Freedom taken, given and snatched back

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

I was born in Kampala, Uganda, then ruled by the British. It was during the zenith of the gold spun empire, lit by the sun which was never going to set. And since most Britons don’t know what that was like, let me tell you: it was rule without consent; there was no democracy, no accountability; we were, de facto, racially segregated though no signs or laws ever affirmed this; tax collection was well administered and strict and revenue spend was based on the racial hierarchy; we were banned from speaking our home languages in school; the law courts mostly tried black felons and though justice was fair, presiding judges were all white; petty rules were imposed and we were not free to criticise any of the above. My first brush with this finely managed autocracy was when I was only about nine, I think.  I was at the Odeon cinema one Saturday morning to see a Charlie Chaplin film. All the kids had settled into seats were eating sweets and making a din.  The lights went down and screen lit up and God Save the Queen was played. Suddenly quiet as dormice, the children stood and sang as if their hearts would burst with love for a crowned woman thousands of miles away. I didn’t stand up, already a rebel, anti-monarchist and embryonic democrat. They threw me out. I only found out in my twenties that Mr Chaplin himself had radically left wing views for which he was ostracised. Respect, sir.

Independence came in the early sixties and Ugandans were elated. They danced as the Union flag was lowered and Ugandan flag raised. Within months, we seemed to be losing our fragile rights. Idi Amin was the general, Milton Obote the first elected president. Between them they started a reign of terror. People disappeared, mutilated bodies were found on the streets. Two were thrown into the stairwell of where we lived, above the marketplace. I saw one of them, a young man being feasted on by flies and stray dogs. From feeling wary and stepped on by the Brits, we had moved on to real, inchoate fear. I went to university and within months Idi Amin and his army deposed Obote. The coup was ‘managed’ by the UK, US and Israel. More killings, widespread torture. No one was safe. My uni friends were taken away and never seen again for saying things in seminars or during debates, or speaking their thoughts in a college bar.

In 1972 I arrived into Britain, the place, we had been taught, which had the mother of parliaments, free speech, gender equality and rule of law. It took me time to get used to these entitlements. Soon after arrival I watched journalists on TV being critical and disrespectful of Ted Heath and I started shaking, feared the hacks would be taken away and hacked to death or buried forever in a prison. I was in my twenties when I first voted, felt part of a free and rule bound society. This is why it all means so very much to me.

Since 9/11, the ground has shaken beneath our feet; those rights we thought were ours forever are now conditional and easily snatched by our governments; justice is under pressure to give into propaganda and the will of the executive. Protest is a crime, prisoners are held in secret on charges not disclosed, not even to lawyers. We are spied on relentlessly, phones are bugged, spies encouraged within families and places of worship. Torture aka ‘rendition’ has been unofficially facilitated by our state which colludes ( as do other EU nations) with America’s vengeful and nebulous war on terror. Together they have been responsible  breaking international law and destabilising the world. Terrorism and fanatical Wahabi Islam are bringing out the worst in the west. And I feel again that old terror in my tired bones, the feeling that life now is entirely dependent on the whims and power of those in charge. The little people suffer and fear for themselves and liberty. Just as they did back in Uganda forty years ago, when I fled from there to here.

Liberties which I found then have been taken away. Idi Amin must be having a laugh.        


Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist who has written for The Guardian, Observer, The New York Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek, The Evening Standard, The Mail and other newspapers and is now a regular columnist on The Independent and London’s Evening Standard. She is also a radio and television broadcaster and author of several books. She is a Vice President of the United Nations Association UK, the President of the Institute of Family Therapy and has also agreed to be a special ambassador for the Samaritans. In 2005, she was voted the 10th most influential black/Asian woman in the country in a poll and in another she was among the most powerful Asian media professionals in the UK.





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