'Major Bob' - Idi Amin's Trusted Advisor And The 'White Rat' of Uganda
Few survivors of Idi Amin’s hideous regime in Uganda in the 1970s can recount its horrors so vividly as can Bob Astles, Amin’s British-born aide who for several years sat close to the seat of terror.
As top aide to President Idi Amin, Astles was a trusted man of all trades, spy, diplomat, smuggler, he was also at one point probably the most hated White man in Black Africa. "If we had managed to get Idi Amin, Bob Astles would be second on the list," said a Ugandan exile. "If there were a coup or a revolution he would not have a chance."
Astles spoke with a cockney accent, sported a walrus moustache, and had been in Uganda since colonial days. Journalists visiting Uganda found him affable. He could arrange interviews with Amin, and can occasionally be phoned for information from Nairobi. He knows nothing about massacres, pogroms, executions, or any of the appalling crimes against human rights committed by Amin and his hierarchy. Astles projected Amin as a jolly man, beaming beneficence to the world, wanting to be loved by everybody.
"Major" is not a real rank. He was awarded the rank by Amin for rounding up smugglers of coffee and bringing them to book in Uganda. He was in charge of the anti-smuggling unit which ran fast armed boats on Lake Victoria.
It is said that when Obote ordered Amin, then the Army's second-in-command, to storm the palace of the Kabaka of Baganda, Astles gave advice on how to plan the attack, and incriminate the Kabaka by placing arms in the palace. When Obote was toppled in a coup in 1971 by Amin, Astles is said to have backed Amin. He was appointed security adviser and has never looked back, gradually ingratiating himself in Amin's good books, advising him on how to deal with the British, the Americans, security, the economy - and trying to promote a good image for Amin.
Astles stayed in the background during the worst period of repression, when Christians were massacred and phoney plots were uncovered. Ugandan exiles believe he was largely responsible for these horrors because of his association with the State Research Bureau which he founded, and which is reputed to be one of the worst secret service organizations in the world.
During the break with Britain, after James Callaghan, then the British Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, flew out to save the life of Dennis Hills - condemned to death by Amin for his critical references in his book The White Pumpkin - Bob Astles kept quietly in the background.
What did Bob Astles got out of his loyalty to Amin? Certainly considerable wealth - he had a 100-acre pineapple plantation on the lake side, a coffee estate, and a fleet of cars. He built himself a mansion near Amin's on the lakeshore, on his wife's estate. But, what Bob Astles could never have had is peace of mind, or security. He was subject to Amin's whims and could've "disappeared" like other Europeans in Uganda. Said a Nairobi-based journalist at the time: "I would not like to be in his shoes if Amin were overthrown."
But the writing was already on the wall, following the Uganda–Tanzania War, Astles fled Uganda by crossing Lake Victoria in a canoe to Kenya on 10 April 1979. The following day, Amin fled to Libya, the capital Kampala was captured by the combined forces of the Tanzanian Army and the Uganda National Liberation Army, and Amin's rule over Uganda ended. In Kisumu, Astles surrendered to Kenyan authorities, who then detained him. While detained in Kenya, Astles tried to jump from a third-story window in a suicide attempt in Nairobi.
After spending a number of years in a Ugandan prison, Astles (or Major Bob as as Amin called him) arrived back in Britain in 1985 with the aim of clearing his name, Mr Astles talked at length to PAUL VALLELY of the Times
Bob Astles is a man of strange contradictions.
‘I never had the influence with Amin which people made out,’ Mr Astles said. ‘I saw him fairly infrequently.’
Moments later he was boasting of their intimacy. ‘I was the only person he could trust because I never asked him for anything – no fine house, no privileges, no Mercedes-Benz. I was the only one, perhaps because I was white, who he could be sure was not after his job and his life. If Idi Amin ever had a sincere friend, it was Bob Astles.
‘I was the only person who could cope with him. The other members of his Government would phone me and say: ‘Can you come quickly – he is out of control.’
‘I would go and let him shout and rail at me and then I would try to calm him down. I was one of the few people he trusted,’ Mr Astles returned to Britain this week stateless, forced to renounce his adopted Ugandan citizenship as a condition of his release from the country’s top security Luzira jail.
