Page last updated at 11:08 GMT, Friday, 10 April 2009 12:08 UK

Head to head: Toppling Idi Amin

The sons of Uganda's former dictator Idi Amin and Tanzania's ex-President Julius Nyerere have met for the first time, three decades after the two countries fought a war.

The BBC's Swahili Service brought the two together to reflect on the five-month conflict, which left half a million people dead and culminated with Tanzania troops ousting Amin from Kampala on 10 April 1979.


The two families - President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and President Idi Amin - ought to have met because they were the two protagonists.

Jaffar Amin
Jaffar Amin says it is important to reconcile historical animosities

So, after carefully considering BBC's request, I agreed to travel more than 1,000km to Tanzania to meet Madaraka Nyerere in Butiama [his home town in northern Tanzania].

Both of us were young when the war broke out. Madaraka was 16 and I was only 12.

Madaraka Nyerere comes from a family of somebody who's revered as a father of the nation and a great symbol of African socialism.

Idi Amin represents African proactive nationalism and sought to instil a sense confidence within the common people.

But today I find my immediate family in an undefined state that feels like we are deliberately being ostracised at a political level.

There are those who condemned my father as a tyrant who killed or ordered the killing of those he perceived to be opposed to his rule.

Yet there are those who knew Idi Amin Dada as a man who loved his country, family and culture as an African.

The purpose of his [Idi Amin's] leadership was to make Africans proud of themselves
Jaffar Amin
My father is somebody who came from a poor background and always reminded us of his poor origins.

He had a stint in the 1940s as a share cropper in the Mehta sugar plantations in Lugazi, Buganda District, but rose through the military to become a leader of a country.

Some dismissed him as a stooge of the colonialists.

Suddenly this "stooge" became very independent, populist and very nationalistic.

He propagated African pride for Africans and went ahead to implement the common man's charter, which was prepared by his predecessor.

Bizarre homage

The purpose of his leadership was to make Africans proud of themselves.

It's self-evident that as Ugandans, we exude a level of self-confidence you rarely find anywhere else on the continent.

Idi Amin pictured in 1978
Idi Amin died in exile in Saudi Arabia in 2003, but still casts a long shadow

His downfall can be traced to some of the controversial decisions he made during his seven-year rule.

For example, when he expelled Asians from the country, international opinion ran against him.

However, he claims he compensated them to the tune of $1bn through the assistance of the OIC [Organisation of the Islamic Conference] countries during the Opec heydays.

Also, when fellow Muslims convinced him to move away from the loyal relationship he enjoyed with Israel, he soon found the tide going against him.

There are those who will find it bizarre that I can decide to pay homage to a man who kicked my own father out of power and sent us into exile.

Wrong side of history

But considering the great efforts towards patriotism and a united identity that Tanzania enjoys I would wish for this virtue to become an example to Ugandans.

Rusting tanks from the war
The rusting hulks of tanks from the war still litter Uganda's countryside

I also take a leaf out of [US] President [Barack] Obama's message to the Muslim world to unclench our fists when offered an extended hand.

But there is a common ground between Mwalimu [Julius] Nyerere's son and myself to reconcile historical animosities that have lingered for a long time.

It's been 30 years during which no-one from both families ever dreamed of meeting.

Madaraka and I are taking that tough yet historical step. We do not want to be on the wrong side of history.


When the Kagera war - Tanzania versus Uganda conflict - began I was a student in Shinyanga.

Madaraka Nyerere
I remember how we tuned in to the radio to hear my father declaring war on Uganda, his voice was rich with anger
Madaraka Nyerere
Shinyanga, in north-western Tanzania, is the main route from the commercial capital, Dar es Salaam to Kagera - scene of the war.

I used to see a lot of military equipment and soldiers passing through, soldiers going towards Kagera.

My father had been at loggerheads with Idi Amin for nearly seven years before their differences boiled down into war.

By then, the Tanzanian public had been fully sensitised about why their countrymen were being sent to war.

I sometimes wondered whether our troops would emerge victorious dislodging Idi Amin who had presented himself as a very tough man.

Incidentally I met the Ugandan leader in very bizarre circumstances.

Back in 1972 just after he had taken over power through a military coup, he landed unannounced in the Tanzanian lakeside town of Mwanza.

He went straight to the state lodge where my father was meeting Zambia's former President Kenneth Kaunda.

A Tanzanian soldier at a caputured Ugandan border post in May 1979
Tanzania's army counter-attacked after Ugandan troops invaded

I'd been given a room at the state lodge in Mwanza. I had gone out in the morning and while away, Idi Amin was given the same room without my knowledge.

When I returned, I walked straight to my room, opened the door and who do I see? It was Idi Amin.

He seemed busy working on something, which I couldn't quickly discern.

So I greeted him in Kiswahili: "Shikamoo" (greeting for elders), and he responded: "Marahaba" (I am fine).

There was no more conversation. I left the room and that's the only time I ever came into close contact with him. Luckily he stayed in the room for only a few hours and left for Uganda.

I never found out what my dad made of Idi Amin's sudden appearance at the meeting. Typical of dad, he never spoke about and it never seemed to bother him.

Come 1979, around lunch time, together with college mates, we tuned in to the radio to hear my father declaring war on Uganda.

Most people who listened to that speech recall that they had never seen Mwalimu Nyerere so angry.

His tone of voice was rich with anger as he explained in a live broadcast reasons and the preparedness of attacking Uganda.

Peace-loving man

Amin's troops had launched several air raids on Tanzania, invaded it and occupied the north-western region of Kagera.

I had never heard or seen my father so angry because he wasn't this type of person who brought home his daily stresses as the president.

Julius Nyerere pictured in 1993
Julius Nyerere is still revered in much of Africa
He made sure there was a clear and strict demarcation of his roles as president and head of the family. He never brought his work at home.

That seemed to dictate how we related with him, we would hardly ask him anything to do with work.

Even at dinner time, he would talk about anything else but not his work.

He kept his family insulated from work-related issues.

When the war broke out two of my brothers, Andrew and John, were in the air force.

And even after the war ended, my other brother Makongoro couldn't resist the allure of joining the army. He spent nearly two years in Uganda doing military work.

When the BBC asked me whether I could meet Jaffar Amin, all sorts of things rushed through my mind.

It took time to agree.

What convinced me is that both of our fathers are now dead.

Also, my father was a peace-loving man.

Even after the war, he would have agreed to meet Idi Amin and even invited him to his home Butiama.

Whatever bitterness there was in the past, all we can do now is to learn the lessons and open a new chapter for the future.

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