Robert “Bob” Astles, a British army officer who many in Uganda remember as the right-hand man of former President Idi Amin Dada, tried to distance himself from his friend at the last minute. In what appears to be his last interview before he died on December 29 last year, he told Ezzeldden Haggaaz that Amin was generally bad for Uganda and described Ugandans as wise for allowing president Museveni to have a third presidential term. Framing Museveni as a greedy person, Bob, as he was commonly known, argued that the third term for Museveni saved the country from chaos.
He had one last go at Henry Kyemba, a former health minister under Amin whose 1977 book, State of Blood, helped create the world view of Uganda under Amin that still defines the former leader. In the book, Kyemba describes Bob Astles as a brutal henchman who advised Amin on how to deal with his opponents. But Astles brands Kyemba as a thief who stole at least seven million US dollars as he escaped from Uganda in 1977.
He attacks super powers, especially the United States, for their continued interference in internal affairs of African countries and perpetuating dictatorships.
Born in Ashford, Kent, UK in 1924, Astles joined the British Indian Army as a teenager and then the Royal Engineers, reaching the rank of Lieutenant. Of his war service, he recalls: “I enjoyed being with other nationalities and their fights for world recognition during World War II.” He was 21 when he left the United Kingdom for Africa, eventually coming to Uganda and becoming an associate of presidents Milton Obote and Idi Amin.
In 1959, he divorced his British wife, Monica, whom he had married a year earlier. He married Mary E. Ssenkatuuka, a member of the Buganda kingdom and they later adopted two children. Ssenkatuuka later served as Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Sports and Culture before being appointed by Amin as minister.
After the fall of Amin in 1979 and a stint in Luzira prison, Bob Astles later returned to UK and lived in London, where he continued to deny the allegations for which he was imprisoned. He dedicated his life to campaigning against superpower interference in African political and economic affairs. He also contributed political commentaries to a number of publications associated with Africa until his death.
His distinctive recollection…
Question: As a person who knew Uganda very well since your early days what is your account about the country?
Astles: The most progressive and advanced of all African countries if we consider Buganda alone within the period 1900 to 1960 but fell somewhat by being involved by British Colonial power into the formation of a country involving many nations.
Question: How do you rate the current Buganda and the time you came in the country?
Astles: Simple. Everything about the government of Buganda was a real eye-opener. From 1949 and exactly from January 1952 when I worked closely within the Baganda Society, first with Mukasa Churchill whom I had met during the Burma fighting… On our second meeting in Buganda, he gave me the name of Lubowa from Ngo (Leopard) clan in 1953. And other Baganda like Leonard Basudde of Masaka, Kawalya Kaggwa, Sempa, (Katikkiro Michael) Kintu and many other great names. Buganda had a lot in common with Britain. Buganda was an amazing Kingdom and perhaps the base of democracy in the entire Africa. And I believe that the kind of democracy the world has seen in Africa.
Question: What was your role or contribution to the development of Uganda?
Astles: I was a colonial officer within the Ministry of Works from 1952. I set up a progressive tutorials farm and the formation of Uganda Aviation with the first African Directors from Kenya and Uganda. Semei Nyanzi was a Ugandan and a Kenyan director was Professor David Wasswa. Later I understand he become a prominent politician. I was also a Chairman and founder member of the Anti-Racial Uganda Club under the leadership of Governor Sir Andrew Cohen.
Question: What are the difficulties you found in the country where you had stayed for quite a number of years?
Astles: I was tortured and detained on a number of occasions. At one time Idi Amin ordered that I should be tortured and I was placed in a container full of the mixture of human faeces and urine and only my neck remained in air. I spent a good number of days in jails.
Question: You have mentioned Amin, what was your relationship with him and how did you meet Amin?
Astles: When I was a pilot, I was told by Dr. Apollo Milton Obote to fly Amin to Congo for operations around Katanga region. That was my first time and he liked me. We came to know each other but it was the president that had directed me to fly him to Congo. Then when Uganda was about to host the Organisation of African unity (OAU Summit in 1975), he invited me to help in the civil aviation, which he named Uganda Airlines.
Question: What was your main role in Idi Amin’s government?
Astles: Get this right! In 1964, I was directed by Dr. Apollo Milton Obote’s government to be Amin’s pilot during the Congo crisis until my position was taken by Israeli pilots in 1966. Since 1966, I had never seen Amin, until May 1975. He had arrested me in 1971, along with Ex-minister Kalule Ssettaala and placed me into rustication. In 1972 he announced on Radio that I was one of the rotten apples and slung me into Makindye Military barracks for 17 weeks, later to be introduced on UTV and Radio Uganda to deplore the old regime of Obote. Then in May 1975, he called me back from rustication to return to my Uganda Aviation for the O.A.U Summit. In the first week I found massive corruption and reported such to his close friend and Minister (Godfrey) Lule. Lule betrayed me. Then Amin nationalized my Aviation. I fled Uganda in May 1979 to UK, and then I was re-arrested in Kenya and brought back to Uganda where I spent about six years in Luzira prison.
Question: What was your experience in a Ugandan prison?
