Angelo Izama [AI] – One would say that there was an intellectual rigor in the 60’s that has vaporized lately-in Ugandan society and Makerere- do you agree? Ali Mazrui- It is true that there was a lot of intellectual engagement in the 60’s. People were interested in ideas, in comments about current events, in oratory or speech making. [You will tell you] that when I gave a lecture in the Main Hall- although the number of people was quite small, people sometimes gave up their super in order to get a seat. I know it was much rarer at the University of Nairobi or Jomo Kenyatta University in Kenya, than my recollection of Makerere. So there was something about the 60’s which signified considerable intellectual engagement. People were really tuned in and interested. I used to teach my class with some degree of class participation but the system allowed different approaches to lecturing. Although I was head of department I used to teach first year class because then you could reach them [students] when they have first arrived and fresh before my colleagues ruined their minds [laughter].
And I still remember very exciting discoveries about the society even when lecturing for example this business of whether Catholics and Protestants had different accents when speaking English in Uganda. I discovered that when I was lecturing someone would ask me a question and some neighbor would say “Catholic!” and at first I would say hey what’s going on here? But it was reconfirmed here that accents were shaped by the type of school they went to and the schools themselves were in turn influenced by the western countries the teachers came from. So in the case of Catholics the disproportionate number of French and Irish teachers. Protestants had large numbers of English from England and this had consequences for the type of pronunciation they picked up. The French used to be much more significant whereas the English did teach in elite schools and they got hold of the Kabaka who was tutored by upper class English accents from a very young age and they grew up speaking English like members of the English nobility. So it was learning about Uganda and teaching about the world that made those ten years interesting.
AI: How should a university participate culturally and as a force of ideas in a society like Uganda? Consider this talk of tribalism that is the national moment now.
AM: Maybe not to the same extent as the 60’s but for that sort of key sensitive issue there is participation even today. So there is some participation if the issue is crucial enough and immediate like ethnicity and I remember four or five years ago I discussed military coups and whether Museveni’s presidency had temporarily suspended coup proneness in Uganda and that triggered very heated debate. So people should be encouraged to participate in the issues of the day and to engage and then people becoming friendly with the regime if they are on the government side, participating as consultants within the government- because participation is not only from the opposition- in helping shape government policy. And then you can have a prime minister appointed from the ranks of the academia. There was no real equivalent in my day and certainly not under Milton Obote. Ironically there was a little more under Idi Amin.
He used to raid Makerere for people to be appointed as minister. I narrowly escaped being engaged as special advisor to the President. Abu Mayanja came and said Idi Amin wanted me to be as Henry Kissinger was to Richard Nixon as special advisor. I did not want to be that close not just to him [Amin] but in general to government because one consequence is that although you learn a lot about politics from within you also become very inhibited in your role as teacher. So I told Abu, who was a close friend I could be frank with, how do I deal with this? Fortunately I had an invitation to go to Britain to give a series of lectures eminently and Abu said well I can tell Amin you have an invitation to go England and then unless he demands you cancel the invitation you can go and find out when you come back whether he still remembers he wanted you [Laughter]. So I tool that advice. Could have been very close to his presidency.
I was flattered since I was not a national of Uganda and here he was wanting me to be pretty close to his decision-making process. When I came back Abu came and said you haven’t been in touch so I assume you do not want to become special advisor to the president Idi Amin. I told him I didn’t regard it as appropriate for me. I regard myself as a teacher and being in government would be enormously inhibiting although as a political scientist it would be fascinating and I can write about it later on. So Abu and I decided just to remain silent which we did you see.
AI: Did you ever meet Amin personally?
