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{UAH} Allan/Gook/Pojim, for those who keep defending Idi Amin: Matiya Lubega: Amin used to plant spies on Uganda’s diplomats

Matiya Lubega: Amin used to plant spies on Uganda's diplomats


In Part II of this series, Jerome Kule Bitswande talks to Ambassador MATIYA LUBEGA, who served Uganda in Ghana, United Nations, Soviet Union, Ethiopia and as the foreign affairs ministry's permanent secretary during Idi Amin's regime.

I was born and raised in Masaka district. I also studied in Masaka, having started at St Henry's College Kitovu where I did ordinary and advanced levels. I then joined Makerere University College where I attained a degree in political science.

Then, Makerere was an affiliate; so, my award was for the University of London. Thereafter, I joined the Michigan State University where I pursued a master's in political science before I finalized my studies with a PhD in international relations at Columbia University. So, I hold a doctorate, although I normally don't like being addressed as Doctor.

I joined the Foreign Service in March 1962 after my studies in Michigan State University. Our offices were located in Entebbe and I remember I first worked with some white man from Cambridge called Russell Batty who had been assigned by the British government to start preparing Uganda's foreign service because it was about to gain independence.

My first assignment was to draft regulations for the ministry of Foreign Service. I used regulations from Ghana and Tanganyika that were already independent African states to develop ours. Those regulations later became part of the ministry of Foreign Service's standing orders.

Ambassador Matiya Mutyaba

After that, I went to the University of Columbia for one-year diplomatic training. This was a programme supported by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. We were only two from Uganda; Prince Stephen Karamagi of Tooro and myself. The others were from Ghana, Nigeria, Ghana, Philippines and Korea, among others. These were basically countries that were either about to, or had gotten independence.

The training was both theoretical and practical. We looked at diplomacy, international law and all that. In New York, we went to United Nations and in Washington to the state department to understand how foreign affairs are handled.

We then went to Canada, Belgium and we finalized our practical training in Cyprus, all under their ministries of foreign affairs. Cyprus was by then a newly independent country; so, we went there to learn from them on the way they were managing their international relations.

Around November/ December 1962, I returned to Uganda and joined Foreign Service again. At that time, a few other people like Sam Baingana, Eddy Wapenyi and Paul Etyang had been recruited into the ministry. Most of them were graduates from Makerere [University] who underwent diplomatic training locally; some went to Nairobi while the others were sent to train in UK.

In other words, career men had been appointed to serve in the Foreign Service, which was then called ministry of external affairs. The permanent secretary was a British [national] who had also been recruited into the ministry while [the prime minister at the time] Apollo Milton Obote was also minister for external affairs.


Many centuries ago, under King James I, Sir Henry Wharton defined an ambassador as an honest person who is sent to lie abroad for the good of his country. Lying abroad could mean two things; first, it could mean somebody who sleeps away (stays) or somebody who does not tell the truth, provided what he is saying is for the good of his country; somebody who can tell you to go to hell and you look forward to the trip.

Ambassador Matiya Lubega (R) with another diplomat 

In other words, he could say something else which means you are stupid and you will be happy about it because he has said it smartly. That is the reason they say diplomats are liars because they do not necessarily say what is in their hearts because they do not want to annoy people.

At the beginning of the service, politicians had the monopoly to be appointed ambassadors. The question of career ambassadors came later, after the politicians had messed up the service.


After returning to Uganda, I first worked in the protocol department until 1964. Bigirwenkya, who was the first black permanent secretary of ministry of foreign affairs, had taken over from the British Bosnet. I was charged with opening Uganda's first mission abroad.

The first missions were in Accra, New York, London, Washington and Egypt. So, I was posted to Accra. Of course, establishing a mission meant that we were doing a lot of work, but I always had people to help me. In my case, I had people from the Common- wealth; I had one from Sierra Leone and another from the UK. They helped me get an office and a residence.

The British high commission in London sent a message to London that Uganda had sent somebody to establish a Uganda mission in Accra; so, the first secretary of the UK high commission in Accra telephoned me at my hotel room and told me that his mission was ready to help me with any information and assistance that I may need. You see, those days we were close to the Commonwealth.

I remember even Sierra Leone was of great help. The ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ghana also helped me. The only major challenge was the issue of climate and weather because Ghana was different from Uganda. The other things, I was well equipped [to deal with]. I recruited competent staff and had support from Sierra Leone.

I also had enough finances to enable me procure the logistics. These things of embassies and ambassadors not having money have started now. During our time, we had enough money to take care, not only of the mission, but also for ourselves and the staff.

At that time, I was acting as high commissioner and the rank was second secretary in the ministry of foreign affairs. So, I ran the place for seven months until Aloysious Obonye was appointed to head the mission. During my stay there, we had the Organisation of African Union (OAU) meeting of heads of state in Accra in 1965.

