We still don't recognise how evil Idi Amin was

We Asians were thrown out and had to make new lives, but his black victims, who suffered most, hardly appear in the narratives

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Monday 04 August 2003 00:00

This must be the longest deathbed in history. For more than 10 days now, over-excited journalists have hovered, their obituaries waiting to be delivered, as the devious Dr Idi Amin Dada, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hajj, VC, DSO, Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General, King of Scotland, keeps them waiting, outmanoeuvring the world perhaps one last time, refusing to die when he should be dead.

When he finally departs, Amin will be remembered for his state terror, cunning, greed, excellent jokes (in his view, and who dares, even now, to disagree?), such cruelties and abomination that 50 haj trips to Mecca and thousands of prayers would never, one hopes, win him a reprieve from Allah, merciful though He is.

I write this in the memory of all those hundreds of thousands of Africans he had tortured and killed - some of the best brains of Uganda among them. Their experiences and their pain are still disregarded by this country, which sees Amin only through its own eyes - as the totemic black barbarian, a demonic hulk who horrified and mesmerised (sometimes amused and confused) the white British colonial sensibility described so brilliantly by Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness.

There are only two stories in town when it comes to Idi Amin Dada. One comes from white men who knew him or think they understand him, and the other is the interminable tale of woe from us Ugandan Asians who were thrown out in 1972 and had to make new lives in Britain and elsewhere. A few of us died during the days of turmoil, and the rest of us lost properties and our homeland.

His black victims - in truth the people who suffered most - hardly appear in the narratives, except as headless numbers. The racism of this is plain. They were only black, and this is what Africans do to each other, say people I know, as they watch events Liberia and the Congo today and Rwanda and Sierra Leone not that long ago.

There has been a criminal reluctance too, to look at the powers who encouraged Amin to seize control in January 1971, when I was a student at Makerere University.

When President Obote - at that time flirting openly with the Soviet Union - was away at a Commonwealth leaders' conference, Amin, then commander of the army, took power in a bloodless coup d'état with the support of the US, Israel and the UK. These governments believed the British-trained soldier, who so adored the Queen, would be their malleable chap in the Cold War.

There were always white men around Amin - Major Bobs and matey Toms who obviously turned a blind eye when he turned into exactly the sort of savage they expected him to be. After all he was a black man. They still describe him as an endearing buffoon and, respectfully, as a killing machine trained by British officers to useful ends. The author Tom Stacey, for example, argued with me on the Today programme about my view that long before he became president, Amin was already known for his cruelties. Obote - who also killed thousands - used his commander to carry out tortures and murders. No, said Stacey, Amin was a "thoroughly enjoyable person who liked Englishmen" and an excellent soldier who was unfairly blamed for the actions of his soldiers. It was only later, say these apologists, that Amin went mad and bad.

I met Amin in 1968 when a number of us student leaders were obliged to stay with Obote for three months. There were worries that Ugandans would emulate rebel students in Paris and elsewhere, and this was a way of discovering potential troublemakers. We were taken to Idi Amin. I asked him why there were no Asians in the army. He shook with mirth and said, "Because we don't eat choroko (dhal) here - we eat meat and can kill." I didn't laugh.

Recently we have had a new band of white Britons trying to understand Amin, pursuing sophisticated psychological explanations for his actions. Giles Foden, author of a fictional account of the president, for example, thinks Idi is a tragicomic hero with an oedipal complex and a sick need to please his white bosses of the past. I personally find such explorations irrelevant, even obscene.

But then many others too have misjudged Amin over the years. There was dancing in the streets in the first days after the coup - people were seduced by the easy charm and belly laughs of this one-time king of Ugandan boxers. Asians were relieved that Obote, with his communist sympathies and plans to tax them dry, had been sent away. Amin was a man many of them knew. He would be a snitch to bribe and cajole. How wrong they all were.

Within three weeks of his taking control, young people at my university were taken away screaming, some to reappear half dead, others never seen again. The soldiers never came into the rooms of Asians, which is interesting. One acquaintance of mine, James Ngunga, a history student, was taken and brought back with both his feet shot off. Amin had heard he was a student leader and wanted him taught a lesson. James told me the soldiers had asked where he wanted to be shot, and he had chosen his feet. His impoverished family took him away, their hopes of an educated son killed forever. So many graceful and hopeful young women had their lives dashed too.

Britons have no idea just how many intellectuals, artists and scientists disappeared in those years, or what might have been had Amin never come to power. He always feared Makerere and wanted to control the campus. I have photos of Amin dressed up in academic robes at the most terrifying graduation ceremony ever in 1971.

Ugandan Asians should remember this when we talk of our "tragic" losses and distress. We did suffer and, living through the terror as we did, it is hard to forget. My best friend was getting married in those early weeks, and there was a curfew on. We were driving from the mosque to her home for a small celebration when Amin's soldiers stopped us. They made us stand; they lifted the saris of two of the young women with their rifles to look and laugh. One of them said that Idi wanted to marry many Asian girls. Another asked if it was true that our hair down there was as curly as that of African woman and if we were big enough to take real men. We cried and shook, and three of the women handed over all their gold jewellery.

Other Asians were even more humiliated, especially during the actual expulsion. To see some of the photographs and to hear the stories evokes pain and fear even now. But I think it is time we extended our sympathies to African victims. We only lost our properties and businesses, and although it was enormously hard, we have made good. Most Asians today thank Idi for sending them off. President Museveni made a brilliant speech to Asians at the Neasden Temple three years ago. He said: "Stop complaining now. While we were in the bush fighting Amin, you were in Shepherd's Bush making money."

Quite so. It was the blood of black people which flowed. They paid for our misguided foreign policies and post-colonial games.

I hope they can find peace now, the relatives of all those Amin killed, buried alive, raped, even ate, when the great dictator descends to hell. At last.


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