Obituary: Michael Macoun

Michael Macoun was the last Commissioner of Police in Uganda before it gained independence in 1962, but he was by no means a typical colonial policeman.

A graduate of Oxford and of the Metropolitan Police College, he joined the Colonial Police Service in 1939 and was posted to Tanganyika, where he served for 20 years, less a two-year war-time secondment to Combined Services East Africa (special branch, in short.)

By then a highly experienced senior officer, he moved to Uganda in 1959 as Commissioner of Police, taking command of a force of some 6,000, in a protectorate with a population of 13 million, scattered over 90,000 square miles. A ratio of one policeman to every 2,000 people may seem odd, but responsibility for law and order was shared by police, primarily in the towns; chiefs in the country; and the army in (remote) reserve. The system worked. Uganda was outwardly peaceful, prosperous - and remarkably unaware of the winds of change. The official line was independence in 20 years - it came in three.

Macoun - and others - disbelieved this 20-year assessment. He saw Uganda's colonial days numbered, and inspected his force accordingly. He deemed it well-trained, disciplined and effective, but dangerously flawed in two regards: there were far too few Africans in the senior echelons, and an overwhelmingly Nilotic component, heavily representative of the tribal North.

He set about remedying the first issue, with time against him. He found the second insoluble. Traditionally the Bantu of Uganda were farmers, the Nilotics fighters. So the latter flocked to join the police (and the army) and the former declined. The outcome was to be disastrous - the ghastly regimes of Milton Obote and Idi Amin were yet to come, but their power-base was, in embryo, already established, for both were Nilotic.

Such reservations apart, Macoun was an outstanding commissioner, uniquely suited to the nuances of the time. Intellectually acute, politically shrewd, a convivial extrovert with a keen - sometimes wicked - sense of humour; a courtier in the old-fashioned style (there was a touch of the Regency Buck about him) he was withal a strict disciplinarian, without a hint of arrogance. His particular empathy with Africans, be they ministers or constables, was epitomised by Obote's request that he remain as inspector- general, post- independence, to assist and advise his African successor, which he did, for two years.

He was an ambitious man, with a cool eye for his future. He wanted the top job, and in 1967 - after a year on the Directing Staff of the Police College in Bramshill - he got it: Overseas Police Adviser and Inspector General of Police, Dependent Territories (Foreign and Commonwealth Office). He was an inveterate traveller and this one-man role suited him to perfection. Michael Macoun's memory for people and names was phenomenal. He retired in 1979, but his zest for travel remained. He published his autobiography - Wrong Place, Right Time; Policing the End of Empire - in 1996.

Michael John Macoun, police officer: born 27 November 1914; Commissioner of Police, Uganda 1959-62, Inspector-General 1962-64; OBE 1961; Overseas Police Adviser and Inspector-General of Police, Dependent Territories (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 1967-79; married 1940 Geraldine Sladen (two sons); died 25 March 1997.