The Ugandan delegation, which comprised many Foreign Service officials and other ministers, was led by Sam Odaka, the then minister of foreign affairs. Obote didn't come because there was a rumour of an impending coup against him. Well, the meeting was successful with the guidance of Kwame Nkrumah.


After the meeting which was in 1965, I got issues with my boss. We just could not rhyme. Remember, I had been in acting capacity for seven months. I had established systems that I thought were supposed to be respected because the systems I had established were based on professional expertise, but these things were not being respected.

So, early 1965 around February or March, I told my line minister that I wanted to leave the service [because] I couldn't continue working with the ambassador who was in effect my immediate boss.

But I think [the minister] didn't want to lose me. So, he transferred me to New York to represent Uganda at the United Nations. At that point I had been promoted to first secretary in the ministry; so, there I was appointed as the country's deputy representative on the UN Security Council. The representative was ambassador Apollo Kironde.

At the Security Council, it was purely African and international politics at play. I think that is one of the key posts within the diplomatic system; because at New York which is the seat of the United Nations, you interact with countries in all continents about a variety of issues.

During my stay there, I remember what also used to stand out were issues affecting Africa. Actually, the issue of the in- dependence/liberation of some African countries was prominent. During that year, in Rhodesia, Ian Smith declared UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence); so, it is something we looked at keenly.

We also discussed Palestine be- cause that was also the time there were serious conflicts there. Of course, all general issues about peace and resolving conflicts across the globe featured in our deliberations, but for us as non-permanent members of the council, we interested ourselves with African issues which were mainly decolonisation, apartheid in South Africa, etc.

I remember we used to negotiate and discuss among ourselves as representatives from small countries so that we would have a bigger voice when we
eventually present our issues. For example, all of us agreed to advance the argument that Ian Smith in Rhodesia should be ousted by force. Although the British with support from other Western countries refused, we had really shaken up the room. So, the British said they would use sanctions against Rhodesia to make governance tougher for Ian Smith.

That is what is called multilateral diplomacy. If any issue came up concerning America and the Soviet Union about the cold war, we abstained because we had agreed to the principle of non-alignment. We were also joined by other countries like India, Yugoslavia, and [some from] Latin America. We were 99 non-aligned countries and our position was clear on that within the Council.

But we did not discuss politics only; we also discussed a number of other issues because there were different committees in the United Nations General Assembly.

There are committees on politics, economies, social and colonization. So, other than representing Uganda to the security country, I also represented Uganda on the committee on colonization, in which we talked about the need to help colonized African countries to attain their independence.

So, in New York I was basically charged with writing papers, presenting issues especially about the need to liberate African countries under colonization, doing research, involved in back-to-back meetings with a variety of diplomats from across the world.

While I think an appointment to the United Nations is one of the best in diplomatic service; it is actually a very hectic one because you are engaged almost all the time. Sometimes, you would have to attend a meeting on the security council, thereafter attend a meeting with a committee on colonization and yet you had a paper to present at the General Assembly; so surely, for the two years that I was in New York, it was really lots of work.

At the end of 1967, I was transferred back to Uganda. What I almost forgot to tell you is that around February 1967, ambassador Kironde, my boss, resigned from the Foreign Service having gotten a job with the United Nations.

So, by the end of the year, when I was transferred back to Uganda, I had been heading the mission in acting capacity as Uganda's ambassador to the United Nations.


In 1967, I was posted back to Uganda on promotion as an undersecretary in charge of administration and finance in the ministry of foreign affairs. So, here I was involved with recruitment of staff, human resource management and so forth. I did that work for two years until 1969.

So in 1969, the first career diplomats were appointed ambassadors; this is because most of the missions which of course were being headed by politicians had been messed up; misappropriation of funds, meddling in the internal policies of the countries they were [posted to] and so forth.

So the four of us got deployed; Paul Etyang was appointed high commissioner to London, Prince John Barigye from Ankole was sent to Germany, Mark Ofwono to Egypt and I was posted to the Soviet Union. That was the first crop of careerists to be appointed to head missions.


So, at the end of 1969, I went to Soviet Union (present-day Russia) as grade one official of Foreign Service or ambassador. Well, I found Moscow a bit far away from Uganda. Actually, there were also very few Ugandans there, so unlike Europe and America where you would easily meet some of the citizens; in Russia you would really feel the distance. Communism is something that I was also not used to.

I was also uncomfortable with the climate. Sometimes, winter would even last seven months. That would be a very tough period. But the biggest challenge I faced was the degree of mistrust in the Soviet Union. We used to be spied upon every now and then; there was also restricted movement. If, for example, you wanted to go to Masaka, you would need to get permission from government. I found that disturbing.

