The All-purpose Bogeyman:
Idi Amin was up to his elbows in blood,
says Tom Stacey, but the appalling truth is
that he had some admirable qualities
THE SPECTATOR — August 2003
One has to be careful of saying anything nice about people like Idi Amin, even when they are dead and gone. It is easy to get a reputation for being deliberately provocative, or for seeking compassion kudos like the late Lord Longford, who befriended convicts for the sheer magnitude of their infamy.
For many years, Idi Amin was the civilised world’s stock example of ‘pure evil’. Nearly a quarter of a century after the end of his outrageous tyranny, everybody still knows about him. Not so long ago, after spending a long weekend in Idi’s company in seaside Jeddah, I was collecting a roll of developed film from Happy Snaps in Notting Hill Gate. When the man behind the counter awoke to the subject of my happy snaps, he was agog with a tremulous awe. Imagine if the face staring out at you from the developing tray — evidently that of your customer’s companion on a hiking holiday in the Hindu Kush — were that of Osama bin Laden.
But while it is true that Idi Amin did terrible things, it is also true that he had admirable qualities, which the collective human need for an all purpose bogeyman does not allow for. Every era has to have an arch villain. Early 17th century England settled on Guido (‘Guy’) Fawkes; my grandmother told me that her grandmother was warned as a child that if she didn’t behave Boney would come and get her. Idi took on the same role.
Certainly, Idi had blood up to his elbows. I said that firmly at the start of an altercation on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme the other day with the columnist Yasmin AlibhaiBrown. She had been a student at Makerere University in Kampala soon after Amin took power in Uganda in 1971, when his barely tamed ‘Nubian’ soldiery from the far north’s West Nile had been rampaging around suppressing the student instinct for democratic freedoms while unbuttoning their own instinct for rape and rapine. Yasmin was utterly shocked, she said, that I could bring myself to admit that the Idi I knew was genial company and charismatic to his troops.
I first met Idi in 1963. Less than a year into independence, Uganda was faced with a tribal rebellion in the Ruwenzori mountains, aka the Mountains of the Moon, whose glaciered peaks straddle the Congo Uganda border and whose precipitous forest highlands provide the best cover any rebel spearman could dream of.
I knew the tribe and its newly elevated king well, and had been called in by Milton Obote, Uganda’s prime minister, to attempt a mediation. Idi Amin was then a deputy company commander, a captain in the Uganda Rifles, and third or fourth most senior black in the new national army commanded by a handful of devoted British regulars on secondment. These whites relished Big Idi. He had come up through the ranks of the King’s African Rifles, making his name as an inspired tracker (of Mau Mau marauders in neighbouring Kenya) and as the army’s heavyweight boxing champion.
The fellow was a natural leader on the ground and in combat. His men would, as the army says, ‘follow him anywhere’. He was good at all things physical, including women, a talent which earned him his sobriquet ‘Dada’ when he passed off his extramural lady camp follower as his sister (dada in the vernacular).
He was no good at letters, or indeed figures, and needed it explained that owning a chequebook did not make a man rich. Yet he was far from dumb in the world he was familiar with. That very next January, 1964, the Uganda army mutinied against the remaining British officers in the postcolonial armies.
Idi was up country on a recruiting drive at the time but he hastened back to army HQ at Jinja, on Lake Victoria, to confront the mutineers massed on the barrack square. He had them sit. Towering over them, he addressed them with ridicule, disgust and humour which, virtually at a stroke, turned them. As his eye fell on this or that tribe, he switched out of Swahili into a phrase or two of appropriate vernacular. He held up a rifle and, scanning the wide eyed faces, demanded to know which of them could construct such a thing. Then a bullet. Soon he had them smirking at their own idiocy, and in a moment guffawing at the pretensions of their hotheads. He saved the day.
I suppose it was natural for Obote to promote Amin, not least because he was half pagan and unschooled, so that a couple of years later Obote could, without compunction, have General Idi Amin’s help in busting the constitution that Britain had painstakingly bequeathed Uganda on independence. Idi and his army were instructed to shell the Kabaka of Buganda, King Freddie Mutesa, out of his palace as a prelude to the abolition of all Uganda’s constituent Bantu monarchies.
It was a clumsy operation, and King Freddie slipped away to Rwanda and hitched a plane to England, where, disowned and ignored by the Labour government of the day and finding lodgings in the East End of London with the support of a few friends, he was in due course poisoned by agents of the Uganda regime, as Idi himself revealed to me.
