Saturday, February 27, 2010

The End of Idi Amin by Andrew Rice

Idi Amin lived in a villa in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah, fat and unmolested, under the protection of the Islamic kingdom's monarchy. In 1989, he'd made a desultory attempt to fight his way back to Uganda from Congo, never making it out of the capital, Kinshasa, where he was identified and deported by the immigration authorities, but since then he seemed to have contented himself with living out a leisurely retirement. He studied the Koran and watched satellite television. He visited a masseur at the Intercontinental Hotel. He was sometimes glimpsed driving a white Chevrolet Caprice.

"Do you feel any remorse?" the Italian journalist Riccardo Orizo asked Amin, in a rare post ouster interview published in 2002.

"No," replied. "Only nostalgia"

Amin's lavish impunity provoked remarkably little outrage in Uganda. The majority of the population hadn't even been born in 1979. This generation wasn't even fully aware of the country's past. "Young people now don't know Amin," said one top government minister, a former resistance fighter. "And some can't believe that we could have a government of that deplorable quality. They don't believe."

One Sunday morning in August of 2003, however, Ugandans awoke to the newspaper headline: AMIN IN COMA. Far away, in a Saudi hospital, the exiled dictator was dying of kidney failure.

The news was an abrupt reminder of the past- a disruptive intrusion on the unsettled present. With Amin on his deathbed, his supporters felt emboldened to voice long stifled feelings of affection. Muslim politicians called on the government to allow the dictator to return from exile so he could die at home, or at the very least, to bring his body back for a state funeral once he had expired. Many ordinary Ugandans seemed ready to forgive the dying man or even to deny he had done anything requiring forgiveness. Newspapers canvassed Kampala's bars and street corners. "Every African leader makes mistakes," a salesman told the Monitor. "I would give him my vote if he recovers and wants to run for president," said a taxi driver. "People say he killed so many people, but I think there is no leader who has not killed," said a shop owner. Such sentiments were not universal, or even the majority opinion, but Amin's defenders spoke at a volume that tended to drown out more reasoned views.

The sympathetic response was not simply confined to the dictator's tribesmen or coreligionists. A great many Ugandans still thought of Amin as a nationalist who had kicked out the Asian merchants, proclaiming that he would redistribute economic power to black Africans. He symbolize a vanished era, one that, for all its horrors, still represented the one time in Uganda's history when the country had dared to challenge the world's great powers. President Museveni, who often derided his predecessor's "stupidity", was initially dismissive of valedictory sentiments. "I would not bury Amin", he told the newspapers. "I will never touch him. Never. Not even with a very long spoon." But such remarks sparked an extraordinary public outcry....The outrage was such that Museveni, who seldom conceded any points to his critics, was forced to retreat, calling a defensive press conference to announce that the dictator could be buried in Uganda.

As Amin remained in his coma for several weeks, the national newspapers devoted front-page headlines to the slightest updates on his health condition. He was on life support. His vital organs were failing. Fattened by years of easy living and frequent deliveries of his favorite Ugandan food, he was said to weigh more than four hundred pounds. His wives and children, dispersed around the world, rushed to Saudi Arabia to be by his bedside. Up in West Nile, the New Vision reported, some of the dictators- more distant relatives gathered at the family farm. They had recently completed a modestly scaled home, roofed with blue-tinted sheet metal and surrounded by a barbed-wire fence with money sent by Amin in expectation of his return. They marked out a burial plot and started to make preparations.

One sunny West Nile morning, I paid a visit to the dictator's retirement home. Out in the farmhouse's front yard, dozens of women in colorful finery were sitting in vigil, while a steady stream of well-wishers- the president's former chief of protocol, and ex-bodyguard- came ambling up the dirt path, seeking the latest news from the family spokesman, Captain Amule Amin, one of the dictator's brothers. "He is improving," Amule assured the visitors. "He is a fit and strong man."

When Amin ruled, Ugandans had called his people the mafuta mingi, a Swahili term that translates as "the very fat". The people of West Nile, always desperately poor and treated dismissively by the comparatively wealthy southern tribes, had gorged themselves on all they could acquire, confiscating homes and businesses, forming syndicates to smuggle coffee, cotton and other cash crops, enriching themselves even as the rest of the economy collapsed. Now it was all gone. "Now we survive by digging," Amule said. By digging, he meant farming.

When I met him, Amule had just come in from the fields, where he was erecting fence posts, and his hands and clothes were caked with mud. He offered a tour of the farm, proceeding past fields of corn, sweet potatoes, peanuts and cassava, to a collection of jagged brick pillars assembled around a patch of broken concrete and some skeletal walls flecked with turquoise paint. These were the ruins of President Amin's country estate, which had been looted and leveled long ago by the returned exiles of the liberation army.

"We understand those who talk bad about Amin, especially the authorities," Amule said. "They fear him because he is popular. If he comes back, he may change things upside-down here."