AM: Oh yes many times. He had this idea that he could solve the apartheid problem in South Africa by sending what he regarded as highly intelligent black people so I became exhibit A. He was ready to send me to South Africa to prove these racists that these black people can think. So he approached me and told me about that and so forth and wrote to the Prime Minister of South Africa [as the head of government was then prime minister other than president] and proposed that I head a delegation of intellectuals to South Africa. The South Africans were in no mood to be dealing with potentially hostile African intellectuals so they politely turned it down. There was some occasion when he was addressing and as he was walking out he could see me in the audience and indicated that I was to approach him so I did and he explained that the South Africans [would not do it]. I was relieved of course the last thing I wanted was to be exhibit A to racists. AI: What do you think of these three presidents as people; Milton, Amin and President Museveni who have exerted the most influence on post-independence Uganda? Amin for example gets mixed reviews. Some fear him and others love him. AM: With the possible exception of King Edward Mutesa who played a slightly different but crucial role to the history of Uganda. My ex-wife and I compared notes on the “Last King of Scotland” since we were together in those ten years. We thought it was a relatively good portrayal of Idi Amin- independently of each other and did not regard it as a distortion. Your idea that people love him or hate him is correct and that he was a mixture of many things is also correct. That he laughed a lot and could be extremely cruel is also correct. None of those are impossible in a single person and many of them were there. If you were in his good books like I was in the beginning [mainly] because I was a public critic of Milton Obote, the man he had just overthrown and also because I was a Muslim intellectual and that was important to him. But I also knew that he was capable of turning against people he had previously regarded as friends in dangerous ways and even their lives might be at stake. The process under which I decided to leave Uganda; I was I was invited by an American institution called the Center for the Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in California, Palo Alto before Idi Amin came to power. We decided that now was the time to at least go there and hope that things would quieten down. I was the most the second most visible Makerere person after the Vice Chancellor Kalimuzo who was just abducted and murdered. For his independence the Chief Justice Benedicto Kiwanuka had been picked up from his court and seemingly murdered. Most of them we did not see the bodies but we just knew. Although things were getting pretty bad I still could not decide to leave because I was attached to Uganda. So I went to Palo Alto and when I came back people were really worried because Kalimuzo had been picked up as I was leaving the country [ and were concerned I might never leave again]. My wife at that time waited by the phone in Nairobi terrified in case my fate would be like that of Kalimuzo and the Chief Justice. She waited for my call from Nairobi to the United States to say I was out of Idi Amin’s reach. So many of the things said about him negatively are definitely true. That he had a charm was also true. That he was a rugged ordinary man thrust into the role of head of state with simple ideas of greatness was also true. After I left he really turned against me but by that time I was beyond his reach. I tried to avoid resigning which was one of my desperate attempts to remain with Makerere. I wrote to the university and said can’t I take indefinite leave without pay and the job you can even give to somebody else provided you left me the option of coming back if things became less life threatening to me. But there was an acting Vice Chancellor at the time who said there was no way you could be absent from Makerere and Idi Amin not notice. And if he noticed you are not there long before he will ask and it would be risky to whoever Vice Chancellor is or whoever is permitting me to be abroad waiting for his fall from power. The man who was Acting Vice Chancellor at the time, God rest his soul he died a natural death, said there is no way I can give you leave even without pay, even if the job could be advertised. The reasons were cogent and understandable. If I had somebody braver who was Vice Chancellor he might have taken a risk but this particular person wasn’t going to risk what could be life just to make it possible for me to retain my association with Makerere. So I resigned not with a bang but with a whimper because I did not announce it. Many people wanted to turn it into a protest resignation against the regime but I did not want to do it that way so I resigned quietly.
AI: You said you were a public critic of Milton Obote. What was your relationship like with him?
AM: Except for one occasion I never thought even his hostility was life threatening and we had always good relations and good will. I would go to State House and have tea with him. In the one occasion was when he decided to denounce me in parliament and actually sent me an invitation to attend in the gallery so I could hear him abuse me[ Laughter] So I went. The attack included a threat that maybe somebody will be picked up tonight. It was an incredible performance you see and I regarded it as a major threat. I staggered out of parliament convinced that he meant what he said. There was a British colleague in my department. He has also since passed on. He said I do not think you should sleep in your house tonight. Sue [that’s his wife] and I would be happy to offer you our guest house. I said there is no way I can involve you in this. I really appreciate the offer but if they come to pick me up tonight I will be waiting. So I went back to my house where I found my wife was getting ready to fight them whoever was coming to pick me up [ laughter] but I wasn’t picked up. So next day I talked to the Nigerian Chief Justice [ Udo Udoma] because that night all the news media was discussing the President’s attack on Ali Mazrui. I talked to [Udoma] and asked what do you think is happening? Why does he choose parliament to do it? Why does he invite me to listen? And why does he abuse me in public? [ Udoma] said because he [ Obote] was under enormous pressure to do worse. He could either throw you out; you are not a national of the country. Or lock you up in jail. He did not want to do either although some of his ministers were asking him to do that. AI: So this was his way of avoiding to make that decision?