He believes he had plenty of evidence to clear himself of all the allegations made against him. The most notorious of these are complicity in the murder of Uganda’s Archbishop Luwoom, British-born businessman Robert Scanlon, four European journalists, and the Kenya businessman Bruce McKenzie, whose light aircraft was blown out of the air by a bomb after Amin had presented him with a parting gift of a stuffed animal head.
He is also often accused of having an influential role in the State Research Bureau, the most ruthless of Amin’s death squads killed about 7,000 people, but human rights organizations put it as high as 200,000.
‘I have answers to all this,’ Mr Astles says. ‘I have been proved guilty of nothing. I will produce the evidence.’
The two men met in the Congo in 1964 when Mr Astles was asked to ferry arms for the secret service of the then President Milton Obote.
‘Amin was an impressive man,’ Mr Astles recall; ‘a dedicated soldier, teetotaller and an excellent leader of men. He was a considerate officer, concerned for the welfare of soldiers and civilians.’
Having joined Britain’s colonial civil service in 1952, Mr Astles was posted to Uganda where he was a supervisor of works for 11 years. When Uganda became independent in 1962 he used his British government gratuities to buy an old aircraft and founded Uganda Aviation, forerunner of the national airline. In 1963 he joined Uganda Television and was promoted to manager, a job he held until 1971 when Amin seized power from the Obote Government.
Amin asked him to continue at Uganda Television but, as a supporter of Obote, Astle refused and was shortly jailed in Makindye prison. Twelve weeks later he was taken, shackled, to his old televison station for a public interrogation by the State Bureau.
‘They made one mistake,’ Mr Astles said. ‘They told me how long the programme was to last and let me glimpse the questions which Amin personally had drawn up. I was able to spin out the argument on the first two so that they ran out of time before they could get to the tricky ones.’
Amused, Amin released the Englishman to his farm on the shores of Lake Victoria, where Astles stayed for four years until 1975 when Amin asked him to put Uganda Aviation back on its feet.
He claims that for the next four years he went continually in and out of favour with the quixotic dictator, occupying a variety of posts – leader of the anti-corruption squad, special advisor for British affairs, and finally manager of the Cape Town Villas Hotel.
Life with Idi Amin Dada, according to Mr Astles was full of mad gestures. It was particularly chilling that, though they sprang from insanity, there was a cold calculation about them.
‘Amin was always, even in his early days, capable of controlling and exploiting this part of his personality,’ said Mr Astles. ‘It was a consistent tactic. When the phone rang, you never knew whether it was going to be: ‘How are you my old friend’ or, ‘You are a subversive, you are a spy plotting against Uganda.’ He pretended to be furious, but he had not lost his temper, it was part of a deliberate plan, as was his buffoonery.
Amin once took Mr Astles and two girl friends for a jaunt in an amphibious car that was designed to be eased gently into the water from a beach. Amin, laughing, drove if off a 4ft-high rock ledge into Lake Victoria. It sank. Laughter turned to fury. ‘He said it was my fault because I hadn’t closed my door properly.’
Amin’s unpredictability was reflected, too, in his foreign policy, where Mr Astles ofted acted as an unofficial intermediary with foreign powers.
‘In 1978 Amin decided to go to war with Tanzania. It was utterly wrong and having got into a position he couldn’t get out of, he forced the Arabs to assist in the war. One of the countries most reluctant to help was Libya, but Amin told Colonel Gadaffi that if he didn’t send assistance then Uganda would turn to Israel for help. Gadaffi reluctantly sent troops.
‘There was always good and bad, some and insane in Idi Amin. He was both a ruthless killer. But the buffoonery which was at first a clever tactic, eventually slipped into a kind of wild irrationality which became highly dangerous.
‘The liquor was the first problem. He began drinking in the Congo. Brandy was his drink – he developed a real taste for it. Soon he was drinking brandy with his breakfast. As the years went by he became a maniac when he was drunk. The alcohol began to eat into his brain; it caused him great pain and he would swallow Aspros by the handful. He went for treatment over the years to Cairo, Moscow and eventually Israel.’
‘The other corrupting influence was the power. In African politics everybody wants to be top man. When you get there you know that; everybody is out to kill you, so in defence of power you become more and more ruthless. That is what happened to Amin.’
