed prominent government positions, acquired control of key businesses, and received a virtually unchecked license to harass and kill civilians. They were also closely associated with Amin, and were seen as extensions of his power rather than a separate, professional army – hence the appellation “Amin’s soldiers,” which remains in use in Uganda today.

Katherine’s project, which is tentatively titled “Becoming Amin’s Soldiers,” is concerned with understanding how this categorization came to be, and how it is connected to wider debates and ambiguities about this period in Uganda’s history. Her interest in this group began while conducting her doctoral research on the history of the Uganda Prisons Service. While in an archive in Kabale, a town in Southwestern Uganda, she came across a file marked “Ex-Amin Soldiers.” It contained a series of of letters between government officials from the 1980s, in which they debated what to do with Amin’s former soldiers, many of whom had been incarcerated following his overthrow. Later on in her fieldwork, Katherine interviewed a soldier who had written a memoir about his experiences in prison. Contrary to many of the stereotypes surrounding Amin’s soldiers – that they were all from Northern Uganda, were uneducated, and had joined the army to buttress Amin’s power – this man was from the eastern region of the country, had attended school, and began his military career in the 1960s.

Following these encounters, Katherine became curious about the case of “Amin’s soldiers,” with a particular interest in exploring the following questions in more depth:

  • Who were Amin’s soldiers?
  • How did they represent themselves, and how did others represent them?
  • What role did shame play in shaping their experiences after Amin’s overthrow? 
  • To what extent have they been involved in reconciliation processes in Uganda, whether formal or informal?

Her postdoctoral project will explore these questions across four periods: Amin’s presidency (1971-1979), the post-Amin period (1979-1980), the Obote II regime (1980-1985) and “Year Zero” and beyond, or the beginning of the presidency of Yoweri Museveni (1986-present). Her project draws on a wide range of source materials, including official archives in Uganda; oral histories with former soldiers, their families, and their communities; memoirs; literature on the Amin years; and various media sources. It also engages with more interdisciplinary literature on memory, “violence workers,” and reconciliation.

The story of “Amin’s soldiers” is entangled with much longer histories of militarism, professional identity, and masculinity in Uganda. As historian Richard Reid writes in his recent book on the history of Uganda (Cambridge, 2017), the military and politics have been closely connected for many centuries:

…Amin and Museveni are only the latest manifestations of a much older motif in Uganda’s history, for war, militarism and the violent capture and in some cases remaking of the political order are present in Ugandan history over la longue durée. It is a pattern which can be traced to the armed adventurers of the nineteenth century and earlier, a period which also saw the militarization of political culture across Uganda and the growing significance of war as a driver, and an outcome, of political upheaval. (p.98)

Amin’s own path to power was shaped by this longer history. As the British sought to recruit soldiers for the 4th Battalion of the King’s African Rifles (KAR) – the Ugandan battalion of the colonial army in East Africa – they focused their efforts in the Northern region of the country, from which Amin hailed. This reflected the wider division of labour that persisted during colonial times: the British viewed northerners as suitable for military service or work in the cash crop economy, whereas southerners were provided with more educational opportunities and administrative positions. The “Nubians”– former slave soldiers from Sudan who had settled in Northern Uganda– were the backbone of the colonial army; the British viewed them as a quintessential “martial race.”

A platoon of 'A' Company, 4th Battalion, The King's African Rifles, during a route march near Gilgil in the Rift Valley, Kenya, 1956.

Idi Amin joined the KAR as a cook in 1946 and moved swiftly through the ranks, getting the notice of his superiors particularly after his role in operations against the Mau Mau in Kenya. When Uganda gained independence in 1962, Amin continued to impress his superiors, becoming commander of the army in 1965. However, Milton Obote, Uganda’s president at the time, grew wary of Amin’s increasing power in the late 1960s. In particular, Obote was suspicious of Amin’s handling of military finances, and his potential implication in a plot to assassinate the president. As a result, Obote tried to undercut Amin’s power by reorganizing the army. However, this plan backfired: in January 1971, while Obote was out of the country, Amin led a coup and exiled Obote to Tanzania.

