Terror-murder-magic herald the arrival of General Idi Amin

Rev Wilson Atine & John Otim


*Wilson Atine teaches theology at All Saints University Lango.
*John Otim is a writer and the Executive Editor of Nile Journal

One chilly Kampala morning, January 25th 1971, Radio Uganda announced the coup that brought General Idi Amin to power. For hours before that, the radio played nothing but marshal music. In a town full of rumors people began to draw conclusions, but no one could be certain, what exactly had happened.

Fully two years before General Idi Amin’s coup there were signs in the country that a coup or something like that could happen here. Growing tensions between the central government and the ancient kingdom of Buganda which formed a large chunk of the country, had recently come to push and shove and Buganda had lost what was obviously only the first round. Its people remained eternally aggrieved. There is nothing in a country so dangerous as a sullen and silent population, and this was fully one quarter of the population.

For fully two years, there had been signs that something was not what it ought to be and that matters might run out of control if care were not taken. The handwriting was on the wall. Warnings came in the form of random violence and extremely violent robberies that seemed utterly pointless and that soon became rampart, especially in the Kampala area. Kampala was and still is the capital of Uganda. As usual the target of the attacks was the affluent, a large percentage of which were foreign nationals. The year before the President had been shot and wounded in a serious assassination bid. As time went on so ferocious and frequent were the attacks that Terry Waite who later was to become world famous as peace envoy to the Middle East, and who lived in a suburb of Kampala at the time, was to state in his memoir (Taken on Trust) that “It was certain someone was out to break the government and make the country ungovernable.” 

The spate of random violence and robberies in Kampala, came to acquire the name of kodoism and those who carried them out were called, kondos. Investigations carried out at the time always linked the kondos to the military. These were of duty military men using military weapons to target and terrorize civilian populations. Against the mounting evidence that the powerful military led by the powerful General Idi Amin, was behind the wave of terror unleased on the country, the civilian authorities led by President Milton Obote, seemed powerless to act. Although it knew perfectly who the enemy was. Which called to mind, a line from one of V S Naipaul’s many books: “Having clearly recognized my enemy, why did I not kill him at once?” The government was aware of its unresolved problems with Buganda. It was aware of the sullen and silent population in Buganda. The government was in a state of paralysis.

Then in 1970 in the middle of the robberies and the violence, a new and perplexing signal emerged. It was in the form of the common lizard, known in the local language as embalasasa. Before that in September of 1970, President Obote was shot and wounded in an assassination bid that would later also be traced to the and its powerful head, Idi Amin. Soon after this, the deputy commander of the army, Brigadier Okaya and his wife were gunned down in their home in the northern town of Gulu.

And now suddenly, in the city of Kampala and the surrounding villages, reports were making the rounds that a new type of lizard had invaded the country and was biting and killing people. There were newspaper reports of people who had been bitten and killed by lizards. There were no proofs. Lizards are fairly common creatures in Uganda who barrow themselves in the ground and love coming out in the sun to scavenge and air itself. Lizards are known not to bite and are not poisonous. These were facts, but they counted for nothing.

Suddenly people in Uganda were living in fear, terrorized by the thought of flying lizards said to be highly poisonous. The new lizards were said to suddenly jump at you from nowhere and inflict a deadly bite. People were afraid to come out at night, which was the time the lizards were said to be at their most ferocious. The city and the country worked itself into a state of frenzy. For most of the day the talk at most places was about the lizard. A smart Kampala musician wasted no time but rushed to his studios and released a new tune called Embalasasa on the new lizard. It became an instant hit. In the middle of the frenzy, folks at the night clubs were dancing to the song of the embalasasa. Middle class Ugandans love night-clubbing.  The merry folks created a new waltz style which they named the embalasasa dance. In which you jump at your partner and hold each other tight, and pretend to be inflicting a deadly bite. It was hilarious.

Meanwhile in Kampala, with all seriousness Parliament was debating what had become known as the embalasasa crisis. At the famous Makerere University in Kampala a professor of Zoology attempted through newspaper articles to reassure a weary population that they had nothing to fear from lizards. Nobody listened. Soon one morning, Idi Amin arrived in central Kampala driving his own jeep, and announced to a startled population that he had seized power! A wise man said at the time the true Embalasasa had arrived And so began one of the bloodiest periods in the modern history of Uganda.