He was, Mr Astles says, suspicious to the point of paranoia of everyone around him. ‘On several occasions he accused me of trying to kill him. In the end it became ridiculous.’
‘Sometimes I was like a friend to Amin; other times he just wanted me around like a dog – I was a sort of court jester. Our relationship became increasingly strained.’ Mr Astles belives there were at least four attempts by Amin to kill him.
The first was in 1976: ‘I was head of the anti-corruption office and 30 major cases were investigated with the aim of recovering money. But powerful emines were made and they fed Amin’s suspicion of me.’
Mr Astles was arrested and sent to the Nagura Public Safety Unit. The anti-corruption office was sealed and 12 volumes of investigation documents disappeared.
His release three weeks later coincided with the attempt on Amin’s life. As the State Research Bureau men came to arrest him, he escaped to Kenya in a small boat. The secret police, fearing to report failure claimed he had drowned and Amin announced his death.
He feld to England but in the meantime the Israelis staged their raid on Entebbe airport to rescue their hijacked nationals. Mr Astles returned to Uganda to find Amin accusing him of passing on useful information to the Israelis.
Mr Astles believes a second attempt on his life was reconnoitred by Amin himself. The Ugandan leader arrived one day made a close inspection of Mr Astles’ bedroom and bathroom, muttering about the state of the paintwork. Mr Astles was subsequently trapped by armed men in the bathroom where Amin had ascertained the window did not open. Mr Astles had, however, taken the precaution of sawing through the hinges to make an escape route.
Lying low until Amin’s mood had changed, Mr Astles reappeared with a story about being kidnapped by coffee-smugglers and ritually marked with their tribal scars.
The third attempt, he says, came in 1978 when he was ambushed on the road from Entebbe in a large and well-planned attack. So sure was Amin of its success that he phone Mrs Astles to commiserate and tell her the body could be collected from the city mortuary. In fact Mr Astles had escaped into a military post whose commander turned away his pursuers.
In a fourth attempt, also an ambushed, Mr Astles told of escaping by car after one of his bodyguards had been killed.
When Amin finally fell in 1979, Astle was well-prepared and as the Tanzanian Army entered the country, fled once more to Kenya by motoboat. There he was promptly arrested by the Kenyan Special Branch and the new Ugandan government shortly began extradition proceedings.
Astles spent six years in Uganda’s Luzira maximum security prison after his extradition. ‘Six years is a long time on a hard floor, with no bed and only two blankets’, he observed.
Like the other inmates, he relied on a system of smuggling to survive. ‘We got letters in, food, newspapers, radios. We could get things out that way, too.’
The inmates of Mr Astle’s block elected him their section leader. ‘My job was to keep the peace between the detainees and the staff, and to try to prevent escapes. I had five in my section; in one I had to slam the main door to prevent a mass escape.’
(As a result he was not well-liked among the prisoners, according to one fellow-inmate who is now a Uganda government soldier. ‘He was what the English call a nark. He informed upon other prisoners. He had his own network of informers. He was feared but it brought him many privileges. He virtually ran the place.’)
Mr Astles says he used his time there to collect information on the crimes of the Amin regime. ‘I could not have been put in a better place to do it!’
He says he has smuggled out depositions from many of the prisoners to lawyers in London to be published in the event of his death.
The worst moment in his six years came, he says, just after the coup in July this year which brought and end to Dr Milton Obote’s second period as president of Uganda.
The new military leaders had announced and amnesty. ‘I had been cleared for release along with the other 2,600 and I packed ready to go. We assembled. Then at the last moment I was told: ‘You are a foreigner. You are not to be released now.’ I was devastated,’ Mr Astles said.
His wife Mary Ssenkatuuka, a Ugandan national who is still in the country, obtained a writ of habeas corpus, but the Government ignored the summons from the Ugandan High Court because, according to Mr Astles, one of the new Military Council’s factions, consisting largely of Amin’s former men, feared the courtroom would give Mr Astles a forum in which to reveal their former activities.
However three days after the court’s deadline expired a senior member of the Military Council offered Mr Astles his freedom if he revoked his Ugandan citizenship and agreed to leave the country without speaking to anyone – an opportunity he seized.