When he took control, Amin wanted to ensure that the army remained loyal to him. Shortly after the coup, he orchestrated the widespread culling of Acholi and Langi soldiers, who were perceived to be loyal to Obote. Over the course of the 1970s, Ugandans from the North began to dominate the military, particularly those from Amin’s home area of West Nile. These individuals, many of whom were considered to be “Nubians,” were feared by much of the Ugandan populace. Beyond this, the military was perceived to be foreign because they used Swahili as their primary language. Some Ugandans have suggested that it is this association with soldiers and their violent activities that explains the relative lack of Swahili in Uganda today compared to its East African neighbours.

Despite this sense that the military was made up of outsiders, Katherine’s research thus far has illuminated the diversity of “Amin’s soldiers.” Many had joined the army before Amin’s coup, and considered themselves career military professionals. They came from a wide variety of regions in Uganda, and brought to the army different conceptions of what it meant to be a “good” soldier. While some left the army during the 1970s in response to the rising violence of the Amin regime, others continued to serve until Amin’s overthrow.

Idi Amin (r) with his soldiers at Kikagati before the Tanzanian forces retaliated in 1978

Amin’s dictatorship would end on April 11th, 1979, when the troops of the Tanzanian People’s Defense Force captured Kampala – Uganda’s capital city – after a five-month long war. For most Ugandans, this was a moment of celebration, as it seemed to bring a period of unprecedented state-led torture, detention, and extrajudicial killings to a close. However, what followed was a period of tremendous anxiety and uncertainty, marked by looting, violence, and political turmoil. Between April 1979 and December 1980, Uganda had three presidents, one of whom was only in power for 68 days.

In the midst of this, members of Amin’s military were grappling with how to cope with his overthrow. Fearing retribution, many fled to neighbouring countries. While in exile, some joined rebel military units and fought against the Obote II government. Those who remained in Uganda, however, experienced a very different fate. Shortly after Amin’s overthrow, all of his former soldiers were called to Kampala, ostensibly for redeployment by the new government. Instead, they were incarcerated en masse. These ex-soldiers had not been formally charged with any crime, but rather were viewed as guilty due to their professional status and service to the Amin state.     The ex-soldiers were released over the course of the Obote II regime. Many were granted amnesty by the government, but the process behind their intermittent release is somewhat unclear. However, the file that Katherine found in the Kabale archive showed that the evaluation process was at least partially delegated to the soldiers’ communities, as central government officials wrote to local leaders, asking them to determine whether the detainees were “people of good character and whether they would be a danger to the public when released.” For example, in one letter from March 1982, a local government official identified “three ex-Amin soldiers” from his area or “branch”. He stated:

…the people of this Branch wish to hereby express their satisfaction that they never had any problems with the named persons whenever the ex-soldiers came for holidays…and we are requesting that you use your good office to inform the relevant authorities that the people of Nyabushabi look forward positively to the day when the said ex-soldiers shall rejoin their families, friends and the community at large.

In a similar letter, a gombolola, or sub-county chief, informed his district commissioner that he had contacted the home communities of several detained soldiers, and that the leaders in those communities had “assured me that these detainees were good charactered men and even when they are released they will not be dangerous to the public.” Closing his letter, he added, “their release will be highly appreciated by the public where these men come from.”

In some cases, relatives of detainees sought assistance. One local chief wrote to the District Commissioner saying that the “wives of Amin’s soldiers” had come to him.

They came to my office miserably, seeking the release of their husbands, and I told them that I don’t know and I don’t have any idea about it. But they insist to tell me that Amin’s soldiers [are] to be released [and] there might be something done in your office. I am therefore forwarding them to you for your advice, as they are crying that their children are disturbing them mainly on feeding and educating them.

Although some community members welcomed the ex-soldiers, there was still deep suspicion surrounding this group. For example, in a letter written shortly after Amin’s overthrow, an anonymous individual sought to turn in a former soldier. “I have been surprised to see him comfortably while others are in Prison!” he wrote to government officials. “If he didn’t report and therefore be arrested to join others in prison, maybe he escaped with ammunitions he might be using to terrorize the people.” Few records indicate the outcomes of these informal processes; what is significant is that local communities were involved in either stripping away or confirming the status of perpetrator.

