Abnormal: Why the Tanzanian Invasion of Uganda Was, and Was Not, a Humanitarian Intervention

Image Caption: Idi Amin’s coup in 1978 of former Ugandan President Milton Obote was the first in a series of events that led to the 1978 Tanzanian invasion of Uganda. But was that invasion a humanitarian intervention?


The emergence of humanitarian intervention as a norm prompts a rare question: why, if a war appears to be conducted based on humanitarian grounds, would a state then hide that fact? This paper examines the 1978 Tanzanian invasion of Uganda and the conflicts preceding it. Although Tanzania declined to justify its removal of the murderous Amin regime in Uganda as “humanitarian intervention” due to constraints imposed by flaws in the Organisation of African Unity, the invasion was in no small part due to adherence to humanitarian norms as well as personal and state interest. Broadly speaking, the Uganda-Tanzania war provides an insight into what occurs when two norms clash.[1]

The Ugandan army invaded Tanzania in October 1978.[2] The dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin Dada, wished to annex the Kagera Salient, an area of land under Tanzanian control that extended past the Kagera River to the Uganda-Tanzania border.[3] The Tanzanian government retaliated by recapturing the Salient and pushing forward into Uganda, seizing the capital Kampala and removing Amin from power in April 1979.[4] The Uganda National Liberation Front was installed as the national government and a new president took office.[5] When viewed so simplistically, the war appears short, and to have been fought for clear, easily discernible reasons. Many experts believe the Uganda-Tanzania war “provides an early case of a war justified by humanitarian intervention.”[6] After all, it was widely known that Amin’s regime committed mass murder, and in that light, Tanzania’s counter-invasion appears to have been predicated on deposing Amin. In reality, the conflict was much more complicated. In addition to personal motivations and political justification, Tanzania did invade for humanitarian reasons, but the government did not admit to this reasoning because of problems inherent in the structure of the Organization of African Unity (OAU).

Understanding the war of 1978 first requires a consideration of Uganda’s origins and the invasion of 1972. Uganda as a nation and a state is a fairly new invention; the country as it is currently “did not exist before the period of British colonial rule.”[7] Prior to this, the area comprised four different kingdoms containing multiple ethnic groups.[8] The delineation of borders separated those ethnic groups in many cases, including in the Kagera Salient.[9] By the time Idi Amin Dada overthrew the previous president of Uganda, Milton Obote, the country also contained significant populations of Israelis and Asians.[10] The Israelis working in Uganda served a largely military role, training soldiers and aiding Amin’s rise to power.[11] As their services required payment Amin did not have, and as Amin desired to gain favour with Libya, the president expelled Israelis from the country in February 1972.[12] [13] The true infraction occurred, however, against the rights of the Asian members of the populace. Roughly fifty-thousand residents, or 0.9 per cent of the population. were Asian, the majority of whom were Indians.[14] [15] Having originally travelled to Uganda to build the Uganda Railway, Indians benefited from economic opportunities that cemented them as a “wealthy, isolated elite.”[16] [17] Iain Grahame, who knew Amin personally, quoted him as saying: “‘The Hindis have cheated the black people in this country for too long…Ugandans want full, economic independence, and they can only get this when they go.’”[18] Amin forced the Asians to flee the country in August 1972, subjecting tens of thousands to beatings and the seizure of their property in what was dubbed Uganda’s “Economic War.”[19] [20] A month later, in September 1972, a thousand Tanzania-backed, pro-Obote guerilla soldiers invaded Uganda from across the Tanzania border, but were routed by Amin.[21] One might think that this invasion was due to obvious humanitarian concerns around the treatment of the Asians. After all, both Uganda and Tanzania were members of the Organization of African Unity, the charter of which includes explicit adherence to the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[22] Since the treatment of the Asians was “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” Tanzania was at least obligated to oppose it.[23] However, popular opinion very much swung in favour of the infringement upon Asians’ rights; as Amin himself said, “‘Nyerere and Mzee Kenyatta would like to get rid of their Asians too.’”[24] [25] Thus, the motivation for Tanzania to intervene—whether by proxy in 1972 or directly in 1978—did not stem from a complete commitment to the norm of human rights. In 1972, Nyerere and Tanzania as a whole were more concerned about the four separate mass murders of soldiers belonging to Acholi and Langi tribes that Amin ordered between 1971 to 1972, operations so great in scope that “not since the whole-sale elimination of the Tutsi by the Hutu in Rwanda had such a large scale tribal massacre been attempted in East Africa.” [26] That being said, concern was not so great to as to prompt Tanzania to intervene directly. To view this in terms of norms, the norm of universal human rights was likely still in the process of being adopted in Tanzania.[27] The government had acknowledged the norm in words alone, but because it was not yet internalized, the norm did not motivate them sufficiently to intervene.[28] The 1972 invasion only occurred because there were also other interests at stake.