It was, of course, from Obote the politico that the boxer soldier Idi caught the heady, corrupting whiff of absolute power. He watched Obote see off the vaunted ‘Westminster model’ of government. Constructed by successive colonial and Commonwealth secretaries — Oliver Lyttelton, Iain Macleod, Duncan Sandys — it was, after all, never much more than a face saver for a Britain intent on getting out from under, to save money, curry favour with an obsessively anti-imperial US, and supposedly pre empt the appeal of Moscow’s or Peking’s communism. Certainly, by the late 1960s, Idi must have seen that the notion of post colonial tropical nations living peaceably under governments which the common people could replace at the cast of a vote was absurd. Peasantry don’t like to live among such a confusion of choices: they don’t sleep at night. In any case, each so called nation in post colonial Africa lay within boundaries drawn mostly in Berlin a century earlier. Many of the true allegiances were, like the Bakonzo of Ruwenzori, sliced through by an international frontier.
Idi in exile talked me through the detail of just how Obote tried to engineer a coup in the senior command of his own army by his fellow Langi tribal placemen, while Obote himself was discreetly absent, in January 1971, at the Commonwealth leaders’ conference in Singapore. It was when the plot was rumbled that the non Langi soldiery came to Idi to entreat him to take over the country.
You may remember how Obote was promptly set up in exile by Julius Nyerere in neighbouring Tanzania’s capital. Dar es Salaam became a nesting ground for the world’s liberal media and a United Nations political presence in the person of George Ivan Smith — the whole claque of them committed to an ‘African socialism’ which was systematically impoverishing one ex-British colony after another, including Nyerere’s. Meanwhile, across the border was Idi Amin, soon out fulfilling all their expectations with an almost theatrical talent for misrule. The rumourmill in Dar fed the world’s media with fact and fantasy about Idi while he did all a man could to feed the mill. Once you start having the bodies of your critics, including your own foreign minister (Michael Ondoga) whom you have fingered in cabinet, turning up among the crocodiles in the world’s most famous river, your detractors can get away with accusing you of anything.
In his second year of power Idi dreamt that it was his vocation to hoof out the Asians. Most black Ugandans were delighted, on account of the Asians controlling most of their economy and taking little trouble to disguise the racism which is endemic to la condition humaine. Politically acceptable Kenyatta, in neighbouring Kenya, had already threatened exactly the same manoeuvre, but hadn’t carried it out. Idi was demonised by the broad Left as embodying all that was predictable if African natives were given power without the tutelage of Tawney, Laski, John Strachey and Fenner Brockway. And the ribald settlers held him up as an example of what they had always said about the munts. I sorrowed.
The reality is that Idi suffered from the same vertiginous exposure to unchecked power that ruined all those others whom I watched destroying their countries at the time: Nkrumah of Ghana, for instance, or Lumumba of Congo. The colonial scuttlers unleashed the whole lot into the sort of quasi democratic national power which was scarcely manageable in Europe, and which, in the context of Africa, was bound to lead to misrule and, in due course, personal paranoia.
These men had all been reared in a culture (still there today) of exclusively tribal authority where leadership is a role steeped in continuity and heritage, not a little sacred, and curbed by a counsel of elders. King Arthur himself, with no Round Table, would have screwed up. Idi, without one, did so spectacularly. He responded to every problem with gut instinct, usually physical. I remember the brow furrowing in Jeddah. ‘I was not taught politics, Tom. I was a soldier.’ So whenever there was trouble, he told that clutch of Nubian heavies, on whom he increasingly came to depend (as his frightened civil service crumbled around him), to use whatever force they thought might work. He let his Baganda jailers revert to their frightful tradition of clubbing their fellows to death in times of stress. And he himself, who ought to have known better, was expunging his dim awareness of one outrageous evil by perpetrating another, which is the Devil’s classic schema. Even his face changed, bespeaking evil … until a virtual mania overtook him and the second invasion from Tanzania became a looting walk over.
It was characteristically African: Mugabe today, though once fed on Laski and the rest, is similarly engaged. Look at his face now.
Not all that Idi did was evil or hectic. The Bakonzo of the Mountains of the Moon, though he tormented them with a helicopter gunship, are grateful for the administrative reforms he introduced on their behalf. I have even heard Ugandan Asian leaders commending the requirement Idi placed on his fellow Africans to develop the economic skills consonant with true independence. Remember also that today the world has grown numb to the scale of African horror. In late colonial times, nine deaths in a British run prison in Kenya could rock a government in Westminster. Today, a few tens of thousands reported massacred in Rwanda, or a vastly greater number proved to be dying of Aids, makes five column inches on an inside page.
So we come to the question they all ask: was there, could there be, remorse in Idi — what his Muslims call istighfar? I do know that Idi had this little book sent him by a Christian daughter living in London, which paraphrased King David’s most despairing of laments, Psalm 22: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? … O my God, I cry by day, and you do not answer, and by night and find no rest … All who see me mock at me, they shake their heads … I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.’ He also persuaded me to smuggle a Bible into his Muslim refuge. I did. Our religion is strong on redemption. Maybe he had spotted that.
© Tom Stacey 2003