by Robert Baker
Rajat Neogy declared himself referee and demanded a formal exchange of insults contest between Paul Theroux and me. It was the fag end of a very Scotch evening in Rajat’s cluttered, dusty living room up in the green hills of Kampala. Brimming ashtrays and empty beer bottles lay on tables and chairs. Everyone was gone except the three of us. Rajat grinned a brilliant grin as he scribbled down his insult scores as Paul and I exchanged jibes. He grinned and goaded us on. We drank some more. Rajat declared that I had won. Paul was briefly sullen but we had another drink and he came around. Paul is smarter than I but had likely drunk more. We staggered out, leaving Rajat as the rising sun peeped through his windows.
Rajat in 1966 was the Indian editor of Transition, Africa’s only literary magazine in English, not run by Europeans. Rajat published most of Africa’s leading writers and many from Europe and the U.S. Paul was then an impecunious English teacher living in a bachelor flat at Makerere University and a commercially unsuccessful novelist. I was Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer at the dusty, run-down American Cultural Center and Library on Kampala Road.
Married with a wife and two little kids, I was at my first Foreign Service post in 1966. I had met Paul when I overheard him ask my African librarian if he could borrow some 16mm films about American writers. The librarian told him we had none. I stepped to the counter and handed Paul the list of our film holdings which I had just compiled. It included about a dozen documentaries on American writers. That led to our friendship.
Uganda’s President, Milton Apollo Obote, was beginning to dump the democratic institutions left behind by the British colonial power. Tribal warfare had already broken out, but I was there during an historical pause in Uganda’s national decline into a decade of bloody chaos. Hundreds of thousands were killed before the current authoritarian regime restored a semblance of democratic order. The recent discovery of oil in Uganda raises hope for Uganda’s future, or at least, for the future of its rulers.
Like Paul and myself, Rajat came from an odd background. His parents were among Uganda’s Brahmin, middle-class Indians. They raised him like a prince. He was the mango of his mother’s eye, as I was the apple of mine.
We were all about 30 years old; Rajat and I had gorgeous wives. Paul was single but found love with “banana women” on his bachelor quarters floor. They carried stalks of bananas over their shoulders and peddled them door to door. Rajat had detatched his American wife from her husband, an American pediatrician doing research at Makerere Hospital. Rajat was strikingly handsome and previously had sired a couple of children by a wife in India. Years later in California, after his wife divorced him, he went on to additional love affairs as part of his sad decline into acute alcoholism.
When Uganda became independent, Rajat deliberately gave up his U.K. passport to demonstrate allegiance to the new African nation. Very few did that. That patriotic act served him ill when the government jailed him for a year in solitary for his very mild criticism in Transition. The then President of Uganda, Milton Apollo Obote, strongly favored his own tribe and clan in giving out jobs in the Army and Government service. Rajat alluded to that practice mildly during Obote’s drawn out dismantling of Ugandan democracy. Obote had won in Uganda’s last free election. He correctly foresaw that he would lose the next election. He therefore began to jail, torture and kill his political enemies. Rajat, as a journalist dedicated to the democracy, was a natural target for Obote. All press freedom in Uganda eventually ended.
Fiendishly, Rajat’s cell was next to the post where criminals and political prisoners were whipped. Ten lashes was really torture. A special leather harness had to be put around the prisoner’s genitals so the whip would not castrate him accidentally. Wherever the whip landed, it took off skin. The lash was a hangover from colonial British law and had been kept for convenience by the independent African government. Prisoner screams just outside his door were a part of Rajat’s punishment. He was denied reading and writing materials, but scratched notes made from saliva and burnt match paste onto toilet paper. He smuggled them out via his wife, who could visit him. He was given the “European” prisoner diet, and so was not starved, because he was so prominent internationally. He and his wife had dined with the Rockefellers in New York and the Astors in London. African literary figures were exotic in the 1960’s and were lionized in the U.S. and the U.K.
I was back home by the time Rajat was jailed. I helped to get an editorial published in The Washington Post urging that he be set free. Other friends placed a similar editorial in The New York Times. Partly as a result of those, his wife’s efforts in Kampala and protests from various foreign governments, he was freed.
Rajat, his wife and their little daughter came to stay with my family in London. Rajat and I made serious inroads into my Scotch supply (I used to order four or five cases of Johnny Walker Black at a time, mostly for my many official parties). Late one day, about a month after I had picked them up at Heathrow, he in a mad fit, drunkenly struck his wife. She called me. I went home at once to help. He was drunk and raving that he was a god. She and I wrestled him into a taxi which drove us to the Phipps Clinic. She committed him. The next day he checked himself out and flew to Africa where he tried unsuccessfully to convert to Islam.
