Amin the Monster and Me
THE MAIL ON SUNDAY — August 2003
Whatever you might think, it was not booze or syphilis that contributed to Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada of Uganda being carried, early yesterday morning, into the next world for his account with his Maker.
For here was an ex-tyrant who, until recently, was in prime health – getting on in years, mind you, at 77 or so (he was never sure as to his exact birthday) – but fit. When I last saw him in his villa in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in the mid-Nineties, the worst you could say of Idi Amin’s physical condition was that he was a tad overweight at 18 stone and 6ft 3in. Nothing too gross for a former heavyweight boxing champion of the King’s African Rifles.
We would drive up the coast in his white Chevy Caprice – an inexpensive conveyance by Saudi standards – some 17 miles to Obhor Creek. There he would strip off, displaying his formidable physicality, and streak away through the waters of the Red Sea in a powerful crawl … and return, beaming, to greet the onlookers who knew him as ‘Sheikh Amin’, in a neighbourly way.
We’d drive back, Idi at the wheel, to his villa in the south of the town where he lived with the youngest nine of his 43 acknowledged children who evidently loved him, anf his fairly recently acquired wife, a demure little Muganda girl called Chumaru – and his Saudi minder in the forecourt. Chumaru, 11 years ago, presented him with a new daughter, lman, who at once became the apple of her father’s eye. I held her in my arms and Idi’s once tearaway son Tabaan, then 38 visiting from the Congo, snapped us with his Instamatic.
We all tucked in to roast chicken, mutton stew and kisra (the millet-made flat bread of East Africa). Only I bothered with a knife and fork and we talked until prayer time. Idi was a manifestly devout ex-monster. To the very last, he dreamed of returning to Uganda to live in dignified retirement as an iconic figure from an era which history somehow got all wrong. He was convinced of his sustaining popularity.
Idi ruled Uganda from January 1971 to mid-1979, when he was driven out by a Tanzanian army and a mixed force of Ugandan dissidents, the most effective element of which was headed by Uganda’s present autocrat, Yoweri Museveni, although he had to go back to the bush and fight – for another six years until he finally got the power he craved. Idi fled Uganda in a C-140 cargo plane to the Libyan capital of Tripoli and the protection of his crony Colonel Gadaffi. But after a few months the Libyan leader reckoned his guest despot was too hot to handle. In secret, Idi slipped across to Saudi Arabia, a country not too picky as to which fallen dictator it gave asylum to, provided they became good Muslims and were not too hostile when they were in power. They provided him with a nice but not luxurious nine-room villa in the city of Jeddah, with surrounding high walls and enough of a stipend to pay his running expenses and a bit – but not a whole lot more. Unlike most of his fellow East African dictators Idi never robbed his country’s exchequer, such as it was. He came out with a dozen trunk-loads of personal kit, no more. When I first met him in exile, back in 1982, he was sharply turned out like an elegant superannuated British general, with handmade shoes. Nobody was meant to recognize him. But he recognized me.
The rot began to set in in Uganda after 1964, some two years after independence, when the last of the British officers were withdrawn from the Uganda Rifles. Idi admired the British heart and soul, especially the military, which had given a shape and brought a discipline to his life. He really missed his white fellow officers. They were what he most wanted to talk about – ‘Iain Grahame, Bill Cheyne…’ Idi was highly charismatic and a natural leader of men but was swiftly and disastrously over-promoted.
Two years later he was Commander-in-Chief, doing much of the dirty work for Uganda’s then Prime Minister, Milton Obote. This included bombarding the monarch of the then-constituent entity of Buganda, King Freddie, out of his palace on the edge of Kampala, and tearing up the constitution the British had so painstakingly provided Uganda with on independence. The popular Idi soon began to look too powerful and Obote sidelined him but when Obote, while out of the country at the Commonwealth leaders’ conference of 1971, muffed his attempt to have his own tribesmen seize control of the army, the rest of the soldiers rallied to Idi and made him president. The people cheered. All of this Idi had been happy to recall in long and detailed reminiscences in Jedda.
He became quite the international favourite for a while – if not among his African socialist fellows – while the Obote he deposed ensconced himself in the neighbouring capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, to plot the usurper’s downfall. Idi reckoned he needed more military aircraft. So off he flew to tel Aviv to see Prime Minister Golda Meir of Israel, then Uganda’s chief source of armaments.
What did he need the aircraft for? Asked Golda.
‘Why,’ said Idi, ‘to attack Tanzania!’ After a discreet pause, Meir declined the proposal.
So Idi promptly re-boarded his plane to fly, unannounced and uninvited to London, to the astonishment of Prime Minister Edward Heath and his Foreign Secretary, Alec Douglas-Home. What on Earth had the fellow come for? Next day, by collusion with the Palace, the Queen had him to lunch.
