Amin, Africa and the World

The way to stop understanding of events is to show them as resulting from personal misconduct or mismanagement by those in charge. Had Hitler not been mad and bad, the Second World War would never have happened. Stalin’s treacherousness made Russia what it is. But for a succession of weak and untrustworthy leaders, the Labour Party would have brought us all to the Promised Land. This view of history means we are perpetually invited to look at figures idiotic and corrupt, and put all the blame on them. Without doubt they are all as objectionable as stated, but that is not the answer. The high chairs in which these characters sit are provided by capitalism, and at some time of need each appeared to be the ideal occupant.

The special place of buffoon-turned-villain is held at present by President Amin of Uganda. Since his regime began it has been characterized by killings, culminating in the “Makerere massacre” of over 100 students in August this year. It has included the deportation of Asians in 1972, and a series of international incidents; in July there was a confrontation with Kenya, and on the 28th July Britain broke of diplomatic relations with Uganda. There have been attempts at uprisings and to assassinate Amin. On 1st August The Observer had an editorial headed “Getting rid of Amin”.

The fact is that Amin’s takeover in January 1971 was supported by Israel and favoured by Britain. A lengthy article in The Observer on 15th August recalled that the previous Prime Minister of Uganda, Dr. Milton Obote, had at the end of 1969 introduced a “Move to the Left” policy that was “Britain’s reason for welcoming the coup d’état 13 months later”. On Amin’s accession, the article went on: “The British Government was delighted . . . One of Amin’s first acts was to de-nationalize the British businesses taken over by Obote.” Israel viewed Uganda under Amin as an ally against the Arab states. While these relationships lasted, Amin was presented as a not-unsympathetic clown; since they were reversed, the Ugandan regime has been shown as a reign of terror.

Ugandawas formerly a British protectorate, and remains part of the British Commonwealth. In the 19th century and up to World War II trade was carried on by a number of European countries and Asian traders; there were thriving cotton, coffee and timber industries, and large stocks of timber were contributed to war production for Britain. The wartime increases in world prices for cotton and coffee brought economic advances and the importation of industrial machinery and this in turn promoted ideas of nationalism. British companies still operate in Uganda — according to a report in The Times on 29th July they include Unilever and the ubiquitous Lonrho group, and subsidiaries of Grindlays, Barclays and Standard banks.

The concern with Uganda and other African states today is their relationship with the conflicting interests of the big powers. In East Africa, Somalia is backed and armed by the Soviet Union. Ethiopia is armed by America, but has officials who talk the parrot-jargon taught by Russia. In June this year the American government provided Kenya with a 44 credit for the purchase of 12 American fighter aircraft. A report in The Times on 20th July said:

    “In the American view, Soviet and Chinese arms supplies to the African states in recent years have completely altered the balance of power, and this must now be redeemed. Kenya is an obvious starting point.”

In the week of Amin’s Makerere massacre 98 men were executed in the Sudan for taking part in a revolt supported by Libya and other Arab countries (Times, 6th August) without expressions of horror from the western world.

Amin’s support in finance, arms and technical personnel comes from the Arab states, particularly Libya, which is in turn supplied by Russia. In the flare-up between Uganda and Kenya it was said that neither America nor Russia wanted to see a shooting war develop in this part of Africa and had advised caution to both sides and their neighbours. Nevertheless, the balance between Africa and Middle East states and the major powers which “handle” them is like that of the Balkan states and Europe before 1914. It is absurd to imagine that this position would be different if Uganda, Libya and other states had more amiable rulers. In some cases they had different ones, who were made unacceptable by the situation instead of the opposite happening.

The continual threat of war is created by the worldwide working of capitalism. The major powers all want to exploit Africa far more intensely than was done under direct imperialism; at the same time the nationalism of the African countries provides a market for arms production. According to figures in the 1976 Yearbook of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in the Middle East “where the arms trade had been most conspicuous” nearly 16 per cent of the region’s gross product was being spent on military purposes.

The cause of war remains the same: conflicts among the capitalists of various nations over markets, trade routes and resources of production. Of course it is masked by diplomacy and political motives. The last major war fought more or less openly for markets was World War I. The immediate factors in the modern world are control of strategic points and influence over particular sections, presented as a conflict between “ideologies”. Ultimately, however, all wars are economic. The balance of power in Africa is between the growing and aspiring ruling classes of the states there, their deals for aid with bigger nations, and the bigger nations’ own need for oil and minerals for commodity production.

In this balance, the grotesque Amin is entirely dependent on his sponsors. The continuation of the Kenyan oil blockade in July could have caused his downfall, and from the viewpoint of his Arab allies he is unreliable and disposable; no doubt their attitude is like Samuel Pepys’s — “whether it will be better for me to have him die, because he is a bad man, or live, for fear a worse should come”. Meanwhile, workers in Uganda and countless other countries not only under tyrannical regimes but have the prospect of being fodder for wars, in which the enemies are a matter of permutation. This is the result of production for profit. It does not have to go on.

Robert Barltrop

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