The month of February marks 41 years since president Idi Amin took power after overthrowing Milton Obote in a military coup. Timothy Kalyegira looks back at the man largely portrayed as a tyrant by the West:-
Last week, Sunday Monitor published a feature examining the reasons for President Museveni’s long, 25-year stay in power. The main factor, it was clear, was that, Mr Museveni, even before he came to power in 1986, correctly understood the central role that western political, military and commercial interests still play in Ugandan affairs. He reluctantly accepted this reality, confirmed to it, and as a result enjoyed a largely unhindered control of state power.
If this is the story of President Museveni’s long stay in power, the story of Idi Amin’s turbulent eight years as head of state, dominated by well over 14 documented assassination attempts, an exceedingly hostile coverage from the western press and condemnation by western governments and the image of the “African Butcher.”
To this day, nearly 32 years since Amin’s military government fell from power, he remains the most widely-known Ugandan in the world and in history. When Ugandans travel to, study or live in any part of the world, are more likely to hear, “Ah, Uganda? Idi Amin!”, than any other first comment.
An Internet search engine check of the names of prominent Ugandans - Joseph Kony, Milton Obote, John Akii-Bua, Yoweri Museveni, Edward Mutesa, Paulo Muwanga, Janet Museveni, Olara Otunnu, Dorcas Inzikuru, Kiiza Besigye, Kabaka Mwanga, Archbishop John Sentamu and so on - still ranks Amin as having the highest number of entries by a wide margin than any other Ugandan.
The story of Amin also shows how susceptible human beings are to simplistic generalisations and outright deception as well as how stubbornly resistant they are to new information that challenges their long-held views.
More films, books, newspaper and magazine articles have been produced and written about Amin than any other Ugandan in history. Maj. Gen. Amin had been the Ugandan army commander for a few years just before the coup that brought him to power. Likely President Milton Obote at the time, Amin was well-liked by millions of Ugandans. He was liked by university students and in the army mostly for his strange charisma and sociability. He was and did all the things that would appeal to a broad cross-section of a general population in any country in the world.
He played basketball, swam, competed in motor racing, was a former heavyweight boxer, played the accordion and guitar, liked to share silly jokes, behave the clown, dance in public, speak with soaring bombast and imagery, mingle with head of state and bare-footed peasant with equal ease.
Amin spoke eleven African languages, including Kiswahili, Luganda, Lugbara, Kakwa, Lusoga, and Luo, but spoke broken English and he had none of the elite, highbrow, sophisticated air around him that Obote, information minister Alex Ojera and other top UPC government leaders at the time had. From the start, Amin was always going to be much-loved by the average Ugandan in most corners of Uganda.
A Makerere University lecturer, Phares Mutibwa, in his 1992 book, Uganda Since Independence, commented that “Praise of Amin [immediately after the 1971 coup] was not confined to the Baganda or indeed to the African population; even some important members of the Asian community added their voices to the general euphoria at Amin’s emergence”.
As the Kampala radio programme presenter and political historian Ssemwanga Kisolo has often said, first on Star FM and now on Super FM, Amin was liked by 90 per cent of ordinary, humble Ugandans and hated by 90 per cent of the elite-educated Ugandans.
The late former president Godfrey Binaisa expressed disgust at Amin in the early 2000s and one of the reasons he gave in a media interview was Amin’s inability to speak fluent English. As president in the 1970s, Amin himself once remarked that the fact that he was a Muslim had played a major part in the antagonism that he faced from educated Ugandans both at home and when in exile to oppose him.
The coup of January 25, 1971 was originally planned by the British Embassy in Kampala to have Obote’s cousin and director-general of the GSU intelligence agency, Akena Adoko, replace Obote as president. These plans were aborted when a junior soldier, Isaac Maliyamungu, overheard Acholi and Langi soldiers in the Malire barracks discussing mysterious troop deployments in Kampala. Maliyamungu, like Amin, spoke a multitude of languages including Luo, the language of the Acholi and Langi tribes in Uganda.
In a short time, the British swiftly worked out an alternative plan, this time selecting Amin to be the next head of state. A former Adjutant at the State Research Bureau intelligence agency and a personal friend of Amin, in 2007 availed information to this writer that Amin had told him about how he came to power.
According to this former State Research Bureau officer, Amin said that when the British High Commission in Kampala told Amin that he was to be the next head of state, Amin exclaimed to this State Research Bureau officer later in the 1970s: “Ha! That is when I knew I was finished!”
Right from the day he took power, Amin like Museveni, 15 years later had a full grasp of the real power that controlled Ugandan affairs behind the scenes: Britain.
Therefore, even 48 hours before the coup of January 25, 1971 took place, Amin knew that the same British who now planned to overthrow Obote who was away in Singapore for the first ever Commonwealth summit could and would also one day, at the time and for the reason of their choosing, also overthrow him.
Working in conjunction with the British in planning to bring Amin to power were Amin’s good friends in the late 1960s: the Israelis. The Israeli military attaché in Kampala, Col. Baruch Bar-Lev, a personal friend of Amin, helped prepare the groundwork for the coup in Kampala. Then an Israeli army general, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Hofi, flew to Kampala early in January 1971 to coordinate the coup while another Israeli general was stationed in Nairobi to coordinate the coup from there. Amin was sworn-in as Military Head of State on February 2, 1971. His first state visit after taking power was in July 1971, not surprisingly to Britain where he was accompanied by his wife, First Lady Mariam Kibedi Amin.
The British press fell over itself to heap praises on him. There had never been and might never be a Ugandan leader to come to power and be greeted with such excitement by his own people and by the West, as Amin.
However, Amin wanted to be the president of Ugandans and for Ugandans. In August 1972, he revived the 1969 proposals by the UPC government and the governments of Kenya and Tanzania to expel non-citizen Asians.
In March 1972, he suddenly cut off diplomatic relations with Israel and formed new alliances with the Arab world. British and American companies were re-nationalised and British and American residents asked to leave the country. Ugandans, including former cabinet ministers in the recently ousted Obote government, were given first right to the properties left behind by the departing Asians.
In one single year, 1972, Amin by trying to be true to his own people - the Ugandans, by trying to give them economic advantages, by formulating a foreign policy that stood up for true African independence, undid all the goodwill he had enjoyed in the West and Israel.
From that point onward, it was a downhill image and propaganda slide for him. Books started to appear in western capitals accusing Amin of murders that were not murders, of abductions that were not ordered by him or his henchmen, of horrors that we now know were cooked up to tarnish him. Amin, in short, became a Robert Mugabe.
Amin vs Museveni
This, then, is the true perspective on the Amin legacy. Amin was the inverse of Museveni. You come to power and appease all and every British and American interest in Uganda and you will last 25 years in power even if all government schools, hospitals, roads, parastatal companies collapse and your administration is dominated by repression and misrule.
As Amin, you attempt to stock all government hospitals with drugs, all government schools with books and pencils, all civil servants in all parts of the country are paid by the 25th of the month but you drastically cut off British and American interests and control in Uganda, and suddenly you will be portrayed as the Hitler of Africa forever.