Andrew Donaldson writes on a new biography of the Ugandan dictator and it relevance to SA today
A FAMOUS GROUSE
IMMEDIATELY after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in July 1974, the authorities in Ankara received a diplomatic cable from His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.
“I request to see your military plans and film footage of the landing,” the dictator had written, “because these will be useful to me the day my army attacks South Africa.”
Most commentators thought this amusing. The international community had by now long since regarded Amin as certifiable. Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda had described him as “a madman … a buffoon”. Britain’s Harold Wilson labelled him “mentally unbalanced”. One British tabloid declared: “He’s nuts!” He was viciously lampooned across the English-speaking world.
However, Christopher Munnion, a Daily Telegraph reporter, cautioned against such thinking: “Capricious, impulsive, violent and aggressive he certainly is, but to dismiss him as just plain crazy is to underestimate his shrewdness, his ruthless cunning and his capacity to consolidate power with calculated terror.”
This was in September 1972, after Munnion and other journalists had been detained for several days at Kampala’s notorious Makindye military barracks. During his incarceration there, four of Munnion’s cellmates, former police officers, were led away to be killed with sledge hammers.
Observations about Amin’s sanity from Munnion and others were however all but ignored as the lurid details of the violent excesses in Uganda dominated tabloid headlines in the 1970s. Thousands had been slaughtered. Bodies bobbed about in rivers. They were dumped by the truckload in the forests. There was talk of cannibalism, of victims’ heads in refrigerators, of ritualistic torture.
It was claimed that, when one of his wives died during a botched abortion, he ordered the “rearrangement” of her corpse, and her dismembered legs to be sutured on to her shoulders, her arms to her pelvis. He was said to have inherited “witchdoctor powers” from his mother, a traditional herbalist. Visions came to him in dreams, like the one directing him to expel the Asians…
An impressive new biography by social anthropologist Mark Leopold, Idi Amin: The Story of Africa’s Icon of Evil (Yale University Press), draws on recently declassified diplomatic cables to dismantle with forensic rigour the “unhinged evil” stereotype of Amin that has emerged over the past five decades.
The book is however not a revisionist makeover of the continent’s most notorious tyrant. As Leopold writes: “Saying that a myth was created around Amin is not to imply that any of the very real atrocities which occurred were somehow imaginary or didn’t happen.”
Stripped of the half-truths and rumour, a monster still emerges. An all-too human one, but a monster nonetheless.
As crazed as it may seem, Amin was apparently serious about liberating South Africa. This, however, wasn’t always the case. In the months after seizing power from predecessor, the despot Milton Obote, in January 1971, Amin’s thinking was distinctly at odds with that of the rulers of Africa’s newly-independent states. His support for ties with Israel and Britain and his reluctance to condemn apartheid were sources of some discomfort and embarrassment within the ranks of the Organisation of African Unity.
In February 1971, for example, Amin told the Uganda Argus that while some African leaders, like Obote, were unable to solve problems in their own countries, they complained about the situation in South Africa and Rhodesia. “Everybody is talking about South Africa,” he said, “but we have another South Africa in South Sudan where Catholics and Protestants are not allowed to go to church. When worshippers went to church in Sudan, they were machine gunned and their houses burnt. This must be solved before we talk of arms to South Africa.”
Later, in September that year, he told a meeting of tribal elders: “You know very well that the Arabs are killing more black Africans than in South Africa. The Sudanese Government is worse than South Africa in the way the Arabs treat the black Africans and Christians in Southern Sudan. You have never seen Arab refugees from Sudan fleeing to Uganda except black Africans from the South. Therefore, there is no difference between the Sudanese Government and the South African one.”
The policy volte face came early in 1972. Amin expelled Israel military advisers from Uganda after the Golda Meir government refused to supply him with jet aircraft to wage a war against neighbouring Tanzania. He now became an outspoken critic of Israel. In Barbet Schroeder’s 1974 documentary, General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait, he discussed plans to attack the country using paratroops, bombers and “suicide squadrons”.
His relationship with Britain was a bit more complex. Amin was, after all, a product of Empire. As a recruit with the King’s African Rifles, which was formed to police the East African colonies, Amin impressed his white officers: he was physically strong and eager to please with a sense of loyalty that bordered on unwitting compliance.
As Britain’s withdrawal loomed, he was fast-tracked for promotion. His commanders felt that, despite being a bit dim, “bone from the neck up,” as one official put it, he would remain faithful to the former colonial master. At the time of Ugandan independence, in 1962, Amin was one of just two commissioned officers in the country’s military. By 1965, he was commander of Uganda’s armed forces. Far from being stupid, the full extent of his canniness would emerge with dramatic effect in January 1971 when he seized power.
Obote had been invited to attend a Commonwealth conference in Singapore that month, but had been reluctant to leave Kampala – and with reason. Since 1969, there had been military coups in Sudan, Benin, Libya and Somalia – worrying developments for most African leaders.
