Unvarnished tyranny

This is perhaps the only book I have yet read about Amin which gives anything like an accurate assessment of who he was

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Mark Leopold has produced an excellent book about Idi Amin, one of Africa’s most notorious dictators. Well written and full of original research, this is perhaps the only book I have yet read about Amin which gives anything like an accurate assessment of who he was, what he actually did, and why.

Amin became president of Uganda, a country I once called home, during a military coup in 1971. In the years that followed, as Amin became a household name around the world, Uganda, the country I was growing up in, fell apart.

Idi Amin: The Story of Africa’s Icon of Evil Mark Leopold Yale University Press £35

Yet, as Leopold recognises, so much of what has been written about Africa’s most infamous tyrant is nonsense. Amin has tended to be portrayed either as a clownish buffoon, parodied in Alan Coren’s Punch column. Or else he has been shown as a sadistic madman, the sort who kept body parts in his fridge.

The strength of this book lies in its refusal to simply recycle all the old stories. Leopold uses what primary sources he can find instead.

Much of what everyone “knows” about Amin is based on journalistic fiction. Western correspondents reporting about Uganda in the late 1970s seldom dared set foot in the country. Even supposedly reliable BBC World Service reporters tended to file their reports from neighbouring Nairobi. A flood of gory books followed, written with an eye on the public in Britain and America rather than on what had happened in Uganda.

Leopold debunks various myths. He explains how it was that a poorly educated, if charismatic, soldier came to acquire power in a newly independent African state. He shows the importance of a number of often overlooked incidents, such as the Turkana killings in 1962 and the Congo gold scandal of 1965-66, which showed Amin that he could act with relative impunity.

In 1966, when his predecessor as president, Milton Obote, ordered the army — led by Amin — to oust the Baganda’s traditional king, the Kabaka, Amin saw at first-hand how the power of the army could be decisive. Within five years, Amin did to Obote what Obote had ordered him to do to the Kabaka, forcing him out of office.

When “woke” Westerners write about Africa, they usually gloss over the issue of tribe, fearful of saying anything pejorative. When confronted by an African reality — such as the mass killing of Tutsi by Hutu mobs in Rwanda — that makes it impossible not to mention the t-word, many Western commentators try to suggest that in so far as tribalism exists in Africa, it is really just a legacy of wicked Western colonialism.

Leopold is honest enough to recognise that it is impossible to explain events in Uganda’s recent history without reference to tribe. It was, he shows, rivalries between a Langi leader (Obote and the Uganda People’s Congress leadership) and the Baganda, the largest tribe, that enabled Amin to oust the former with the support of the latter. It was animosity between Langi and Acholi soldiers, and Amin’s own West Nilers, that then allowed Amin to consolidate his hold over the army.

Leopold shows that for someone that was supposed to be a buffoon, Amin proved to be both sophisticated and calculating. Just as he ruthlessly used tribal rivalries to get what he wanted at home, he tried a similar ploy abroad. He cultivated close ties with Israel initially, before pivoting towards Arab allies, in order to get the weapons he wanted. He played off the West against the Soviet bloc, too.

Amin’s regime eventually began to disintegrate when he ran out of people to play off against each other. Neighbouring Tanzania’s leader, Julius Nyerere, who to his great credit always saw Amin for what he was, patiently prepared an army to oust him, after Amin had launched an entirely unprovoked attack on Tanzania. Supported by groups of exiled Ugandans, shortly before Christmas 1978, the invading Tanzanians began their slow advance.

Finally confronted by real force, Amin could only count on bravado, plus the support of a few thuggish kinsmen and Libya’s president Gadaffi, who sent a small contingent to defend Kampala. Unable to save Amin, the Libyans proved unable to save even themselves, coming to a grisly end at Entebbe.

Leopold’s book brought back memories of the fall of Kampala. He quotes Amin’s son Jaffar, who spoke of “the constant boom sound made by the . . . rocket shellfire”. I heard those same sounds, lying in the cellar of my home.

Curiously, given that he had to flee from them, Jaffar is quoted as referring to the Tanzanians as “liberators”. For a long time afterwards, everyone in Kampala felt obliged to describe them that way. But I’m not sure those who sat in the path of the advancing army saw things in quite such terms at the time. As Leopold notes, there were no popular uprisings in support of the Tanzanian invasion. Ugandans simply wanted to survive, and by then one group of gunmen seemed much the same as another.

Leopold suggests that Amin, although regarded as an “icon of evil”, was not the worst president that Uganda has produced. When he expelled Uganda’s Asians and expropriated their property, he was merely enacting a policy his predecessor had already set out. While Amin and his soldiers murdered tens — perhaps hundreds — of thousands, it was after Amin that the killing became indiscriminate. He tended to target those he perceived as some sort of threat.

Uganda in the early 1980s demonstrated something Thomas Hobbes had understood: if there is one thing worse that being ruled by a tyrannical strongman, it is to live in a society with no central authority at all. Kampala was only “liberated” from the rule of the gunmen several years after Amin was ousted, when the country’s current president, Yoweri Museveni, took over and imposed order. (Which may, incidentally, help to ex- plain why, for all the criticism levelled at him, he remains in office to this day.) Leopold does occasionally fall down when he tries to explain Amin’s particular notoriety as an “icon of evil”. He has come to embody evil, Leopold argues, because of a Freudian feature within our Western psyche. We see Amin the way we do, apparently, because he represents in our Western mind a sense of “the Western other”.

“Amin’s image as an icon of evil came about,” Leopold writes, “because he fits, almost parodically, the long-standing stereotype of African masculinity as intrinsically violent, irrational, autocratic and dangerous.” Warming to this theme, he suggests that we regard Amin as promiscuous, fathering multiple children via numerous wives, all because of Western stereotyping.

No. We see Amin as an icon of evil because that is what he was. He murdered, often horribly, many people. Vulnerable old ladies, like the Anglo-Israeli hostage Dora Bloch. Or my next-door neighbour, who disappeared into Makindye barracks. Or the father of my classmate, who was murdered alongside the extraordinarily brave Archbishop, Janani Luwum.

Africa really isn’t about Westerners and their preconceptions. The best writers about Africa understand this. This book comes tantalisingly close to that insight, but falls back into something more predictable.

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