By then, the cracker Muslim, Idi Amin, had overthrown Obote and was President. Rajat wanted to start up his magazine again. He got nowhere. Later he went to Ghana with his wife’s help and started up Transition there for a while. His drinking got worse again and they separated. He eventually wound up driving a taxi in San Francisco and at the end, living on welfare.
He came to a couple AA meetings with me in New York after his ex-wife had paid to bring him East and put him into an alcohol treatment program. After our time in NY together, he turned to me after an AA meeting and said, “You know, Bob, I only come to these to help you. I don’t need them.” He was found on his bed alone in his welfare hotel room, dead a couple days, from a failing due to alcoholism. A charming, brilliant, funny, and generous man, but deeply troubled in his personal relationships, a very sad and in some ways, tragic life.
Rajat was traduced by a variety of external factors as well as his personal failings. Some months before my transfer from Uganda to Mali, the news broke that the CIA had funded Transition, and a number of other left-of-center intellectual magazines around the world. The CIA secretly gave non-communist left-of-center social democrats money through foundations to counter the many far left-of-center magazines and newspapers funded from early in the Cold War by the Soviet KGB.
All the magazines funded by the CIA at times criticized the U.S. for its more errant domestic and foreign policies. The CIA felt that Congress would never fund such critics, even though social democratic writers also vigorously berated Soviet repression in the Evil Empire and generally supported democratic ideals.
Some of the magazines, like Encounter, in Europe, became excellent sources of democratic discussion on major issues, inter alia, of American domestic and foreign policy. In that, they served American national interests by clarifying issues. It seems clear now that the funding of magazines by the CIA even though useful in the short term, was bound to become public and thereby to tarnish both the writers and the editors of the magazines. However, without CIA funding, it’s likely Encounter and Transition would not have survived.
Rajat called me the morning the news broke about the CIA funding. He was scared and asked me to go for a walk with him around Makerere campus, fearing his home and office were tapped. He asked me if the story were true. I felt it probably was, though I had no direct knowledge.
However, he had introduced me to the smooth New England, Harvard type guy who visited him a couple times. He represented the ostensible funder of Transition, The Farfield Foundation. Rajat was worried sick that the Ugandan government would use the CIA funding as an excuse to close Transition. I suggested he at once try to get funding from some honestly independent source like the Volkswagen or the Ford foundations. I gave their addresses to Rajat, but suspect he never tried for help from them. Later it appeared both had been used by the CIA as funding vehicles.
The Ugandan government never used CIA funding as an excuse to shut down Transition. I suspect they were willing to tolerate it so long as it railed only against dictatorship outside Uganda. It also criticized U.S. Vietnam policy and most other ills around the world, including Soviet repression. There was lots of British intelligence, CIA, KGB, etc. money rolling around Uganda at the time. The CIA chief’s house in Kampala was much bigger than the Ambassador’s. Doubtless it was assumed all along in Obote’s government that Rajat was funded by some foreign intelligence service. It is a fact that several newspaper editors in Uganda were funded by communist intelligence services. Many Ugandan officials were on various Western and Eastern intelligence payrolls. It was almost a perk of office.
Such influence games by big powers went back a long time. Even inter-tribal bribery was part of 18th century tribal intrigues. The Baganda, used it along with open warfare to run much of the country before the British made Uganda a Protectorate in 1894. In a diplomatic deal, London traded a clear title to Uganda with the Germans. They got undisputed title to both Tanganykia (now joined with the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba in the country named Tanzania) and Helgoland in the North Sea.
Uganda was once also suggested by the British as a possible Zionist homeland. Had that notion flourished, how different the history of the Middle East, Zionism, and Africa would have been. The Germans ruled Tanganyika rigidly, hanging some 11,000 tribesmen in the Meiji Meiji Rebellion before WWI, but ruled mostly peacefully after that.
In Africa, as in the Middle East, Europe and much of the United States, religious leaders of great influence sprang up from time to time. The Meiji Meiji (water water) rebellion was founded on resentment against the Germans. Its cult belief was that German Mauser bullets would magically turn to water when they hit the skin of the blessed rebels. Curiously, until the end WW II, elderly Africans spoke German and longed nostalgically for “the good old days of German rule”.