Astles: Luzira political prison was to show me the real genuine quality of the Ugandan people. Myself being the only white man, out of the 2,000 prisoners, I never quarrelled (with anyone) in six years. Both political detainees and Uganda prison staff looked after me. It was the evil Tanzanian troops that tortured me to the extent that I could not eat and I used to be fed like a baby. I was tortured to the point of being fed like a young chimpanzee. They killed Ugandan detainees. By then political detainees used to smuggle in food for me. That is why I have a lot of respect for Africans. They are so determined because they could at times risk their lives to at least ensure that I get something to eat.
Question: There have been accusations levelled against you that you terrorized people during the Amin regime in the fight against smuggling. Is that true? On whose order were you operating?
Astles: Smuggling is part of corruption and as an individual I hate corruption because it has ruined the whole of Africa. Second, those are total lies about me. Some greedy politicians who used to engage in such scum are peddling those lies. They are not mentioning about items that used to come in. I told you that all my plans were to help the common Ugandan irrespective of his or her background. For example, when I started Civil Aviation which was later named Uganda Airlines, was it for one man? Of course it helped every Ugandan until it (was) disbanded. I don’t think it still has a single plane.
Question: When did you first come to Uganda?
Astles: I first entered Buganda in 1949 on special duties during the Bataka Riots. And I was impressed with the Baganda and their way of fighting against Colonialism. Then I decided to become part of Buganda and resigned my engineering work in Jordan. That was a very difficult decision.
Question: Before coming to Uganda which other countries in Africa, Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Middle-East had you stayed in?
Astles: I had served in Indian Army and Middle East. I enjoyed being with other nationalities and their fights for world recognition, during the World War II. Most of the guys from Africa in particular were brilliant at the front line, but unfortunately, their contributions are not mentioned.
Question: Can you mention some of the bitterest crises Uganda faced before and after independence?
Astles: Augustine Kamya’s Asian Boycott–that boycott did considerable damage before Independence; Protestant and Catholic political issues in Buganda and East Acholi; the stubborn attitude of Katikiro Kintu before and after, the hatred that was instilled between Baganda, Acholi and Langi, also had a very big damage. Going into Independence with a white-officiated army with no African cadre officers; Giving all training to foreign powers both West and East had a lot in destabilizing Buganda.
Question: What allegations had been placed against you by the by then Regime to be detained again?
Astles: Some allegations were made but had no substance and were thrown out of court. I found out that one of Obote’s ministers was after revenge over his double standards and dealings whilst in exile with Obote and Amin’s Brigadier (Isaac) Maliyamungu, so I had to be kept quiet.
Question: How would you advise the principal backers of those autocratic leaders that hold back their citizens?
Astles: These people are supported by America. No one can advise America. They need oil and minerals to serve and guide their interests. There is no compassion in that country. You just cannot talk to Uncle Sam. I hope the hopeless situation (can) be rectified. There is no solution other than looking on. They are already established in Africa and it would be disaster to remove (President Yoweri) Museveni. In my opinion it was good for Ugandans to give Museveni a third term to avoid any obliteration. Ugandans in fact were wise. One can’t blame them. They are focused. It seems that they had binoculars. To avoid chaos they had no alternative but to give in to the greedy person other than returning to the previous problems.
Question: In your analysis, what impact or change did Amin bring to Uganda?
Astles: He brought disaster. Certainly he helped the very poor and beggars but ruined the nation’s economy. The British, Asians who refused to take out Uganda’s citizenship, can thank him for being allowed into Britain. All this Amin affair was brought about by then British Political thinking and distrust of African Socialism [which Obote advocated].
Question: What do you think to be the main cause that hindered the development of Africa?
Astles: Corruption is the major factor that has hindered African development more than education. Otherwise Africa would be one of the richest continents on this planet. They have natural resources, but corrupt leaders supported by the superpowers of this world have contributed to Africa’s lagging behind. Most African leaders bag even small bribes, which is a real betrayal of their respective country and above all nationalism, is no longer in the hearts of these leaders. They could have united and started to dictate to the superpowers that ‘this should be like this, we want this,’ but the superpowers still dictate and decide for Africans.
Question: In brief, how did you find Africans and Uganda in particular?
Astles: Truly speaking, I did not find enemies and certainly lived in peace on my farm in Kyaggwe Luwafu (in Mukono district). My troubles came with the corrupt individuals pretending to serve Amin for example Henry Kyemba, former Minister of Health. Amin trusted him and gave him about Seven Million US Dollars to go and purchase medicine for the Ministry and the man disappeared with the money up to today. As for me I have travelled widely and I have seen in Ugandans, the real jewel of Nationhood. They are truly the jewels of Africa. If they re-shape their opinions, you can see the real Pearl of Africa. I would be dead if I had a big headed character. I always tell journalists that, if you want to survive in Africa just respect Africans. They will in turn respect you and will not hate you. But if you do otherwise, it will be a very big problem for you. Africans are good intellectuals. They are not mentioned in their contribution during the World War II… I want to tell you, that many Baganda who served in the World War II, were recruited in medicine, Intelligence or anti-Aircraft.