Milton Obote, the previous president of Uganda, was a close friend of Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere.[29] Obote was given sanctuary in Tanzania after Amin’s coup, as were one thousand of his followers—the same followers that launched the guerilla attack in 1972.[30] Obote himself ordered the attack, which means that the invasion of 1972 was not a direct intervention by Tanzania.[31] While motivated to some degree by humanitarian concerns, the offensive was also driven by Obote and Nyerere’s desire to see Obote returned to power.

Idi Amin’s government during this time has been termed a “terrorist regime,” with estimates of up to 300,000 murdered between 1971 and 1979.[32] [33] Amin did not target his policies after 1972 merely at members of the military, as before. The Amnesty International report from 1979 shows the sheer breadth of the killings, which included: “judges, politicians, civil servants, religious leaders, academics, teachers, students, businessmen, writers, soldiers, police officers, foreigners, women and members of certain ethnic groups, particularly Acholi and Langi.”[34] Not all victims of Amin’s regime were murdered. Some were imprisoned and tortured, with one prisoner describing: “routine flogging, electric shocks, physical mutilation, drownings and arbitrary shooting of prisoners…prisoners were reportedly chained and burnt to death in the presence of senior security officials.”[35] Seemingly caring little about Amin’s human rights violations, the OAU gave Amin the position of chair for its 1975 summit in Kampala.[36] The Foreign Minister of Tanzania denounced this and proclaimed that Nyerere would not attend: participating in the summit would implicate all members of the OAU in Amin’s killings.[37] As Tanzania made specific mention of Uganda’s human rights violations, Tanzania may have adopted the norm of universal human rights to a greater extent by 1975. What Amnesty International describes as the turning point occurred in February 1977, when the Archbishop of Uganda, Janani Luwum, was murdered shortly after voicing dissent against Amin’s regime.[38] [39] This is especially noteworthy because the murder was internal justification for Tanzania’s invasion of Uganda in 1978. Although, as will be addressed shortly, Tanzania did not refer to its invasion as a humanitarian intervention, within Tanzania the perception was different. A labour song from 1978, titled Idi Amin wikumyaga, or “Idi Amin Was Bragging” describes the population’s feelings:

Amin, chaga Iwako! [Amin, die on your own!]

Marehemu Askofu, ukamalaga [The deceased bishop, you killed him]

Untulagula na mhayo biya [You beat him without cause]

Zambi ikukwandamaga (2x) [this sin follows you (2x)].[40]

These lyrics point to an internalization among the Tanzanian populace of the norm of human rights. However, the question remains as to why the population of Tanzania had humanitarian justifications for the war, but Nyerere’s government did not.[41] The answer lies in the charter of the OAU. As discussed previously, the OAU charter contains in its preamble an affirmation of the UDHR, but only in “due regard.”[42] Thus the OAU charter consisted of some obligation to human rights, but the language used left what constituted an appropriate response to interpretation. In turn, other terms outlined in the charter prevented Tanzania from invoking human rights. Article II 1. C) specified one purpose of the OAU as: “to defend their [the states’] sovereignty, their territorial integrity and independence.”[43] This is followed by Article III 3, in which signatories agreed to “respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each state and for its inalienable right to independent existence.”[44] Then in Article III 4, states agreed to “Peaceful settlement of disputes by negotiation, mediation conciliation or arbitration.”[45] This was restated in Article XIX, which called for a “Commission of Mediation, Conciliation and Arbitration” to resolve conflicts without resorting to violent means.[46] In sum, the OAU Charter calls for all members to respect each other’s sovereignty, and for any dispute to be settled by nonviolent means. On the surface these articles appear reasonable, but in practice this simultaneous affirmation of both the UDHR and principles of sovereignty and pacifism became contradictory.