But Obote’s own cabinet insisted he attend the meeting. So too did Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda. On the agenda was a discussion of sanctions against South Africa. It was important therefore that he attend. At the meeting, British prime minister Edward Heath, facing criticism over the sale of arms to Pretoria, reportedly told African leaders, “I wonder how many of you will be allowed to return to their own countries after this conference.”
This remark was later cited as circumstantial evidence of Britain’s involvement in Amin’s power grab.
Given Leopold’s use of declassified British documents, Britain emerges in his book as pivotal in Amin’s rise to power. London had provided him with surreptitious support in the hope he’d be more pliable than Obote. But relations quickly soured, particularly after the expulsion of Asians, a policy that was originally Obote’s idea but was seen through by Amin. He began to taunt Britain, particularly the Queen, much to the amusement – and approval – of other African leaders.
His plans to invade South Africa could probably be seen as gestures, essentially crude propaganda, intended to appeal to the same post-colonial constituency. According to the Italian journalist Riccardo Orizio, military exercises in preparation for the invasion included naming a Lake Victoria island “Cape Town” and having it bombarded by the air force. Amin would watch these operations from his own lakeside villa.
“Also in the name of preparatory exercises,” Orizio revealed in his 2003 book, Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators (Random House), “he gave the command to invade Tanzania. This was fatal. The Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere, a heavyweight Marxist intellectual of diminutive stature whom Amin had once challenged to a boxing match, decided to put Idi on the canvas once and for all.”
In April 1979, Amin was airlifted out of Kampala by Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, and thus spared lynching by the Tanzanian army and Ugandan rebels. Obote was reinstalled as president – a disastrous second term in which way more Ugandans would die than under Amin’s tyranny.
Leopold suggests that Amin was in many ways similar to Donald Trump. Other commentators agree there are “unlikely parallels”, particularly in their sense of showmanship and ability to play the media. An apt local comparison would be Julius Malema, whose sense of humour does seem as childishly cruel as Amin’s. Witness for example, Amin’s publicity stunts in forcing of Western diplomats in Kampala to “take the knee” and the Malema-directed obstructionist buffoonery of the redshirts in Parliament.
More chillingly, the EFF leader’s “radical economic transformation” agenda is remarkably similar to Amin’s. Expelling the largely middle-class Asians was a way of “restoring” the economy to Africans. Amin’s assertion that the idea came to him in a dream struck Western observers as “mad”, but the move was not an unwelcome as far as many Ugandans were concerned. The same could be said of Malema’s own brand of bigotry and racism. His utterances and threats against minorities continue without sanction, much to his followers’ approval.
Some years ago, Fiona Forde, author of An Inconvenient Youth: Julius Malema and the “new” ANC (Picador Africa, 2011), told me that her subject did not understand the sobriquet I had first used in the Sunday Timess: “Jelly Tsotsi.” I was a little annoyed at this. What’s the point in taking the trouble, etc. But I’m prepared to now accept that “Kiddy Amin” is the better slur. My only regret is that some other wag came up with it first. But the term fits and it should stick.
Further to the Effniks, some drollery has been brought to our attention, here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”): How do the redshirts know when to stage a violent demonstration outside a school or supermarket? It will be Desai-ded. (Mrs Donaldson suggests this is not as good as her famous Carl Niehaus joke, to wit: “I didn’t see you at the MK veterans’ camouflage course, Comrade Carl.” “Thank you, Comrade Kebbie.”)
Meanwhile, more silliness care of Spectator critic Justin Marozzi. Reviewing Joking About Jihad: Comedy and Terror in the Arab World (Hurst) by Gilbert Ramsay and Moutaz Alkheder, both academics at the University of St Andrews Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Violence, Marozzi suggested that, despite the book’s excellent title, the “laughs are so thin on the ground here”. So he came up with a couple of jokes of his own: “Where do suicide bombers go when they die? Everywhere. Why did the terrorist’s wife leave him? She didn’t know what jihad.”
Is there any way we can get the finance minister off social media? Tito Mboweni’s Facebook posts tend to be mildly diverting, and for all his propensity for woo woo, there is no denying the sincerity of his attachment to the land. Consider for example recent offering: “When you drive from Makgobaskloof to Johannesburg, on the old R101, you see amazing things: baboons and trees grown on rocks! Beautiful country this is.” (And why speak like Yoda not, hmm? Yes…)
But he’s something else on Twitter, and his tweets suggest that the latest Moody’s downgrading has somehow leapt out from absolutely nowhere, much like a leopard on a crippled chicken in the mystic hills of Mpumalanga, and blindsided him utterly. “Ok,” he posted. “What should we do on SAA?” This was followed by “Ok. Do we need a National Airline? Maybe that’s the question? Is it?” No prizes for guessing what sort of replies he got.
But it was another of Mboweni’s tweets in reaction to the downgrading that got my attention: “There is something called the Queensbury Rule. You do not continue to beat up somebody who is on their knees. You do not. It is the rule. Civilized people abide by that Rule in business, sports and politics. Ratings Agencies should treat us the same way. During a global crisis!”
The best response came from the management consultant Dawie Scholtz, who tweeted: “Unfortunately that is not the way excel spreadsheets work.” Ouch.