Entebbe Airport, February 13, 1976: Two Kenyan girls from Makerere University make their way home as Idi Amin’s reign of terror against Kenyans reaches new heights.
Esther Chesire, second year law student , it’s 22 and so is her friend, Sally Githere. With their plane tickets, some luggage and passports, the two girls go through the immigration procedures and wait to board East African Airways flight EC629 to Nairobi. The perhaps animated girls’ talk was quickly cut short when officers from the Uganda State Research Bureau, Idi Amin’s Terrorist Squad, approached them and demanded to see their passports.
“Follow us,” the girls were told the mean ones characters. Officials appeared interested in Ms. Chesire, who came from a prominent family close to Jomo Kenyatta Vice President Daniel arap Moi. “Are you sure you are a student at Makerere?” The officer nudged Ms. Chesire. It was a time when being framed as a spy was a capital crime. “We’ll find out,” the official said, according to the Washington Post. As Ms. Githere, who was present at the questioning, later recounted, they were asked to sign some papers. She was then put on the plane to Nairobi, leaving her roommate behind.
Ms Chesire, perhaps unaware of the danger, told her friend that she would catch the next evening flight. She didn’t, and despite threats of war she was never found.
The Washington Post reported that her brother Reuben Chesire – then chairman of the Kenya Farmers Association and the Kenya Tourist Development Corporation , had business dealings with Amin. But Reuben denied the newspaper’s claim, saying he had “absolutely no business dealings with Uganda” and that his sister didn’t know Amin.
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The story of Ms. Chesire is the tale of a populace who cheered the rise of a tin god and how a nation once hailed as the Pearl of Africa descended to fanatics. Although ex-President Milton Obote was hated and terrorized Ugandans before his ouster, Kampala’s people cheered Idi Amin as he set up terrorist institutions. The first was the State Research Bureau – the entity blamed for Ms. Chesire’s disappearance.
During the Obote rule, this entity was known as the General Service Unit and was notorious for silencing critics bring. Then, after the 1971 coup, Idi Amin, with Israeli help, dissolved the GSU and created a new military intelligence agency by presidential decree. It was called the State Research Center and, despite its misleading name, was intended to gather and sift information from its headquarters at Nakasero Hill. The other notorious entity was the Public Safety Unit, an instrument of espionage and repression also funded by Israel, which built a new armory for Idi Amin.
The relationship between Amin and the Israelis ran deep. It is now known that on the morning of January 25, 1971, when Obote was deposed, British High Commissioner for Uganda Richard Slater saw Amin working under the direction of Israeli Col Bar-Lev, a Mossad agent in the region. In fact, Amin’s first foreign trip was to Israel, where he met with Prime Minister Golda Meir.
This government research center became the government research bureau after Amin had a dispute with Israelis over the sale of fighter jets to Uganda. From then on, the State Research Bureau turned into a terrorist squad – a gang of murderers and extortionists. No one was out of their reach except Idi Amin. And as they walked towards the two Kenyan girls, everyone worried about their fate.
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State Research Bureau had its regional equivalents. In Kenya, there was the dreaded task force headed by James Kanyotu, which ran various “safe houses” and some mini-torture chambers. The most famous places were Kingsway House during the Kenyatta era before Nyati House and Nyayo House became bastions of terror. Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam had his own central investigative body, which had its own network of prisons and courts, while Somalia’s Siad Barre had his Defense Security Agency, known locally as Hangash, whose powers overlapped with those of the National Security Service (NSS).
While several Kenyans had disappeared in Uganda, including the disappearance of freedom fighter Kungu Karumba in June 1974, that of Ms. Chesire sparked more diplomatic uproar. It also coincided with Idi Amin’s territorial claim to Kenya.
“No other issue has preoccupied this office as much as this. It is not known why they are keeping her there. It’s very unkind to her parents,” said Dr. Munyua Waiyaki, Kenya’s Foreign Minister, who followed the matter.
By the end of March 1976 the Ugandan government had insisted that Ms. Chesire was safely detained and so the investigation was still ongoing. Initially, the “soldier boys” – as Dr. Waiyaki used to call her – said that the girl was “happy and being interrogated”. The Ugandan military spokesman sent a statement to Radio Uganda attacking Kenya for “revealing” that Miss Chesire had been arrested and detained. In the statement, the Kenyatta government was urged to “keep quiet and focus on their own problems… they should refrain from involving the government of Uganda (whose) record is clean, particularly on human rights.”
The Bulletin further warned Kenya against “baseless allegations” saying: “We are fed up with baseless political rallies in Kenya against Uganda. We are not cowards (and are not) interested in responding to malicious and unfounded allegations. The Ugandan government has no knowledge of a girl who allegedly disappeared from university.”
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It was a lie. The military spokesman then hoped to be blamed: “The spokesman would like to make it clear that the girl in question and the other Kenyan students went to Kenya regularly without the consent of the university.” British-born professor of geography at Makerere University to join her classmate Paul Sserwanga to investigate Ms. Chesire’s disappearance.
Dr. Waiyaki had hoped he would take the issue diplomatically. But Kampala played crude diplomatic games and refused to respond to Dr. Responding to Waiyaki as required by international diplomatic policy. The commission of inquiry was Idi Amin’s ploy to buy time. But dr Waiyaki didn’t back down. He continued to pressure the Ugandan government when Kenya announced the closure of its border.
“Now the soldier boys speak and they tell us to mind our own business,” a frustrated Waiyaki told media in Nairobi.
The hope was that the Langlands Commission could uncover the truth about Miss Chesire’s disappearance. One of the witnesses to the investigation was Mathematics Professor Ms. Nanziri Mukasa-Bukenya, the Warden of Africa Hall, a women’s hostel in Makerere. As she prepared to appear before the Langlands Commission, some State Research Bureau officials knocked on her door. They claimed that their testimony should portray Ms. Chesire as a person of immoral character who must have been the victim of one of her abandoned lovers. Ms. Mukasa-Bukenya, an incorruptible personality, refused to make a false statement. A day before her testimony, on June 23, 1976, she was abducted by unknown persons and her lifeless body was later found floating in the Ssezibizwa River, her hands still tied behind her back. She had a gunshot wound to the head.
Three days later, on July 26, Brian Langlands, the commission chairman, was expelled from Uganda, leaving Ms Chesire’s disappearance undetected. A new obsequious chairman was appointed and on 12 November the inquest concluded that Ms Chesire had left for Kenya and that “if university rules had been followed no one would have been shot”. It was a contradicting report. The death of Ms. Mukasa-Bukenya was not investigated.
As the crisis between Kenya and Uganda continued, another Kenyan student was beaten and ended up in Mulago Hospital before being discharged to the university infirmary. That was my good friend, Nation columnist Magesha Ngwiri, then a second-year literature student. Magesha owes us a story. Maybe – a book about Idi Amin and Makerere.
Most of the Kenyan students suffering from Idi Amin were part of the University of Nairobi’s exchange program which enabled them to study in Uganda. Amin was Chancellor of Makerere University at the time and in the midst of this crisis he was awarded an honorary doctorate, the quote of which read: “Field Marshal Amin restored law and order, curbed armed robbery and led Ugandans to live their lives free from fear .” It was a lie. On Makerere University’s website, the university says that Amin “awarded himself a doctorate in law from Makerere University”.
The confrontation between Kenya and Uganda has not only heightened tensions between the two countries, but also tells us the folly of having a dictator and a criminal in power.
Idi Amin was a lesson for Africa – and the disappearance of Ms. Chesire remains one of the painful memories of a young innocent girl who caught in the eye of regional politics and dictatorship.