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Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/April 2019/Op-ed

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Idi Amin's Downfall and the Problems of a Missing Historiography

Idi Amin, the brutal dictator of Uganda, was overthrown in April 1979.
By Indy beetle

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the overthrow of Ugandan President Idi Amin. Amin was a brutal dictator, and under his reign thousands were killed and his country's economy was driven into the ground. His removal was the result of a military campaign that was sparked by an ill-advised invasion of Tanzania. But how exactly did it all happen?

Over the past few months I have been trying to answer this question. It started when I came across the Uganda–Tanzania War article, and noticed that hardly any of the actual engagements had articles. It seems I have worked in reverse, starting with the event that marked the close of most of the major fighting, the Fall of Kampala. Since then, with the help of Applodion, the Battles of Masaka, Tororo, Entebbe, Jinja, and Lira have all been given their own articles, and the Battle of Lukaya was overhauled. Right now I am slowly compiling information on the Ugandan invasion of the Kagera salient, which started the whole war.

Unfortunately, this task has been made difficult by a dearth in historiography. As George Roberts has noted, there has been little discussion of the war from historians. This is all the more surprising when considering the impact of the conflict. Not only was this the event that removed the infamous Amin regime from power, but it marked the first time that an African state had invaded and seized the capital of another African state, provoking a row in the Organisation of African Unity and questions about the propriety of intervention. It also bankrupted the Tanzanian government, possibly contributing to the ultimate resignation of President Julius Nyerere from office in 1985, while at the same time bringing Yoweri Museveni, now the incumbent President of Uganda, to prominence. A fair amount of literature from political scientists has discussed the war's alignment to the principles of just war theory, but they add little new information to the overall account of what actually occurred.

Only two books have been written solely about the war: Baldwin Mzirai's seemingly forgotten Kuzama kwa Idi Amin (1980) and Tony Avirgan's and Martha Honey's oft-cited War in Uganda: The legacy of Idi Amin (1983). It should be noted that these three authors are journalists, not historians. That's not a swipe at the reliability of their works, but it goes to show that academia has shied away from this topic. The works are certainly useful, but they have their limitations. Avirgan and Honey were a husband-and-wife team of American freelance journalists, and were the only two foreign members of the press to operate in the combat zone from the beginning to the end of the war. They followed the Tanzanian army into the country and witnessed several of the battles themselves, including the capture of Kampala. Outside of this coverage, they both had successful, extensive careers in their field. Mzirai was a Tanzanian newspaperman and worked on two state-party publications before the war. Thus, both of their books provide a Tanzanian perspective of the conflict. Avirgan and Honey tried their best to compensate with seized Ugandan government documents, but it only helped them so much. Tom Cooper and Adrien Fontanellaz, both 'proper' historians, published Wars and Insurgencies of Uganda 1971–1994 in 2015. They included an account of the Uganda–Tanzania War, bolstered by some of their own research, but mostly sticking to Avirgan and Honey's information. Samuel Mmbando, a photojournalist, released a compilation of the images he captured behind the front lines. He provided a little bit of interesting detail in text, but the bulk of what he wrote is shameless pro-Tanzania propaganda.

This is a map of the battles of the Uganda–Tanzania War, created upon special request to a Wikimedia Commons user. Due to copyright restrictions, no actual photographs of the conflict are in the public domain or otherwise freely-licensed for use on Wikipedia.

As a result, much of the content that can be produced on this encyclopedia is limited to a Tanzanian perspective. There is some hope for presenting the other side of the story, though. Ugandan Major Bernard Rwehururu published his memoir, Cross to the Gun in 2002, detailing his service in the war as commander of the Suicide Battalion. The Daily Monitor, a large online Ugandan newspaper, has printed many interviews with Ugandan veterans of the conflict. However, much of the information they detail has to be taken with a grain of salt. While most are quite open about the disorganised state of the Ugandan army, it's very possible that some are trying to present their stories in a way to protect their own image. Rwehururu gives facts that are sometimes contradicted by other sources. For example, his account of the Battle of Sembabule includes an anecdote of finding over 100 dead Tanzanian soldiers after a single firefight, which, if accurate, would be about one fourth of the total Tanzanian casualties of the entire war. Avirgan and Honey put that figure at a few dozen at most—for the first week of the engagement. In fact, Avirgan and Honey state that the Tanzanians were fighting the Tiger Regiment, not the Suicide Battalion, at Sembabule. One Tanzanian veteran later agreed that it was in fact the Suicide Battalion under Rwehururu his comrades faced at the town. Even so, not all questions are resolved. Avirgan and Honey are trusted persons and, as American journalists, would have little reason for giving inaccurate info. Were they simply misinformed? Their account of the battle comes from interviews with Tanzanian soldiers; perhaps they were relying on faulty intelligence. Rwehururu certainly has skin in the game, and would have reason to include himself in an account of one of the toughest battles of the war. But would he really be bold enough to lie about commanding an entire battalion in a notable action? Other works such as Andrew Rice's novel, The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda, seem to have no trouble including citations to both sources without discussing their contradictions.