What, however, I found good in that country was the fact that we received some benefits that other countries never gave. Government would hire a driver and a cook for you. The only problem was that these people were also government agents. I remember someday, I think it was in 1971, my tape recorder went missing from the house.

I always suspected that my house was under surveillance; so, I went to the living room and complained to my wife and said, "This man Sakorov is a thief. He has stolen my tape recorder; these are the people who spoil the image of the Soviet Union."

The following day the man was removed. So, in the house you were supposed to sing praises for the government of the Soviet Union. You actually had to be very careful; otherwise, you would be deported to your country and declared persona non grata.

Otherwise, I had a good time there. I also tried to get scholarships for some Ugandans to study in Russia. Quite many Ugandans went to the People's Friend- ship University, which was commonly known as Lumumba University. I also got some vacancies for some of the people to train in the military.


On the night when Milton Obote was ousted in 1971, I got a call from Reuters news agency which told me of how President Obote had been overthrown by Idi Amin. So, after Idi Ami ascended to power, all ambassadors were recalled home. The Soviet Union offered to give me asylum but I declined.

I returned and we received a briefing from the new government. In 1972, I was posted to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. There were no strong bilateral relations between Uganda and Ethiopia; so, the major issue was African Union. And just like in New York, in Addis Ababa Uganda was a member of the Liberation committee which consisted of nine African countries: Tanzania, Senegal, Nigeria, Egypt, Congo Republic, Ethiopia, and Guinea and of course Uganda.

We did a lot of work towards supporting the liberation movements. The head- quarters of the liberation movements were in Dar es Salaam. So, we constantly held meetings both in Addis Ababa and Dar es Salaam about strategy on how to liberate the African countries that were still colonized and also raise funds for the liberation movements.

I was not very much affected by the negative image of Idi Amin as the president of Uganda. You see, I was in Ethiopia which is an African country, and you know African governments employ the non-interference policy. I think it is people who were working in Western countries that were affected by his bad image.

In Africa, it was Tanzania where Obote had sought asylum that first resisted us but I still enjoyed good relations with the Tanzanian ambassador. So, I was not really affected by his image. However, Amin was a very suspicious person; he had employed the Russian techniques of having spies on you. I think every ambassador had like two spies on him who consistently kept the president abreast with what the ambassador was doing.

Actually, at one time I was visited by the ambassador of Tanzania to Ethiopia. The following day the president called me and I just sensed that he must have been informed about the visit; so, I told him first before he could ask me, I said, "The ambassador of Tanzania was here. We were discussing liberation and he wants the two countries to continue supporting the liberation struggle for countries that are still colonized." In satisfaction, he said, "okay, continue working hard."


In 1975, the OAU sat in Kampala, and I came for the conference. After that conference, I was asked to remain behind. The following day, I was told I had been appointed permanent secretary for the ministry of foreign affairs.

So, I started working at the ministry on promotion as permanent secretary. It was a bit challenging working with Amin here. Actually, I remember one very challenging time, shortly after the conference, one of the Foreign Service officials, James Baba [former minister of internal affairs] was arrested by military police.

When I heard that, I was upset because I had known from Ethiopia that many people were being kidnapped and some of them killed. So, I went to the office of the president, which was at the Conference centre then, and I told his secretary about what had happened. He looked unbothered.

I ordered him to connect me to the president on phone, and when Amin picked, I told him one of my officials had been captured by the military. He directed me to some military official who then led me to his office and when I got there, he was already sitting with some Foreign Service officials.

Paul Etyang was also there; Baba had also been brought in at that point. Amin asked what had happened, and the soldier who had arrested Baba said, "Sir, I found this man making kelele (noise) and, he looked drunk; so, I arrested him to take him for check- up in order to establish if he was really drunk.

Amin asked some other Foreign Service official if what the military man was saying was true and he answered in the affirmative. When I tried to defend Baba, the president ordered me, "Shut up! Take your drunkard and leave my office."

So, Baba and I left the president's office immediately.

Later on, when I got home, the Foreign Affairs minister, who was a military official, telephoned me and asked what happened. I narrated the story. Then he told me that I should not have answered the president. He asked me to see him the following day; actually that day was a Sunday. So, on Monday, very early in the morning, I went to his office in Nakasero.

He told me, "When the president is talking, you do not respond to him. Please be very careful."

Later in the evening, when I got home, I found a letter by his principal private secretary telling me that the president had directed that I should never be seen anywhere near the Conference centre where the office of the president was. Then people advised me to run away, but I said why should I run away when I had not committed any crime.