Duly prompted, at a suitable point over the coffee, she leaned across to ask her guest: ‘Do tell me, to what do we owe the unexpected honour of your visit?’
‘In Uganda, Your Majesty,’ said Idi, ‘it is verra difficult to find a pair of size 14 shoes.’ This, of course, was Idi parodying himself. He chuckled over the occasion as he recalled it.
But the style of humour began to sour as evidence of capricious killings and public executions mounted. The smiles froze. He was never smart at seeing himself as others saw him. When at a gathering at Rabat in Morocco of the Organisation of African Unity (of which he was president for a year) he filled a lull in the proceedings by demonstrating how, as a corporal tracker in the colonial army – and he was a very fine tracker – he would come up behind his Mau Mau enemies in Kenya under cover of darkness and garrotte them with a handkerchief. His fellow African leaders didn’t laugh at all.
To the end he remained unwavering in his devotion to Britain and the Monarchy. I was with him in Jeddah just after he had written to the Queen saying how sorry he was at the marital problems of her offspring, and was there anything he could do? He was puzzled that he got no reply. Could I possibly nudge the Queen? It had been the same when he called Kurt Waldheim, the UN Secretary-General, to express his heartfelt approval of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games. (Gadaffi had by then replaced Israel as his supplier of weaponry.) The fellow never answered. Nor did US President Richard Nixon when, as one friendly head of state to another, he had wished him a ‘speedy recovery’ from his Watergate difficulties. Nor did Ted Heath when, on the Tories’ defeat in the Election of 1974, he invited him ‘and his band’ to tour Uganda. Surely some mistake.
I have to say that the Idi I knew invariably provided enjoyable and welcoming company but I knew him before and after – not during – the grotesque theatricality of runaway power. I first encountered him in Uganda’s Mountains of the Moon. He was a deputy company commander in the Uganda Rifles. I had been chief foreign correspondent at The Sunday Times and, as an author specialising in Ugandan affairs and its tribal culture, had been invited by Obote to act as a mediator in a rebellion by the Bakonzo people, whose home was those amazing mountains on the Congo border. Idi hoped to shoot my people out of the hills. He needed to feed his men with some protein and had bought a hippo carcass from the game department. He and I strode through his sullen ranks munching roast hippo liver in an attempt to restore their energies with this strange chop. (My tribesmen never were shot out of the hills by Idi’s men.)
So in Jeddah we relived the good past. And the bad? Was there remorse at all for the mayhem and horror that increasingly shamed his presidential rule? My reading is that the manic years became all but irrecoverable by the conscious mind. There remained a retrospective awareness that the whole regime had run more or less hopelessly out of control.
Once he said to me wistfully: ‘I was taught to fight. I was not taught politics.’
And again, of this or that horror taking place under his presidency: ‘I could not go to each ministry and box them!’
He was no simpleton. He spoke 17 of Uganda’s languages, picked up in the barrack room and as he moved around the old country. Yet he was, I admit, never more than a step of two from savagery: that was always the first recourse in the face of trouble.
There in Jeddah in exile, the Saudis insisted he learn to read Arabic, to know the meaning of the Koran as Allah revealed it. So he worked away and did it. That deepened him. He and I talked about God in a not unsophisticated way. He was happy talking about God. He had me smuggle in a Christian Bible on one of my visits. One of his daughters in London sent him a tiny book paraphrasing Psalm 22, which begins: ‘My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ It later says: ‘I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.’ Idi said of that book: ‘I never leave it.’
During all those years of exile he followed the Islamic rule of prayer at least three times a day and sometimes five. And for the last decade he adopted the simple Arabian attire of a long white shirt and a skullcap. But his children are, variously, Christian and Muslim. He asked me to enrol one, young Barbarye, into a smart London tutorial college. But he couldn’t find the money.
He never gave up imagining he would go home. He had his informers and friends telling him about Uganda’s serial disorders, and of his own popularity of which he presumed Museveni was much afraid – hence the latter’s determined demonisation of him. His Ugandan friends had long known where to find him on their way to Mecca so the Saudis kept him on a tight leash. At one point in the late Eighties he slipped away and got himself to Congo, as Mobutu’s secret guest. The idea was to get right up to the Congo north-east border among his fellow Kakua tribesmen and spy out the land, test his acceptability. It came to nothing – except to make the Saudis cross. More recently someone leaked his telephone number and his codename, and he found his private intentions reported back in Uganda. The Saudis were not amused. They changed his number and censored his incoming and outgoing mail. Last Christmas was the first for seven years that I failed to get a card from him.
© Tom Stacey 2003