When Idi Amin put Jomo Kenyatta in the mood for battle

What you need to know:

  • Tensions between Kenya and Uganda were exacerbated by two events, the Entebbe raid and the economic blockade on Ugandan goods.
  • On the Jamhuri Day, December 12, 1976, US Marines jets staged a spectacular fly-past in a tribute to Kenya on its republican anniversary and as a warning to Amin.

In February 1976, the then Uganda leader Idi Amin Dada infuriated Kenyans when he claimed that a large part of Kenya belonged to Uganda.

A couple of days after his remarks, a mass demonstration was organised at Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, where Mzee Jomo Kenyatta declared that Kenya would deal ruthlessly with neighbours who publicly expressed “their sinister intentions”.

Although Amin clarified that he had no intention of going to war but would write to the Queen of England to demand an explanation, his unpredictability was Kenya’s greatest fear.

It was believed that he was being incited by President Siad Barre of Somalia, who was laying a similar claim to the northeastern part of Kenya.

Government officials, concerned that Kenya couldn’t withstand a war with Uganda, which was well equipped with Soviet-made jet fighters and 27 military tanks, turned to the US for help.

This desperation has now been revealed in telegrams and transcripts in the US State Department Archive.

On February 20, 1976, just a day after an anti-Amin demonstration in Nairobi, Vice-President Daniel arap Moi, on the instruction of Kenyatta, summoned the US ambassador to Kenya, Mr Antony Marshall, to emphasise the urgent need for financial and military assistance.


Moi informed Marshall that while Kenya had a military deal with Britain over any aggression by Somalia, there was no guarantee that similar support would be granted in case of an attack by the Ugandans.

Therefore, he explained, the only way to ward off Amin was for Kenya to upgrade its defence capability.

Kenyatta was really anxious to obtain F-5E fighter jets, but was ready to accept anything the US could offer, and a delegation was already in the US to hold talks with senior state officials over the matter.

As the meeting progressed, Marshall revealed to Moi that, subject to Congressional approval, the US had offered Kenya $45 million in Foreign Military Sales credits (FMS).

However, there would be a shortfall of $20 million if Kenya bought the F-5E jet fighters, and the delivery time would be 24 months.

The information excited Moi, who immediately booked an appointment for the ambassador to personally break the good news to Kenyatta on February 24. His only disappointment was the delivery time.

Two months later, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger arrived at State House, Nakuru, on a visit he said was to see what the US could do to help its friends in Africa.

“I , the Secretary of State, am willing to talk to you with open mindedness,” he told Mzee Kenyatta. “We have no complaints against Kenya.”


While appreciating the $45 million aid, Kenyatta requested an additional $20 million to enable Kenya acquire the F-5Es, which he wanted to be delivered as soon as possible, pointing out: “Our neighbours are armed to the teeth.”

Attempts by Ambassador Marshall, who was also present, to clarify that training of pilots was necessary before the jet fighters were delivered fell on deaf ears, as Kenyatta insisted that he needed the planes even before the pilots were trained.

Kissinger promised to look into the matter with the Deputy Secretary of Defence. He also promised Kenya an additional $20 million, bringing the total FMS credit to $65 million, enough to acquire the F-5Es.

Because of Kenya’s desperation at the time, the US tried to arrange for the Kenya Air Force to have F-5As until F-5Es were ready, but this never worked out.

This was the second time US was trying to arrange for Kenya to have the F-5As, which were considered cheap and readily available.

The previous year, in 1975, the US had tried to obtain the aircrafts from Iran but this fell through after the Shah of Iran refused to approve the arrangement because he had already committed the aircrafts to Jordan.

Nevertheless, on June 16, 1976, US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld arrived in Kenya and made public the sale of 12 supersonic F-5Es to the country in a deal that was at the time the largest ever between Washington and an emerging African nation. However, the jet fighters were only to be available in two years’ time.


Tensions between Kenya and Uganda were exacerbated by two events, the Entebbe raid and the economic blockade on Ugandan goods.

In remarks broadcast by Radio Uganda, Amin complained that during the Entebbe raid, Israel had stationed a stand-by commando force in Kenya which “would have continued to fight were the first waves defeated”.

He also accused Kenya of blockading 200 oil tankers and other vehicles carrying goods to Uganda and appealed to the Organisation of African Unity to intervene before he resorted to “desperate action”.

Foreign Minister Munyua Waiyaki responded by accusing Amin of looking for an excuse to go to war, warning: “If he attacks Kenya, Kenya will be bound to use all her energies to defend herself.”

Despite the face-saving rhetoric, the government again turned to the US. This resulted in Marshall visiting State House on July 4, 1976, with a special message from Kissinger promising to stand with Kenya.

According to records of the meeting, Kenyatta, moved by gratitude, asked Marshall to read the message twice, after which he said: “I cannot find words to thank him (Kissinger).”

He then asked the ambassador what forms of help US was ready to offer Kenya to counter Amin’s threats.

When Marshall vaguely replied that it would depend on the situation, Kenyatta pressed him to speculate.

In response, the diplomat said US could position ships in Mombasa, but cautioned that these were his own views.



When Marshall asked whether Amin could attack Kenya because of its cooperation with Israel, Kenyatta replied: “Maybe. It is quite possible.”

Marshall returned to State House two days later with good news from Kissinger — America had agreed to send a P-3 aircraft to Nairobi and a frigate to Mombasa.

The suggestion of the P-3 coming to Nairobi particularly appealed to Kenyatta, who exclaimed: “Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful!”

“I don’t know what this man, Amin, might decide to do,” he continued. “I am not quite sure that an attack is imminent. I don’t want to say something that later might not be quite right.”

Kenyatta also suggested to Marshall to inform Kissinger that if there was a way the US could raise the matter in the UN, “then this fellow here (Amin) will know we have some important and powerful friends”.

 “To some it might look like political propaganda, but it would be a great help to us.” He indicated his wish to have the matter handled in high secrecy, saying “matters get whispered about and then misunderstood.”

The final agreement was that the arrival of the frigate and the P-3 be made public at the appropriate time. This happened two weeks later.

Meanwhile, the OAU had set-up a special committee led by its Secretary-General, Mr William Eteki Mboumoua, to ease the tensions between the two countries.

On July 31, 1976, Mboumoua visited Gatundu with a message from Amin, but nothing much was achieved.

The mediator had been accused in Kenya of being pro-Uganda after he said fuel shortage in Uganda was due to Kenya’s blockade.


Kenya laid seven conditions that had to be met before relations with Uganda were normalised.

Among them was the withdrawal of Ugandan troops from the Kenyan border and the payment of $54 million for goods and oil shipped through the port of Mombasa.

With Amin showing no sign of relenting, in September, when Kissinger returned to Kenya, Kenyatta requested if US military aircraft could stage a fly-past during Jamhuri day.

He repeated the same in a letter to President Gerald Ford, cancelling his proposed visit to America. President Ford responded:

“We are pursuing arrangements to fulfil your request for a fly-past on Jamhuri Day, December 12. We will be communicating further with you on this matter.”

On the Jamhuri Day, December 12, 1976, US Marines jets staged a spectacular fly-past in a tribute to Kenya on its republican anniversary and as a warning to Amin.

Kenyatta raised his flywhisk as the jets from the aircraft carrier USS Guam, which had docked in Mombasa, flew in formations and performed solo passes over Nairobi.

By this time Amin had begun to tone down his drums of war. A couple of weeks earlier he had written to the OAU, saying Uganda had never “dreamed of any subversive activities against the brotherly and sisterly people of Kenya”.

The writer is a journalist and researcher based in London. [email protected]