The British Empire Library

Interesting Times: Uganda Diaries, 1955-86

by Sir Peter Allen

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Jake Jacobs (Uganda Administration 1947-62, Makerere University 1962-65)
This most remarkable, if not unique, collection of diary excerpts constitutes an autobiography and history of quite compelling reading. The author served eight years in the Royal Artillery before joining the Colonial Police when he was posted to Uganda. During his thirty years service there he witnessed Uganda's Independence, the flight of the Kabaka of Buganda, the Amin era and the successive coups which succeeded his expulsion.

After a spell as ADC to a Governor he was called to the Bar having studied privately in his own time. He was subsequently posted as an instructor at the Police College and within six months was promoted to be Head of the Law School. Whilst on home leave the decision was taken to close the Law School in Entebbe and transfer all students and staff to a new Law Development Centre in Kampala. He was made redundant and informed that he would be compulsorily retired. He successfully contested his 'retirement' and was appointed as a Chief Magistrate. He was offered one of two posts, one in the North and one in the West. He opted for the latter because the roads in the West were better suited to his 'low-slung E-type Jaguar'.

Despite the Amin coup in January 1971, Allen carried on with his court work under considerable difficulty. The local and central government services continued to deteriorate. When on leave he was advised by the Registrar of Courts not to return. He resisted this advice and instead accepted the invitation from Amin's office to return. Shortly after, he was sworn in as a Judge by Amin. By this time he was the only Brit, serving in the Judiciary. He did so for 12 years during which he witnessed the complete breakdown of the Police and the assumption by the Army of all Government services, saving that of the Judiciary. His own finances fell into crisis when HMG cancelled the supplementary allowances paid to the handful of UK recruited officers. This was subsequently assumed by the Commonwealth Secretariat.

Throughout the Amin era he was an impotent witness of random army arrests and illegal imprisonment. He showed considerable courage in tackling Amin direct about some of the more glaring injustices of those increasingly unqualified army nominees carrying out police investigation and prosecution work. Allen led a strange and at times dangerous life travelling the length and breadth of Uganda, hearing cases as a High Court Judge - mostly of murder and manslaughter, trying to create an atmosphere of normality whilst surrounded by utter chaos and mayhem. During his absence on Circuit his house was repeatedly burgled. After one occasion when his house was completely emptied by burglars, Amin ordered that he be reimbursed in sterling, 'So it looks as if Amin wants me to stay on for a while'.

In July 1977 he reports the first cases of what was later to be diagnosed as AIDS. He himself nearly succumbed to a belatedly diagnosed case of peritonitis. He relates sentencing a police officer to death even as he heard gunfire from approaching Tanzanian troops who were to expel Amin from power. He witnessed the gross and wide-spread looting by Amin's fleeing army and the newly arrived Tanzanian troops serving as part of Uganda's National Liberation Army whose behaviour was no better than that of Amin's thugs whom they were replacing. Allen's own domestic arrangements suffered and he was obliged at one time to be his own cook and dhobi whilst still sitting regularly in Court and even indulging his major interest of teaching at the Law School.

At the first General Election to be held after Independence (18 years after) Milton Obote was returned to power. Museven's UPM Party won only one seat whereupon its leader retired to the 'bush' vowing to wage war against the newly elected second government of Obote. On New Year's Eve 1980 when Allen's new cook decamped with ALL his possessions, the only comment in his diary was 'Bother', (One cannot but hope that he was more discriminating in Court than he was in his choice of cooks). The failure of water supplies, the shortage of petrol and the continuing sounds of gunfire failed to deter him. But in August 1981 after the 14th break-in at his house he noted, 'very depressed. I'm beginning to wonder if I can go like this'. Nevertheless he did .so despite pressure from the Chief Justice to give up his lectures to law students and the continuing frustration at the illegal re-arrest of falsely and illegally imprisoned people he had, after due process, ordered to be released from goal.

In July 1985 there was a further military coup and Obote (accompanied by the CJ) was ousted. At this juncture, Allen was pressurised by the other Judges to accept the Chief Judgeship. Despite considerable misgivings, he allowed himself to be sworn in. He foresaw that the military coup would be short-lived and recognised that changes of government usually coincided with changes of Chief Justices.

In January 1986 the final (to date) coup occurred and Museveni was sworn in as Head of Government -- ironically by Allen. Three months later he was told that his contract, shortly due to expire, would not be renewed.

In an editorial bidding him farewell, the Uganda Sunday Review recorded, 'his hard work, impartiality in the administration of justice ensured his meteoric rise to Judgeship'. The theme of his retirement speeches reiterated that he was not leaving Uganda by choice. For 30 years he had served Uganda well (and indirectly the UK also). After his return to the UK Allen was knighted and emigrated to the Cayman Islands to enjoy a well earned retirement.

No reader of this fascinating diary will be left in any doubt that the quality of life - indeed its duration - plummeted after Uganda achieved its independence.

British Empire Book
Sir Peter Allen
Book Guild Publishing Ltd


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