Obote was strongly supported by the British, Americans, Scandinavians, Israelis, etc. because they argued he was a national leader who would save the country from tribal fighting. I had written a dissenting cable to say that he was a fake national leader, and was really just a tribal one. The U.S. Embassy’s annual political assessment report literally put our money on Obote. It was obvious to underlings like me that among the assorted tribal groups tending to break up Uganda, Obote was merely the apparent strongest force for national unity. But it was also obvious that if he had to resort to force to keep the place together, that it would break up anyway. It almost did break up in the event, due to tribal fighting for more than a decade, and at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. My dissenting cable offered no solution to the predictable breakup and tribal fighting. I doubt if there was one. The killing stopped when the parties were exhausted by it and a charismatic rebel leader emerged. He is now the long-serving President of Uganda.
Nobody should blame only the creation of colonial states for that tribal war tragedy. For hundreds of years before Europeans appeared in Uganda, the leading tribe, the Baganda, had made war against neighboring tribes for loot, land and slaves. Smaller tribes did the same favor to even smaller tribes. Initially violent British colonial rule eventually established peace in the region for the first time in centuries and brought the people enormous prosperity and security compared to their pre-colonial existence. It also eventually ruined their social systems bringing on emotional and economic poverty.
Roughly the same story could be told about most regions of Africa. British, French, Belgian, German , Portuguese, Italian, Spanish and other colonial or slaver powers also commited horrible injustices. They also brought some major benefits to the people, mainly security. Obote and other African leaders, used government to help their own clans and tribes.
Corruption and tribal favoritism were the norm in pre-colonial Africa, as they were for centuries in Europe, the Middle East, the Far East and no doubt, among the powers of the Arctic. Obote killed many of the top opposition politicians, drove out the Asians and intellectuals or subverted them, and was then overthrown by Idi Amin. His power base was the Army, composed largely of his own backward tribe or its poor tribal neighbors.
Amin was an even less democratically representative figure than Obote. When I knew Amin slightly, he was a Colonel, risen from the ranks where he had been a champion boxer in the colonial Kings African Rifles. He attended film shows of American rocket launchings, a novelty back in the late 60’s. At one show I heard him comment thoughtfully after a loud rocket launch ” Ugh. Good rocket.” Idi himself, while he was Prime Minister, once dragged a judge from the bench during a trial and bashed in his head with a hammer. It is believed Amin had congenital syphilis. In its tertiary phase, that meant Amin was literally mad from the disease at times during his rule.
In addition to saying in a broadcast from Radio Uganda that Hitler should have been more thorough in his extermination program, Amin wreaked horrible crimes against all Asians and most educated Ugandans. Before Arabs bribed him, Israel had trained him in Israel as a paratrooper.
He correctly saw Asians and educated Ugandans as a threat to his rule. He murdered most of the Africans I had known. Before he died, but after he was overthrown, he had a minor entourage in exile in Saudi Arabia, thanks to his paid for Jew-baiting when he was in power. Earlier in his career Israel gave him training and support, but evidently not enough.
Obote returned to power militarily backed by the wise man of East Africa, Julius Nyrere. The latter was so wise that he forcibly relocated much of the population from their traditional individual farms to villages. There, education and farming services, medical care, etc. were supposed to be provided by the socialist central government . Such services remained on paper and were not provided in fact with few exceptions. The poor peasants just had to walk a lot more under Nyrere’s African socialism to get to their fields. The gross product of Tanganyika declined under Nyrere despite the vast amounts of aid given by the socialist regimes of Scandinavia and chunks from the U.S and the U.K. A more nearly free economy in the past decade or so since Nyrere stepped down, has slowly begun to help the Tanzanian economy to recover. Nyrere was honest and lived simply. His brother was Minister of Development and very rich.
After he returned to power, Obote’s murderous secret service reprised all the brutal repression under Amin. Horrible stuff. However, Americans should not cluck over the monstrous evil of African politics, nor should the Swedes, etc.
One recalls the great Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, who led Lutheran armies into Catholic Germany, during the Thirty Years War. It killed one-third of Germany’s population. Cambodia’s monstrous Pol Pot and Uganda’s Milton Appalling Obote were pikers by comparison.
Europe’s unintentionally exported diseases to the Americas caused the death of millions of natives. However, intentional warfare by the Spanish, Portuguese, English, etc. deliberately killed tens of thousands, if not more and enslaved millions.
To be quite politically incorrect, it must be noted that Africans for centuries enslaved and slew vast numbers of Africans. Native Americans both North and South did the same favor to their fellows. They sometimes topped off their depredations with human sacrifices and extensive torture of the captured as well. Those refinements by the 19th Century, had largely been given up by the Europeans in their own slow march out of barbarism.