by Robert Baker
At my first foreign service post,( U.S. Embassy, Kampala), a publishing pal in Uganda cost me dough and worry. Both came from fear of the Ugandan secret police, not because of a joke letter I wrote for my pal’s newspaper.
Robert was the Ugandan editor of a small circulation English language newspaper in Kampala. He was bright, funny and friendly. He became almost a member of my family. He often had supper with us and sometimes spent weekends with us, dandling my two little kids on his knee. He often joined me and Paul Theroux for beers after work at the City Café. He had attended journalism school at Columbia and spoke almost perfect American English. He was a cousin of Patrick, King of the Toro tribe, another friend who had introduced me to Robert.
First, the persiflage Robert wanted to start a "Letters to the Editor" column to discuss local politics. He admired such letters in American newspapers. He complained to me that nobody was sending in letters. He asked if I would write a couple a week using fictitious African names. I agreed and was the leading light of the "Letters to the Editor" column for a couple months. Bored with the anonymous job because it failed to elicit other letters, I wrote a final letter.
Chairman Mao, dictator of China, had recently (1966) organized Chinese youth into “The "Red Guard” as the vanguard of Chinese communist reform (and repression). Next door to Uganda, socialist Tanganyika (whose railroad China had built) had just organized a Tanzanian youth group called “The Green Guards“.
My last "Letter to the Editor" took a nationalistic tone and demanded that Uganda form its own youth group, like the Chinese "Red Guards" and the Tanganyikan "Green Guards". My letter suggested that Uganda organize its own youth group to be called, “The Black Guards“. My letter was printed as written, but received no comment. In all Kampala, only Paul Theroux got my joke. (in English, English, a blackguard is a low scoundrel).
Robert was disappointed that I stopped writing Letters to the Editor, but kept coming to the house and to drinks downtown with me. One day Robert suddenly disappeared.
His cousin, Princess Elizabeth, came to our house worried about him and asked for help. She had an important political role in the Toro tribe as Patrick’s traditional adviser.
She fearfully told me and my wife, Patty, that Robert was in hiding because Obote’s secret police were after him for publishing in his newspaper something that made President Obote angry. She convinced my wife of this story. She even made me feel Robert had to be helped to escape Uganda. Obote’s secret police were arresting, torturing and killing political opponents.
To check out her fears, I drove over to Robert’s apartment in the African section of Kampala. Sure enough, it was empty. Elizabeth told me that she had appealed to her uncle, Chief of Police, but he said he was powerless against the President’s secret police and could not help Robert.
A couple nervous days later, Elizabeth came to my house again and said Robert had contacted her indirectly and needed to escape from the country. The worry that my young pal might be tortured by the secret police was wracking. My then wife said Elizabeth had a scheme to save Robert. My wife demanded that I let her drive Elizabeth across the border into Kenya with Robert hiding in the trunk of my car with its diplomatic plates. That car could pass the border checkpoints without being searched. I rejected the idea as far too dangerous.
Elizabeth then proposed that I lend Robert about a thousand dollars in Ugandan shillings. With that, he could bribe his way out of the country. I went to the bank next day, cashed a $1,000 check into Ugandan shillings and gave my then wife the money to give to Elizabeth for Robert.
Over the next few days, the tension died down and I assumed that Robert had bribed his way safely out of the country. I was very green and naïve. King Patrick got fat royalties from Uganda’s only copper mine on his tribe’s land. He drove around in a Mercedes that flew his royal pennant. He or Princess Elizabeth could easily have given Robert the thousand bucks. My wife would have known that, too.
About a week later, I spotted Robert drinking beer at the City Café, a favorite joint for journalists. I asked him what had happened. He laughed and turned away the subject of my loan. I discovered from Asian friends later that Robert had disappeared because he owed so much money to various merchants and back rent. There had been no secret police threat. I saw him several times later and asked for my money, but never got back any of my thousand bucks.
After I was back working in Washington, Elizabeth had to flee the country from real fear of President Obote. At that point he had abolished all the native kingdoms. King Patrick had fled to Nairobi where he worked for a “public relations firm” (which also quietly paid "consulting fees" to the pro-American President Kenyatta of Kenya). Elizabeth arrived in Washington exhausted looking and broke. She came to stay with us in my house for a several weeks accompanied by a couple of her family members.
She and my then wife were close friends. My very bright ex-wife had no legal training but had helped Elizabeth to write her very first legal brief (Elizabeth had become a barrister in London after studying at the Inns of Court) and got a job in a Kampala law firm.
A London University Professor on an inspection visit to Kampala's Makerere University, told me there were special “political African degrees” available in the U.K. They resemble the degrees the sons of rich contributors get at the U.S. universities.
When Patty, our kids and I took off from Kampala’s airport for my next post, Bamako, Mali, Elizabeth cried. She brought several dozen of her relatives to wave goodbye at the airport.
Elizabeth returned to Uganda after General Idi Amin seized power from President Obote. She became his Ambassador to Washington, D.C. and then his Foreign Minister. Elizabeth saw nothing wrong with supporting President Amin, even though he was literally insane at times (probably from tertiary syphilis inherited from his mother when he was born).
She had been very close to the Asian community in Uganda. Her first commercial job was with an Asian law firm. But she supported Amin even after he murdered thousands of people, chased the Asians out of Uganda and stole their property.
After Amin went into exile, and Obote returned to power, there were decades of tribal fighting. Ugandan President Musevini came out on top and brought peace to most of the country (and continued the corruption). The tribal kingdoms were restored, but without political power. Elizabeth became Uganda’s Ambassador to Washington, and later to Germany.
As a young woman in London she had been a successful fashion model, appearing in Harper‘s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, and various British and French magazines. At one time, her Ugandan royal standing and public profile won her packets of money in British courts. Idi Amin had sacked her as Foreign Minister and then planted a story in the British press that she had sex in a Paris, Orly airport rest room with a white man. She sued every newspaper in Britain that carried the story and won every time. The British government recognized as true royals, the princes, kings, etc. of their former colonies. Her large libel awards were partly because of lese majesty. As a commoner, I did not even get back my $1,000 back. There were real male and female blackguards in Uganda. And some innocents abroad for the first time.