The day Idi Amin wanted to annex western Kenya

Saturday September 10 2011

Former Uganda’s President Idi Amin Dada chairs the 12th Organization of African Unity (OAU, OUA) summit in August 1975 in Kampala. Picture: AFP

The dispute between Uganda and Kenya regarding the ownership of Migingo Island in Lake Victoria rekindles memories of another dramatic flare-up in 1976, when Ugandan President Al-Haji Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada attempted to redraw the boundaries of the two countries.

Amin wanted back all Kenyan districts that were part of Uganda before the colonial re-demarcation of the territorial boundaries. These included Turkana, part of Lake Rudolf (now Lake Turkana), West Pokot, Tranz-Nzioa, Bungoma, Busia, Kakamega, Central Nyanza, South Nyanza, Narok, Kisii, Kericho, Nakuru, Uasin Gishu, Elgeyo, Marakwet, Nyandarua, Nandi, Kisumu, Eldoret, Tambach, Maji Moto, Maji Mazuri, Gilgil, Nakuru, Lake Baringo and Naivasha.

He claimed that these areas were very fertile and produced nearly all the wealth in Kenya.

He backed down only when President Jomo Kenyatta threatened to block Uganda’s imports through the port of Mombasa.

Past geography

While opening the Lotuturu Self-help Mobilisation Scheme, 83 kilometres north of Kitgum in East Acholi District of northern Uganda on February 14, 1976, president Amin issued a statement in which he claimed he was informing the people of Uganda about their past geography.


The Voice of Uganda newspaper edition of February 16, 1976, reported that Amin directed that every Ugandan should buy a pamphlet, that was being published, detailing the boundaries of the country.

He said Uganda’s borders were beyond Juba and Torit in the Sudan and all areas of western Kenya, up to about 30 km from Nairobi.

Following the scramble and partition of Africa by imperial powers in 1884, Uganda fell into the British sphere of influence. Uganda was later divided into six provinces in 1902.

These were: Rudolf Province, which included the Turkana and Karasuk; Eastern Province, which included Nandi, Kavirondo, Eldoret, Naivasha, Maasai, up to the border with Tanzania; Central Province, which included Karamoja, Sebei, Mumias, Busoga and Bukedi; Buganda Province, which included Entebbe, Masaka, Kampala, Bugangaizi and Buruli; Nile Province, which included the whole of the present Nile Province, Lango, Acholi, Juba, and Baragazalo which is about 600 miles away from Kampala; Western Province, which included Rwenzori, Boga, Hoima and Masindi.

“In order to educate the public mind of all the sections of Uganda, I also promised that I will be providing geographical and historical facts as documented by the British colonial administration on the transfer of Uganda’s lands thereby affecting its boundary,” Amin wrote in his book titled, The Shaping of Modern Uganda And Administrative Divisions, published in 1976.

“In stating this, I had in my possession a document indicating that with the appointment of Sir Harry Johnson, the British government gave a clear mandate for this Special Commissioner to arrange and reorganise the internal administration of Uganda including its external boundary, particularly in the British sphere of influences which Johnson did from 1st July, 1899 to December, 1901,” Amin added in the book published by the defunct Government Printer in Entebbe.

“Uganda’s boundary outside the British sphere of influence was still a matter being debated in European capitals. However, Britain knew that certain land-marks such as the watershed of River Nile and the Congo in the northwest and the whole floor of Western Rift Valley including Mufumbiro Mountains lay in the British sphere and it only required actual survey on the ground,” Amin argued.

Assuring his neighbours, Amin added: “There was no intention of Uganda claiming an inch of any territory of her neighbours, whether Kenya, Sudan, Zaire (Congo), etc. As a firm believer in OAU [now AU] and as its Chairman, I know of the OAU July Resolution of 1964 which ‘solemnly declares that all member states pledge themselves to respect the borders existing on their achievement of national independence.”