Over the course of my extensive journey's through the West Nile, I was to repeat the same macabre home tour many times. Amin's aged henchmen all wanted me to see the remnants of the fine residences they built during their time in power, not the new, more modest homes they had built close by. The former vice president, General Mustafa Adrisi- a man who had siphoned so much money from state coffers that he earned the nickname "Mr. Foreign Exchange"- sorrowfully recounted how his three-house complex near the Sudanese border had been dynamited by the liberators, and the asked for a donation to help rebuild it. Another general, living in a thatched hut next to a wrecked, weed-covered mansion, said, "This is what life is. Up to down".

The upended sentiment extended far beyond the small circle that benefited most from the dictatorship. Throughout West Nile, people felt that while Amin may have been a tyrant, at least he was their tyrant: a son of the soil, a kinsman. When he ruled they were fat; now they were thin. When he ruled they had jobs; now they had none. When he ruled they were strong; now they were weak. When he ruled they mattered; now they hardly counted at all. Tribe trumped truth, grievance obviated guilt. Nostalgia was all they had.

On August 16, 2003, Idi Amin Dada died. He never knew the exact date of his birth, but the best estimates say he was around eighty years old. Even from the grave, Amin continued to divide Ugandans. The front page of the New Vision newspaper featured a giant, glowering picture of the dictator and, under the stark headline AMIN IS DEAD , a quotation from Isaiah:

Now you are weak as we are! You are one of us! You used to be honored with the music of harps, but now you are in the world of the dead. You lie on a bed of maggots and are covered with a blanket of worms.

"I am not mourning at all," President Museveni said at a public even in Soroti, an eastern town. " What did he achieve? What did he do for Uganda? What will he be remembered for? the president asked the crowd.

"That he killed," his audience responded.

Meanwhile hundreds of mourners gathered at the main mosque in Kampala so say the traditional Muslim prayers for the dead. The weeks of public argument about Amin's funeral turned out to be moot. The Saudi government had swiftly buried the exiled dictator in Mecca, Islam's holiest city, a solution the mourners found appropriate.

"This is a sad moment not only for Muslims worldwide, but for Uganda," a member of Parliament from the West Nile said in an address to the prayer service. "We have lost a loving brother. How the world looks on Amin fulfills the saying that leadership is a dustbin. When you are gone, everything bad is heaped on you."


  1. The nation now, unquestionably, belonged to Museveni. He had ruled it for almost as long as all Uganda's previous presidents combined... In 2006 he still talked of his "resistance struggle". But his underlying ideology had changed. "His world outlook has changed," said Augustine Ruizindana, a member of parliament and a fellow survivor of the failed attack on Mbarara in 1972. "There is no doubt that his style of life has changed. He was an ascetic person, very highly disciplined. I think if you discussed something with him and agreed on it, you could rely on that. Now all these things have changed. He likes pomp. I think he likes power for the sake of it. He likes luxury now. He likes money. He has introduced an authoritarianism that was not there before. I think that now it's not that he dislikes people who disagree with him. He actually hates them."

    He was now such an unabashed capitalist that he wrote opinion columns for the 'Wall Street Journal' about the glories of free trade. He made himself an important African ally of George W. Bush, and he even supported the invasion of Iraq. He's cultivated influential friends within the American evangelical movement and quoted from the Bible at a teeming all-night revival staged at a Kampala soccer stadium, broadcast by religious networks in both Uganda and the United States. The passage the president had chosen, from the Gospel of Luke, was a parable told about the king who rewards his servants for multiplying the dominion's wealth. "I tell you that to everyone that has, more will be given."

    No one could accuse Museveni of failing to practice what he preached. Nowadays, the streets of Kampala were clogged with gleaming new SUV's bearing government plates. Corruption was flourishing, particularly in the army, where the president's hard-living brother, Salim Saleh- a sort of ganja-smoking, gun-toting, Billy Carter figure- held enormous sway. He and his other generals mounted campaigns of plunder into neighboring Congo, took kickbacks on deals for faulty weaponry, padded the military payroll with non-existent soldiers whose wages they pocketed and constructed mansions fit for drug lords atop Kampala's hills. Foreign aid funds that were intended to finance schools and AIDS medications were diverted into ruling party coffers or private pockets.

    In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton had hailed Museveni as one of the 'new breed' of African leaders, but with each egregious scandal, the future was looking more like the past... A satirical play showing in Kampala dramatized the extent to which the president seemed to have fallen out of touch with public opinion. At the end of the production, the playwright, who was also the lead actor, carted out a series of three papier-mache busts of Musaveni, intended to depict how the president had changed over time. One bust had two ears; the second was missing an ear; the third had no ears at all.

  2. "The Teeth May Smile But The Heart Does Not Forget; Murder and Memory in Uganda" by Andrew Rice.; Metropolitan Books/ Henry Holt & Co., 2009