The fact that this is an African topic probably accounts for some of the lack of academic discussion. African historians (and their research) are not as well funded as their American and European counterparts, who seem plenty busy documenting their own countries' affairs. Another reason for the missing historiography is that there was a lack of reliable information about the war to begin with. The Tanzanian government was very guarded about what it released to the public during the conflict, and on several occasions tried to deceive foreign authorities for its own benefit. Fortunately, Avirgan and Honey, who had wide-ranging access to Tanzanian officials after the war, do a satisfactory job accounting for this. The Ugandan government's messages under the Amin regime were notoriously unreliable and filled with outright falsehoods. Radio Uganda's broadcasts from the time included smear attacks against Tanzania and tall tales of battles that never occurred. These must be thrown onto the ash heap of historical fiction. As a result, most contemporary international newspaper reports (those that did not print the wires from Avirgan and Honey, such as The Washington Post) were forced to rely on the boastful claims of Ugandan rebels loitering in foreign capitals and diplomatic cables passing from Kampala through Nairobi.

A good example of the complexity this situation presents is in accounting for how exactly Amin fled Kampala as it was overrun by Tanzanian soldiers and Ugandan partisans on 10 and 11 April 1979. He went to Jinja, though how and precisely when are not agreed upon. According to Roberts, Amin left before the battle. A contemporary Newsweek report stated that he moved around in suburban houses until the day before the battle, then drove to Jinja. According to several Ugandan soldiers who spoke with the Daily Monitor, Amin fled in a helicopter on 10 April. His son, Jaffar Remo Amin, stated that his father was in the northeastern suburb of Munyonyo on 11 April, prepared "to die in battle", but that some of his senior officers forced him into a car and drove him to Jinja. This claim, like almost all others by Jaffar, should be mostly dismissed as false. Jaffer makes occasional contributions to the Ugandan press, mostly as an apologist for his father's regime. Among the more outlandish statements he has made about his father's activities during the war is the claim that he drove to the front line during the Battle of Lukaya and waved at Tanzanian soldiers a few meters away, who "waved back in excitement like school children". This account does not appear in any other sources. One Ugandan commander who participated in the battle is quite clear that the President was in the capital at the time. In regards to Amin being forced into a car at his regime's eleventh hour, it seems ridiculous that a few officers could strap their fearsome leader—a former boxing champion known for his physical prowess— down in an automobile against his will. Though Amin could be boneheaded, there's not much evidence in other sources to suggest he would have been willing to needlessly die for a romanticised sense of honour. Thankfully, researcher Muwonge Magembe has presented a more likely scenario of what happened in Munyonyo; Amin left willingly after agreeing with his officers to go into exile.

Wikipedians face the same challenges as I have presented above when trying to craft the best article for the encyclopedia. We can only hope that historians will delve into our undeserved topics, before too many pieces of evidence deteriorate and too many witnesses pass from the earth. Right now, we don't have any choice but to wait patiently. If there is anything I have learned over these past few months, it's the value of exercising my own critical thinking. This is especially important in a time where fear and accusations of "fake news" have proliferated the Western world, particularly in my home country, the United States. So until the experts come along to do the heavy lifting, remain semper vigilans, my fellow editors.

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@Indy beetle: Thanks for this very interesting article. In my experience, the historiography on modern African military history is pretty bad. This extends even to the English-speaking parts of the continent where you'd expect better. I have an interest in the wars fought between Apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia and neighbouring states and liberation movements, but have never been able to find a genuinely satisfactory work on either topic. The literature seems to be dominated by dubious works by white South Africans and ex-Rhodesians arguing that the wars were justified. As I reviewed here a while ago, even a recent book published by Osprey Publishing about South African AFVs repeated Apartheid-era propaganda. The closest I've seem to an even-handed work on the topic are the reports of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which of course aren't intended to be works of military history. Nick-D (talk) 23:02, 18 April 2019 (UTC)

I second that sentiment. Great op-ed. This is common problem with articles on relatively obscure wars and campaigns that important accounts are written by participants. They must always be used with care. Cheers, Peacemaker67 (click to talk to me) 06:21, 19 April 2019 (UTC)
@Nick-D:@Peacemaker67:This article seems to best encapsulate the problems with modern African military historiography. I remember the South African AFV book; naturally the white supremacist fanboy crowd gets its opinion in writing, as they are determined to do so. The Katangese Gendarmerie book I reviewed a few months ago was a good exception to the generally lacking quality of the topic. -Indy beetle (talk) 03:22, 30 April 2019 (UTC)