BOOK REVIEW: 'Glimpses of a Global Life': Longest Serving Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Survived a Helicopter Trip with Idi Amin as Pilot

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Glimpses of a Global Life': Longest Serving Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Survived a Helicopter Trip with Idi Amin as Pilot

Credit it to the idiosyncrasies of a book reviewer, but one of the passages in Sir Shridath "Sonny" Ramphal's memoirs, "Glimpses of a Global Life" (Hansib Publications Ltd., Hertford, UK, 624  pages, photos, appendixes, index, $18.60 from Amazon.com; Kindle edition, $9.99) that got my immediate attention was his visit to Idi Amin's Uganda with his English-born wife Lois.

It occurred during Guyana-born Ramphal's tenure as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Commonwealth, and commonly called the "Commonwealth") during an official  visit to the African nation. He and his wife were treated to a helicopter ride with none other than the brutal dictator in the pilot's seat. (I hope there was a co-pilot, but there's no mention of one!). Lois Ramphal was chosen by Amin to preside over the dedication of a paint factory. Ramphal later learned that the factory had already been dedicated. (Amin, 1925-2003, was a former British colonial soldier, who was the third president of independent Uganda, ruling from 1971-1979. He died in exile in Saudi Arabia).

Not long  after the visit to the east African former British colony, Uganda was removed from the Commonwealth. (It has since been reinstated as a member, in spite of the fact that the country is ruled by another dictator,  Yoweri Kaguta Musevenim  who came to power in a coup in 1986.) One of the reasons was the forcible ejection of Uganda's Asian community that consisted of productive people from India. To me, that proves that blacks -- Amin was a black, also a Muslim -- can be as racist as whites.

Ramphal was born in what was then the British colony of British Guiana in 1928. His antecedents came from India as indentured workers, replacing the black slaves who labored in the sugar cane fields of the future Guyana, enriching the white plantation owners who lived very comfortable lives in "England's green & pleasant land," to borrow a phrase from the poem "Jerusalem" by William Blake (1757-1827).

A lawyer and international diplomat, he rose from humble origins to become a key Advisor to Queen Elizabeth II as Head of the Commonwealth. Leaders from every continent engaged with him as the longest serving Secretary-General of the Commonwealth (1975–1990) and as the only person who served on all the Independent International Commissions that grappled with the world's major issues.  

Having been a key player in bringing an end to Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence and institutional racism in Southern Rhodesia, he spent much of his last five years as Secretary-General, until 1990, in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. He had the satisfaction of playing a part in Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990, and Namibia’s independence the following month. Zimbabwe, formerly called Southern Rhodesia, is of course problematical, as it continues to be ruled by Robert Mugabe, who practices his own form of racism against the whites of the country and has turned the country into an economic basket case. Zimbabwe left the Commonwealth about a decade ago, although Ramphal puts it a different way:  "One day, Zimbabwe will return to the Commonwealth -- when it is recognized by all sides that Zimbabwe  did not leave the Commonwealth, Mugabe did." (Page 392).

Ramphal -- just about everybody who knows him calls him "Sonny" --  left the Commonwealth Secretariat as a still youthful 61. He was Chancellor of the Universities of Guyana and Warwick, and the University of the West Indies, and he went on to chair the West Indian Commission which charted a future for the Caribbean region in the 21st century, and he headed the regional negotiating machinery which sought a unified Caribbean trading response to the European Community, the United States and the World Trade Organization. At the age of 79, he successfully led Guyana’s legal team before a United Nations Law of the Sea Tribunal that peacefully settled the maritime boundary with Suriname.

In many ways, the oft-derided Commonwealth was more successful than the United Nations in bringing about majority rule in Africa, as evidenced by the instances of the former Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), the former Southwest Africa, now called Namibia, and, of course in the nation of South Africa itself. At least that's my take after reading "Glimpses of a Global Life." I also saw some quite negative views of Ramphal by reader commentators on the Stabroek News site based in Georgetown, Guyana's capital, in the news service's announcement of the book launch of "Glimpses of a Global Life."   Any memoir, as I've pointed out in my past reviews of the genre, is by its very nature subjective and subject to review by historians.

Toward the end of Ramphal's tenure as Commonwealth Secretary-General, his name came up as a possible secretary-general of the U.N. I think he would have made a much better secretary-general than the fourth man to serve in that position, Kurt J. Waldheim (1918-2007) an Austrian who served as an intelligence officer in Hitler's army during WW II, when Austria was part of the Third Reich.  Waldheim served in the UN post from 1972 to 1981 and was the recipient of a telegram from Idi Amin praising the slaughter of Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich, Germany in 1972. Waldheim protested that, despite being an intelligence officer in the Wehrmacht, he knew nothing about the Third Reich's crimes against humanity.

Summing up, "Glimpses of a Global Life" offers the reader a cast of the world's leading characters and the central role Ramphal played alongside them in issues such as ending  Apartheid in South Africa; laying the foundations for global concerns about the environment; the reform of global governance, and the resolution of conflicts. It is an analysis of major problems and challenges that dominated the twentieth century and which continue to shape the contours of the twenty-first. Since the major news media rarely cover events in the Commonwealth -- except in the cases of terrorist acts like the recent events in Canada, "Glimpses of a Global Life" will serve to educate readers interested -- like the present reviewer -- in history.

About the Author

Sir Shridath Ramphal, born Oct. 3, 1928 in New Amsterdam, British Guiana (now Guyana),  is a lawyer and international diplomat. He rose from humble origins to become a key advisor to Queen Elizabeth II as the Head of the Commonwealth of Nations, and he is also the longest serving Secretary-General of the Commonwealth (1975–1990). Ramphal lives in Barbados. His daughter Susan is the wife of Huntington News Network contributor Sir Ronald Sanders, also a native of Guyana.

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