Mr Astles realizes that the most insistent question he must now answer is why he chose to remain in Amin’s regime when he saw its hideous nature.
His reply is that he was caught up in events, and it would have been dangerous to refuse the presidential diktat. ‘You just do not do that sort of thing in Africa. To run would have been cowardice, and that is something Africans never forgive.
‘It wasn’t me I was protecting but my wife and two children and the people who worked for me. They would have been imprisoned, tortured or murdered if I had stayed away for long’.
‘Besides, I genuinely felt that by being there I could moderate his excesses’.
When Amin was once determined to humiliate the foreign diplomatic corps in Kampala, he summoned them all to a presidential rally which he insisted on holding in the remote north of the country, according to Mr Astles. He then contacted all the airlines and told them to make sure there were no seats on planes available to diplomats that day. They had to drive for six hours and the Chinese delegation even had to walk the last 10 miles because their Mercedes-Benz broke down.
‘Just before he was due to make his address, the Big Man summoned me and asked what I thought of his speech,’ says Mr Astles.
‘It was four sentences, written in Ki-Swahilli. They said: ‘Africans like chickens. Every African wants to own his own chicken. Africans will not allow Russians to come to their country and steal their chickens. Let the Russians remember that.’ That was all. He delivered it and went, laughing. The diplomats, especially the Russian delegation, were furious.’
‘There was a lot of whining about the time when Amin made 14 white men kneel at his feed and swear allegiance – but what they were really annoyed about was the fact that he outwitted them.’ says Mr Astles in explaining the affair.
‘In Uganda at that time – around 1975 – there were a lot of white men without work because of problems between them and Immigration. The system was that they were allowed work permits for only two tours of duty; most of them had been in Uganda for years and were on their third. The only way they could work was to become Ugandan citizens.
‘Fourteen of them approached me. I said I would ask Amin. When I did he said: Yes, but I must have my piece of cake out of it’. I was not clear what he meant.’
Tongue-in-check, Amin told Mr Astles that the only way he could get so many naturalizations past his Defence Council (which actually lived in fear of him) was if the white men agreed to join the Ugandan Army Reserve; such loyalty would have to be rewarded with citizenship, he said.
‘All 14 agreed. Not one dropped out. After the next meeting of the Defence Council, Amin ordered the 14 to appeal on the veranda surrounded by all the brigadiers and colonels of the council.
‘He proclaimed their citizenship. Great brass ink-trays were brought out and the white men were finger-printed. ‘Now come the oath,’ said Amin. ‘Kneel and swear.’
‘The whites were furious, but he had tricked them good and proper. They had got what they wanted. Now they had no option to give him what he wanted. That is what realy galled them.’
Bob Astles tells how Kay, the most powerful of the five wives of Idi Amin, died under the knife of a doctor who was performing an illegal abortion. The man was so terrified that he chopped her body into pieces to dispose of it more easily.
He had double reason to be afraid- The doctor was the illicit lover of the President’s wife and, as Kay had been out of favour with Amin for some time, it was clear the despot would soon discover who had made the woman pregnant.
The doctor put the dismembered pieces into a sack, went to the door of his surgery and found it surrounded by Amin’s State Research Bureau police, who had been tailing the woman. In a panic, the doctor administered poison to his wife, his five children and himself. He was dead by the time the secret policemen entered.
Amin was furious, not at the murder, but at being cheated of revenge of the affrontery of a presidential cuckolding. He ordered her body to sewn back together and laid on a bed like a grotesque mummy.
Amin summoned his remaining wives and their children, who numbered around 50, and made them view the ghastly cadaver.
‘See,’ he said with relish, ‘the judgement of Allah on a Christian woman.’
This interview was conducted in 1985, Major Bob lived in Wimbledon until his death in 2012. Those that are familiar with the film The Last King of Scotland will be familiar with a dramatized version of events. The doctor in the film, played by James McAvoy is loosely based on Astles. However, the film doesn't fully portray the true Amin (if there's such a thing) his rule was characterised by rampant human rights abuses, including political repression, ethnic persecution and extrajudicial killings, as well as nepotism, corruption, and gross economic mismanagement. International observers and human rights groups estimate that between 100,000] and 500,000 people were killed under his regime.