That night, the minister called me again and asked me to see him the following day in the morning. When I went to see him, he told me that Baba and I have an appointment with the president at 12pm. But he cautioned me against responding to the president and trying to defend either Baba or myself

Baba and I went to meet the president , and at exactly 12 noon. The door opened itself and we saw the president and his military men seated there; the bad ones, we were told, those from the State Research Bureau.

Amin then said, "You man, we sent you to Addis Ababa, you are now here with this drunkard who accepted he was drunk, and you look at me and answer like that?."

After he had finished talking, I said, "I am sorry, Sir".

He then said, "I am kind, I forgive you," and asked us to leave his office. That time was really challenging but I was happy that Baba was alive.

Well, thereafter, I lived a humble life as a permanent secretary, handling issues from the different embassies abroad. Amin was active with African politics; so, we did write his speeches, did research for him. But of course, I was charged with the general technical administration of the ministry, which is something I did until 1979 when Idi Amin was toppled and that marked the end of my career as a Uganda government diplomat.


In 1979, United Nations advertised for some jobs and I applied. I was successful and joined UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] in New York, first as an advisor and, later, I was sent to Nigeria to work as deputy country representative for UNDP. I worked there until 1985 and I was called back to New York to work as special assistant to the Director of Africa programmes where I worked for two years.

I was then appointed resident representative and co-coordinator of United Nations activities in Gambia. After about five years, I was posted back to New York in 1993 as chief of Southern Africa Programmes.

I remember in 1994, I was one of the observers of the South African presidential election in my then capacity. I liked working with the United Nations Development Programme because there was no politics; it was a neutral body and I was doing a professional job.

You might be wondering how I got to UNDP and rose through those ranks but I can tell you it was purely on merit. I can tell you I went on my own and didn't get any recommendation or support from government.

I think Ugandan governments have not had a deliberate policy to support their citizens attain jobs in these international organizations like other countries do. I think that is the reason we do not have many Ugandans in international organizations compared to our neighbours like Kenya and Tanzania.

But again, to expect this government to support citizens into the international organizations would be unrealistic because it does not even support her Foreign Service well to suit the interests of the country. The Foreign Service now has become a tool for patronage; it has been turned into a cushion for political failures.

So, that causes ineffectiveness and frustrates the diplomatic service yet it is from Foreign Service that citizens have an exposure into joining international organizations.

Anyways, I continued working in UNDP until 1997 when I retired and returned to Uganda. On my return, I was appointed as chairman of the non-performing assets recovery trust (NPAT). I did that until 2005. At the same time, I had been requested by the Kabaka (King) of Buganda to establish for him an NGO [Non-governmental organisation] to do philanthropy; so, I became the founding chief executive or the Kabaka Foundation.


As a diplomat I did a lot of things for this country that I don't think I can enumerate. My contribution, for example, to Uganda's input in the liberation of other countries was immense.

But for me, that was not surely a big issue because I was doing my job. What, however, remains outstanding, and is probably a personal achievement is the fact that I helped one lonely soul that had been confined in Moscow, Russia for over 30 years.

Bob Robinson was an American who had gone to study in Russia in 1930 to help in the satellite engineering department in Moscow and then he applied to become a Soviet citizen. Once he did that, he was not allowed to leave the Soviet Union. So, when I was in Moscow, I had met him and he told me about his predicament.

So, after I left Moscow and I was appointed to Ethiopia, I befriended the Soviet Union ambassador and told him that my country wanted to invite my friend Robert (Bob) Robinson to visit me; I had earlier told one of the security officials in Moscow about the same.

Because of that, he was allowed to come to Uganda, I think that might have been around 1973. He never went back to Moscow. The chain of his confinement had been broken; he settled here and started teaching at Nakawa Vocational Training College.

It was from here that he left to USA, his home country. Upon reaching there, he wrote a book about his life titled Black on Red; he elaborates how I helped to rescue him. To me, that was a big achievement.


The appointment of the ambassadors should be the prerogative of the president, only that I think career diplomats who have gotten experience should really be considered for ambassadorial appointments because like any other, diplomacy is also a profession. Incidentally, these days you find that over 90 per cent of our ambassadors are politicians.

So, in conclusion, I want to say there is need to appoint more careerists to the top job. Uganda is a very beautiful land, we need to market it better so that we improve our tourism, and I think lack of career people there is affecting this.


I would like to urge the authorities in Uganda to always seek advice and opinions of diplomats also be- fore they take major decisions. They should listen to the advice. The other time, I read an article by [Ambassador] Harold Acemah; he said his advice against Uganda joining the ICC was disregarded, but look, today we want to move out.

The other message is to the young people; the levels of corruption are so high today. I want to implore them to think of Uganda before they think about their families.

Moses Ocen Nekyon

Democracy is two Wolves and a Lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed Lamb disputing the results.

Benjamin Franklin

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