AM: Yes. It was to convince his critics that “I am prepared to take stronger action in need be but am not doing it right now. I am disgracing him before the public”. AI: Why was Obote so hostile to you? AM: Well the attacks he made in parliament included that I had made a statement in the public lecture in the Main Hall that the Ugandan army made ordinary citizens tremble in their boots when they based. And at that time I could contrast them the Ghanaian army which I did. I said in Ghana if military trucks passed you by you are not terrified that they would might decide stop, pick you up and beat you up or worse. I do not know when he found out but in his parliamentary speech he included that. He said some people abuse our brave armed forces and whats more they have the audacity to compare them to a foreign army that overthrew its government. The Ghanaian army had overthrown Kwame Nkurumah you see. And he still had residual problems with regard to my protest over the arrest of the editor of the magazine Transition of which I was associate editor. I had issued a public statement of protest. That was also part of his anger. So the Chief Justice said if I were you I would seek an appointment with him immediately because if he is that angry with you he probably wants you to go and see him so that it creates an impression that you are seeking his clemency. This was terrific advice. So I called him [ Obote] and his secretary said “ just a minute he is about to go into a cabinet meeting”. And she came back and said yes he will see you at eleven [in the morning]. So I made arrangements for my class and went. I spent hours there because he wanted to lecture me on the proper role of intellectuals and how they should make sure they do not endanger stability. AI: This turned into a debate.
AM: Yes and also he wanted to persuade me to takeover Transition magazine. He said why should the paper that Rajas Nyogi who had according to him had been subversive and published an article by Abu Mayanja in which Mayanja had accused the government of tribalism in the appointment of Judges and both Mayanja and Nyogi were arrested; he wanted to prove that although Transition was one of the nice things about Uganda, it had a major reputation as a English magazine of debate. He said “I could keep it going”. You mean just let this guys rot in jail while I ran the magazine? He said I thought you said the magazine was a valuable institution for Uganda “why should you not keep it going?” [ Laugh] I said well these are my friends you’ve locked up!.
AI: Did you know Museveni before he became President?
AM: Yes. In his leftist days.
AI: When he was still a rabid socialist?
AM: Yes absolutely and he regarded me as a wishy-washy liberal and therefore bourgeoisie. And he even once invited me to a private dinner with his dear wife at Entebbe State House. And in the course of the dinner he said “Professor I hear you have moved to the Left?” I said Mr. President there are rumors you have moved to the right! [Laughter].
AI: What was his reaction?
AM: He rationalized it he said no no.He just begun to take modernization and technology more seriously than he did in his more simplistic leftist days.
AI: He still considers it tactical. The character of his regime still shows a tendency to large social maoist programs like “prosperity for all”.
AM: As you said earlier he is one of the most significant figures in Uganda’s post-independence history. And he has spent slightly longer time than the other time and there are things that he can be given credit for. Like outside the north, stabilization of Uganda. Secondly I know you do not think you are an open society but you are. You express dissent in the media at a level unheard of in the last few years of Obote and much of the time of Idi Amin. But normally we do not like praising governments in power which is also a good idea. We like to attack them and say what lousy performers they are [ laughter] and then we can be more generous after they have gone.
AI: what political direction do you think Uganda will take?
AM: Am still worried about what happens when Museveni steps down, retires or he is taken away by nature because I really believe he has not done enough to make himself dispensible and it is not unique to him because most leaders would rather opt for the belief that they are indispensible and then act on proving to history and themselves that the society cannot do without them. He has become somebody whom you worry whether when he is gone things would disintegrate. I would like to believe that will not happen but Uganda was a relatively fragile political system before he took over power. I am not sure he has done enough to institutionalize stability.
AI. What about Uganda’s experience with corruption?
AM: My position is that you can never end corruption but you can minimize it. But you must assume it is capable of being abolished and act as if it was possible. Neither Uganda or Kenya has done enough. As you know there is also a lot of corruption in the United States. It just takes grander forms and it involves more money.
AI: Does corruption have a special place though in political place as far as political stability and evolution is concerned?
AM: Yes we are more vulnerable and some of our forms of corruption are more obvious. The Americans start a war and make a lot of money from it. Ours because we are relatively smaller political systems are more obvious in our corruption. There has been some debate whether there are positive aspects of corruption which makes things done where they are not done. Thirdly that corruption is a form of income distribution that hijacks resources and you are followed around by thousands of your ethnic compatriots wanting their share [laughter]. But we should do more to take people to court. Just to say that you are against it and do nothing is nonsense. You must find ways in which the guilty are punished.