Kabale, Katherine Bruce-Lockhart, 2016

For these former soldiers, freedom from detention was not an absolution of guilt. After soldiers were sent home, the shame of service to Amin’s regime shaped their lives in profound ways. They were closely monitored; chiefs were asked to “keep an eye on these peoples’ movements and activities,” which included a bi-weekly check-in. Many of the ex-soldiers who spent time in prison were not recalled to join the military and have still not received their full pensions. However, some who went into exile and fought against the Obote II government were welcomed back to Uganda. This suggests an interesting dichotomy that will need to be further explored. 

The public memory and place of these ex-soldiers in Ugandan society has taken on new dimensions since the National Resistance Movement (NRM) came to power. In January of 1986, Yoweri Museveni became the president of Uganda following the victory of the National Resistance Army in 1985 against Obote’s forces. Initially, it seemed that Museveni would embark on a process of reckoning with Uganda’s violent post-colonial past. He launched the Commission of Inquiry into Violations of Human Rights (CIVHR) in June 1986. There were hopes that this might begin a reconciliation process. At the inauguration of the commission, the Minister of Justice reflected on the need for such an inquiry:

As we all know, during the greater part of the last two decades, violations of human rights in Uganda reached such proportions that it became cause for national shame….The result has been not only massive loss of human and other resources but also substantial loss of human dignity to the surviving Ugandans.

However, the NRM government has a complicated relationship with history. It declared 1986 “Year Zero,” promoting a sense of rupture and rebirth. Discussing past presidents in his inaugural address, Musveni said “What you need is to develop enough strength to enable you to sweep that kind of garbage to where it belongs: on the dungheap of history.” This approach made conversations about the past, and therefore reconciliation, exceedingly difficult, especially the work of the Commission of Inquiry. It took eight years to complete, and although it contained testimonies from over 600 Ugandans, it did little to spark wider discussions about the legacies of indelible violence in Uganda.

In the last decade or so, former soldiers have begun to come forward and resist their categorization as perpetrators. Many argue that they were professionals serving the government, and were wrongfully blamed for Amin’s abuses. In published articles, memoirs, and court cases, they have begun to claim space as professionals rather than puppets of the Amin regime. This was particularly evident in a court case launched in the early 2000s, in which 45,006 former soldiers from various past armies gathered together to claim wrongful termination and demand the payment of gratuities and salary arrears.  However, “Amin’s soldiers” were the main focus of this case, which generated significant media attention. After multiple appeals, the case reached the Supreme Court in 2009. While it was ultimately decided in favour of the government, the judges indicated their sympathy for the ex-soldiers. As one judge wrote:

Revolutionary changes of government particularly by military force in Uganda have…always left unpleasant scars, consequences and experiences. Military personnel in the armies that served under Governments which were over-thrown must have been affected in their own peculiar way and the evidence of some of the respondents who testified at the trial speaks to this. Some of the innocent soldiers unfortunately had their services terminated involuntarily and as a consequence their service rights and benefits, including retirement benefits such as pensions, were adversely affected by revolutionary events about which they could hardly have a say.

Although the case ended without compensation, it did stir some civilian sympathy. For example, in May 2016, an article appeared Uganda’s major national newspaper, The Daily Monitor, with the headline “I was condemned for being Amin’s soldier.” Along with interviewing a former soldier, the author argued that this group had been unfairly treated: “because they been branded ‘Amin’s soldiers’ by propagandists, they were all seen as criminals; who had raped, robbed and murdered Ugandans.”

However, there are still some tensions. In October of this year, a story was aired on NTV Uganda about ex-Amin soldiers “land grabbing” in Gulu District in the north of the country. Commenting on the online version of the article, one anonymous reader wrote:  “All these people are not Acholi people. They were Nubians, so let them go to Nubia and find their land there. Gulu is not their ancestral land. The Acholi people were kind to allow them to settle there. They were the same people who slaughtered many Acholi people, and, now they want to come back to the place where they committed heinous crimes, without fear or shame. They must never be allowed to come back, and claim that land, or else there will be trouble in the future.”

Through her research at the Jackman Humanities Institute, Katherine will continue to examine how Amin’s former soldiers’ lives and public image have been shaped by these shifting categories of “outsider” and “perpetrator” – questions that are pertinent to many post-conflict societies. Her work is situated within a number of broad themes that are widely relevant to scholars studying the aftermaths of mass violence, and inflect our experiences at the JHI in responding to the calls of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Ultimately, Katherine’s research considers the various ways in which indelible violence and shame are intertwined – issues that resonate both in Uganda and here in Canada.