Noble objectives

“In order to make Ugandans understand the noble objectives, I consider it necessary to explain to them their past recorded geographical and historical connections as before the partition of Africa by imperial powers at the Berlin Conference of 1884, the African nations knew of no national boundaries although after the attainment of independence, through blood and sweat, Africans knew of their boundaries. All of them had blood relations across their borders,” Amin wrote.

Stressing that he was informing people without any intentions for war nor advocating any changes, Amin said he had a written agreement signed by the then British colonial secretary of state Herbert Asquith, transferring some parts of Uganda to Sudan in 1914 and to Kenya in 1926.

Had the colonial British administrators not given away some of Uganda’s soil, Juba and Torit in South Sudan, the whole of the Rift Valley Province and northwestern Kenya would today be Uganda.

Insisting that the British would have to answer for transferring certain areas of Uganda to Sudan and Kenya, Amin said nearly the whole of South Sudan from Nimule, Juba, Gondokoro and the area around Torit, which extends right up to the present-day border with Ethiopia, was under the administration of Uganda until 1914 when it was transferred by the British colonialists by the order of secretary of state under 1902 Uganda Order in Council.

The area just north of Kitgum after the Uganda/Sudan border was Uganda’s territory until 1927. Nile Province had been transferred to Sudan in 1910 by the British and it was not until 1914 that Nile Province was transferred back to Uganda.

Amin argued that the British colonialists made several mistakes when they were making territorial demarcations.

Amin said that God was not a fool to have allocated this land to Uganda and wondered why the British did not transfer other areas that were not fertile.

He said the fact that the area the British transferred to Kenya from Uganda was one of the most fertile areas in East Africa would be enough to provoke him to go to war to reclaim the land but he would not do that because he was a leader who wanted peace to prevail in the world, Voice of Uganda reported.

If, however, the people in these areas, which were transferred to Kenya, were not happy with the administration, they should be allowed to have their own government.
Amin said that his duty as the supreme commander of the Uganda Armed Forces was to liberate all Uganda’s territories. He said this was also part of Field Marshal Amin Operation to Correct Mistakes Made by the Britons.

Amin stated that he had no intention of going to war with any country, warned that Uganda being a land-locked country, if any country interfered with the transportation of her imports and exports to and from the sea, that would provoke him to go to war.

Amin said he would always speak the truth and feared nobody except God, Voice of Uganda reported on February 21, 1976.

Amin said when he declared the Economic War in 1972, he promised that he would correct all the mistakes made by the British. He added that the British knew he was telling the truth.

Dispute with Sudan

Uganda has had other boundary disputes with its neighbours.

In 2005, Sudan claimed a five-kilometre stretch of customary boundary from the Madi and Aringa people in northwestern Uganda.

The Sudanese accused the Madi of Moyo and Yumbe districts in Uganda of extending their administrative structures inside their land.

In 2009, tensions rose when the Congolese began building a police post in a contested area near the Ugandan Customs point at Goli, along the Uganda-DR Congo border in Nebbi District of West Nile.

The police post was being built within 50 metres of Goli, which Uganda considered a buffer zone. This caused unnecessary anxiety since the area is among those the two countries agreed to verify the location of through a Joint Permanent Commission.

Earlier in 2008 the Congolese had caused another controversy when they shifted their border point from five kilometres to within 200 metres of the Ugandan crossing point at Vurra in Arua District of West Nile. This was one of those areas to be decided upon by the Joint Permanent Commission.

Floating island

Uganda and Congo also have a dispute over the ownership of Rukwanzi Island, a “floating island” in Lake Albert. The recent discovery of oil under Lake Albert exacerbated the territorial dispute over the ownership of the island. The 12 square kilometre area is home to about 3,000 people, mostly fishermen.

Troops from Uganda and the DR Congo exchanged gunfire near Rukwanzi Island in August 2007, leaving several people dead, including a British contractor who worked for an oil company.