The desert dust has settled over the head of Idi Amin, burying all his foul secrets and invaluable information that the world will now never know. But many questions and myths, facts and fabrications continue to blow from Uganda to all those countries to where Ugandan exiles fled, fugitives from the mayhem and rule of terror instigated first by President Milton Obote and his commander in chief, Idi Amin, and then by President Amin himself, after he seized power from Obote in 1971.
Now that the initial excitement is over and the usual responses have been harvested, we can perhaps look a bit more deeply into what this dictator did, why he became such a figure of fun and menace, charismatic yet loathed, how he fitted into the broader history of that area and period and to the politics of post-colonialism and the Cold War.
Idi Amin, conveniently for some, is the monster that has long dwelt in the Western imagination - very black, colossal, sexually insatiable, brutal, easily aroused to fury and intemperate acts yet gullible like a child, covetous, power crazy, cannibalistic, corrupt and so on and on. Some white people felt oddly comforted by this archetype who so fitted what they thought they knew about black men; they were sure they could control and manage such beasts. (They similarly understood how to deal with the Mau Mau, who rose against colonial rule in Kenya in the 1950s; this cruel terror campaign was invariably portrayed as a barbaric onslaught on white people, 32 of whom were killed, although the Mau Mau's principal victims were black Kenyans, of whom more than 2,000 died.)
Amin was a very clever man and knew how to manipulate these fantasies, sometimes playing to them, sometimes shockingly not. Too many white men acquainted with him still say that he was a thoroughly enjoyable man (the same sort of raffish folk who describe the unrepentant fascist Diana Mosely, who also died this week, as "charming"). He made many such men kneel down before him or carry him aloft in a wooden boat in 1975. These whims merely revealed that he was "mad", they said.
Such a black man made sense to white Europeans, much more sense than, say, someone like Julius Nyerere, the first President of Tanzania, who was highly educated, suave, clever, a passionate socialist and nationalist and lover of Shakespeare, who successfully dealt with the problems of tribalism in his country and who had the most extraordinary vision for a United States of Africa to deal with the effects of "centuries of economic uncertainty and social oppression". To my knowledge, unlike most other post-independence African rulers, he did not have fat bank accounts in Switzerland. The British establishment didn't care for him at all.
The story of Asian expulsions (the story of people such as me, in other words, expelled by Amin in 1972) is also interesting. It has dwelt entirely on Idi Amin. He makes a good shorthand for their anti-black prejudices. But what about the others who helped to create the misery Asians in East Africa went through?
Amin was not alone. If Britain hadn't passed the 1968 Immigration Act, which in effect denied us British passport holders the right to enter our own country (even Auberon Waugh called it "one of the most immoral pieces of legislation"), Kenya's President Jomo Kenyatta (who was as ruthless and corrupt as Obote and Amin though not into mass killings and torture) might not have accelerated the process of "Africanisation" that made Kenyan Asians stateless, jobless refugees and humiliated victims of the mean streaks in such politicians.
Paul Theroux wrote a scathing essay in 1967 in Transition, one of the most brilliant political and arts magazines. Called "Hating the Asians", he wrote: "The position of the Asian in East Africa today is the collaboration, almost a conspiracy, of Africans and their European apologists who would very much like to see Africa succeed, even at the expense of a pogrom - a thorough purge of these immigrant peoples." They got their purges and we lost our homelands, which our forebears had helped to make. Nobody deserves this fate.
But we made mistakes too. If Asians had not remained fixated on the glory days of Empire and if most (some, a few, were heroes of freedom and committed to Africa) had questioned their own role in keeping Africans away from the economic benefits of independence, perhaps we too might have had a better future in East Africa. Amin and Obote may still have targeted us, but more black Africans might have been on our side. I cringe to hear recordings of Amin accusing Asians of milking the economy. Part of this was dangerous incitement, but the truth is that many Asians, including members of my own extended families, were holding back taxes and sending out money to Europe. The truth is always messier than fables.
Then there is the endless line of prominent people who always willingly met, shook hands with and supported Idi Amin, including some rich Asians, and many top leaders around the world. For a chilling description of the Amin years by an African who knew him, read State of Blood by Henry Kyemba, once a minister in Amin's government (for five years, which makes the account not wholly objective, but this is an extraordinarily vivid book). There are photos in there of Amin with Kenyatta, and Arap Moi of Kenya, and Mobutu of Zaire, leaders who have been the shame of Africa. Oh, and Yasser Arafat, and Pope Paul VI, and Fidel Castro, and Kurt Waldheim, and the British UN ambassador Ivor Richards and his wife, and various British generals, and Israeli power merchants such Moshe Dayan and Colonel Bar Lev - these statesmen showing Amin how to use an Israeli sub-machinegun. Terry Waite says the British High Commissioner in Uganda told him Amin would be easy for Britain to control. Other sources show that Britain wanted to get rid of President Obote because he was too close to the Soviet Union and more importantly because he objected incessantly to Western sales of arms to South Africa. Foreign Office officials were sure having Amin in power solved that problem and were delighted that they could take up more opportunities to sell arms to the masters of apartheid.
If the British and all these others hadn't misjudged his intelligence and lust for absolute power, thousands might still be alive today. The people who died were the cream of Ugandan society, intellectuals, political activists, artists, writers, painters, journalists, and medical students. Today that country is growing more confident and prosperous - reaching levels almost as high as 1971; it is a credit to its people. David Owen, British foreign secretary at the time, has said that there were plans to assassinate Amin. I am glad they didn't come to fruition. It would have made Britain appear even more complicit in the evil than it was already. The assassination of the fiery left-wing nationalist Patrice Lumumba of Congo by the CIA in the 1960s still haunts the politics of that region. Amin would have ended up an unworthy martyr.
There is one more "what if?" If all this hadn't happened, I wouldn't be writing on these pages. So blame Amin every time I make you cross - another misdemeanour he can now be accused of safely.Reuse content