When Amin’s Uganda invaded the Kagera Salient in 1978, “Ugandan troops proceeded to murder and rape the local population, burn property, and steal cattle,” without any intervention by the OAU.[47] [48] Tanzania counterattacked shortly after and followed Amin’s forces back into Uganda in the invasion that would finally topple Amin’s regime in 1979.[49] The problem inherent in the OAU Charter was that a humanitarian intervention was, by definition, a violation of article III sections 3 and 4 and article XIX. It was a resort to violent means, and it infringed upon another state’s sovereignty. Likewise, the personal conflict between Nyerere and Amin served as a sole factor that would not justify violation of the OAU charter. Amin’s initial violation of the terms of the charter likely allowed Tanzania to invade and depose Amin. The invasion of the Kagera Salient violated those same articles, and thus the counter-invasion could be framed as a tit-for-tat affair. Thus, although both the norm of human rights and the personal conflict between Nyerere and Amin motivated Tanzania, flaws in the charter of the Organization of African Unity prevented the country from offering either point as justifications. Instead, it framed the humanitarian intervention as a political response.

When viewed from a normative perspective, two conflicts took place in 1978 and 1979: the obvious war between Uganda and Tanzania, and the less obvious conflict between the norm of universal human rights, on one hand, and norms of sovereignty and pacifism on the other. The norm of universal human rights did not sufficiently take hold until well after 1972. Tanzania intervened merely indirectly, due to Obote and Nyerere’s interest in seeing Amin removed from office alone. As Amin’s abuses grew, Tanzania became further opposed to the Ugandan regime. In 1978, a combination of concern for human rights, personal interest, and political desire for retaliation caused Tanzania to wage war. The structure of the OAU, however, forced the official line to be purely retaliatory—not personal, and not rights-driven. Amin, as well as the OAU, had internalized none of the principles they ostensibly supported. Amin’s invasion and the OAU’s inaction upon Amin’s invasion make this clear.[50] Thus the norms of sovereignty and pacifism, although declared to be absolute by the OAU, were not internalized in the region. Tanzania, then, acted upon one norm but was forced to officially espouse a contradictory norm because of a supranational institution. How this relationship between norm power and institutions affects international relations merits further research. With regards to Tanzania’s invasion of Uganda, however, the institution-backed norm only dominated discussion surrounding the event. In the end, the truly internalized norm of human rights triumphed.


About the Author

Buzz Lanthier-Rogers is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto studying International Relations and Peace, Conflict, and Justice. His research interests include humanitarian interventions and the intersection of transnational crime and human rights.


Endnotes

[1] This essay uses the framework of norm formation detailed by Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink in their paper, “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change” in International Organization 52, no.4 (1998).

[2] Tennalur Vengara Sathyamurthy, The Political Development of Uganda (England: Gower Publishing Company Limited, 1986), 609.

[3] George Roberts, “The Uganda–Tanzania War, the fall of Idi Amin, and the failure of African diplomacy, 1978–1979” Journal of East African Studies 8, no. 4 (2007): 692.

[4] Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 1979 (London: Amnesty International Publications, 1979), 38.

[5] Tennalur Vengara Sathyamurthy, The Political Development of Uganda (England: Gower Publishing Company Limited, 1986), 660.

[6] George Roberts, “The Uganda–Tanzania War, the fall of Idi Amin, and the failure of African diplomacy, 1978–1979” Journal of East African Studies 8, no. 4 (2007): 704.

[7] Tennalur Vengara Sathyamurthy, The Political Development of Uganda (England: Gower Publishing Company Limited, 1986), 1.

[8] Ibid.

[9] George Roberts, “The Uganda–Tanzania War, the fall of Idi Amin, and the failure of African diplomacy, 1978–1979” Journal of East African Studies 8, no. 4 (2007): 695.

[10] Tennalur Vengara Sathyamurthy, The Political Development of Uganda (England: Gower Publishing Company Limited, 1986), 609.

[11] Phares Mutibwa, Uganda since Independence: A Story of Unfulfilled Hope (London: Hurst & Company, 1992), 89.

[12] Phares Mutibwa, Uganda since Independence: A Story of Unfulfilled Hope (London: Hurst & Company, 1992), 89.

[13] Ibid., 90.

[14] Ibid., 93.

[15] Tennalur Vengara Sathyamurthy, The Political Development of Uganda (England: Gower Publishing Company Limited, 1986), 6.

[16] Phares Mutibwa, Uganda since Independence: A Story of Unfulfilled Hope (London: Hurst & Company, 1992), 92.

[17] Ibid., 93.

[18]Iain Grahame, Amin and Uganda: A Personal Memoir (London: Granada, 1980), 133.

[19] Phares Mutibwa, Uganda since Independence: A Story of Unfulfilled Hope (London: Hurst & Company, 1992), 95.

[20] Ibid., 96.

[21] George Roberts, “The Uganda–Tanzania War, the fall of Idi Amin, and the failure of African diplomacy, 1978–1979” Journal of East African Studies 8, no. 4 (2007): 693.

[22] Organization of African Unity, “OAU Charter” (web, Addis Ababa, 1963), 1.

[23] The United Nations, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (web, Paris, 1948) 2.

[24] Phares Mutibwa, Uganda since Independence: A Story of Unfulfilled Hope (London: Hurst & Company, 1992), 94.

[25] Iain Grahame, Amin and Uganda: A Personal Memoir (London: Granada, 1980), 135.

[26] Phares Mutibwa, Uganda since Independence: A Story of Unfulfilled Hope (London: Hurst & Company, 1992), 88.

[27] Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change” International Organization 52, no. 4 (1998): 895.

[28] Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change” International Organization 52, no. 4 (1998): 895.

[29] George Roberts, “The Uganda–Tanzania War, the fall of Idi Amin, and the failure of African diplomacy, 1978–1979” Journal of East African Studies 8, no. 4 (2007): 693.

[30] P. Godfrey Okoth, “The OAU and the Uganda-Tanzania War, 1978-79” Journal of African Studies 14, no. 3 (1987): 153.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Emma Leonard Boyle, “Was Idi Amin’s Government a Terrorist Regime?” Terrorism and Political Violence 29, no. 4 (2017): 606.

[33] Ibid., 593.

[34] Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 1979 (London: Amnesty International Publications, 1979), 38.

[35] Ibid., 39.

[36] George Roberts, “The Uganda–Tanzania War, the fall of Idi Amin, and the failure of African diplomacy, 1978–1979” Journal of East African Studies 8, no. 4 (2007): 693.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 1979 (London: Amnesty International Publications, 1979), 37.

[39] George Roberts, “The Uganda–Tanzania War, the fall of Idi Amin, and the failure of African diplomacy, 1978–1979” Journal of East African Studies 8, no. 4 (2007): 694.

[40] Frank D. Gunderson, Sukuma Labor Songs from Western Tanzania: “We Never Sleep, We Dream of Farming” (Leiden: Brill, 2010): 398

[41] George Roberts, “The Uganda–Tanzania War, the fall of Idi Amin, and the failure of African diplomacy, 1978–1979” Journal of East African Studies 8, no. 4 (2007): 704.

[42] Organization of African Unity, “OAU Charter” (web, Addis Ababa, 1963), 3.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid., 4.

[45] Organization of African Unity, “OAU Charter” (web, Addis Ababa, 1963), 3.

[46] Ibid., 8.

[47] George Roberts, “The Uganda–Tanzania War, the fall of Idi Amin, and the failure of African diplomacy, 1978–1979” Journal of East African Studies 8, no. 4 (2007): 695.

[48] P. Godfrey Okoth, “The OAU and the Uganda-Tanzania War, 1978-79” Journal of African Studies 14, no. 3 (1987): 155.

[49] Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 1979 (London: Amnesty International Publications, 1979), 38.

[50] P. Godfrey Okoth, “The OAU and the Uganda-Tanzania War, 1978-79” Journal of African Studies 14, no. 3 (1987): 152.


Bibliography

Amnesty International. Amnesty International Report 1979. London: Amnesty International Publications, 1979.

Boyle, Emma Leonard. “Was Idi Amin’s Government a Terrorist Regime?” Terrorism and Political Violence 29, no. 4 (2017): 593-609.

Finnemore, Martha, and Kathryn Sikkink. “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change.” International Organization 52, no. 4 (1998): 887-917.

Grahame, Iain. Amin and Uganda: A Personal Memoir. London: Granada, 1980.

Gunderson, Frank D. Sukuma Labor Songs from Western Tanzania: “We Never Sleep, We Dream of Farming.” Leiden: Brill, 2010.

Mutibwa, Phares. Uganda since Independence: A Story of Unfulfilled Hope. London: Hurst & Company, 1992.

Okoth, P. Godfrey. “The OAU and the Uganda-Tanzania War, 1978-79.” Journal of African Studies 14, no. 3 (1987): 152-162.

Organization of African Unity. “OAU Charter.” Web, Addis Ababa, 1963.

Roberts, George. “The Uganda–Tanzania War, the fall of Idi Amin, and the failure of African diplomacy, 1978–1979.” Journal of East African Studies 8, no. 4 (2007): 692-709.

Sathyamurthy, Tennalur Vengara. The Political Development of Uganda. England: Gower Publishing Company Limited, 1986.

The United Nations. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Web, Paris, 1948.

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