Archive for Sunday, August 24, 2003

Amin a vivid symbol of African tyranny

August 24, 2003


— A cousin of mine, long since dead, had a baby grand piano and mordant sense of humor. So one year, for his birthday, I sent him a gilt-framed photograph (suitable for propping on the Baldwin) of President Idi Amin of Uganda, seated, in his robes as chancellor of Makerere University.

It was, as such things go, pretty funny: The late Idi Amin was, in the words of The New York Times, a "beefy, sadistic and telegenic despot," barely literate, and his pensive pose, in academic regalia, struck just the right discordant note. There were many such pictures. The most famous was a 1975 shot of the president, enthroned, moving past a crowd of cheering Ugandans while carried on a litter held by British businessmen resident in Kampala, the capital city. The Englishmen, forced to bear the burden as a cost of doing business, looked suitably embarrassed; but the Africans in the audience smiled broadly and waved. What looked like buffoonery to the West played well to the home audience.

Amin was a byproduct of British colonialism. The son of a farmer and member of the minority Kakwa tribe, he served in the King's African Rifles in the late 1940s and, owing largely to his great height and powerful build, attracted the attention of British commanders recruiting native combatants to fight the Mau Mau rebellion in neighboring Kenya.

When Amin's patron, Milton Obote, succeeded to the Ugandan presidency after independence in 1962, Amin, trained as a paratrooper in Israel, held the highest rank of any African in the Ugandan military. A decade later, when Obote's left-wing despotism turned his countrymen against him, Maj. Gen. Amin staged a palace coup. Ugandans were relieved to be rid of Obote, and the world was assured by Amin's declarations of good intent.

Like many Africans of the immediate post-colonial generation, Amin held deeply ambivalent feelings about the mother country. As he raised his own military rank ever higher (field marshal) he adorned his uniform with self-awarded British decorations. His Makerere chancellor's robes were indistinguishable from the Oxford/Cambridge version. He once offered to serve as the monarch of Scotland, and when Queen Elizabeth II celebrated the silver anniversary of her coronation, he expected her to send him "her 25-year-old knickers" as a token of his status as a commonwealth head of state.

Behind the comic exterior, however, beat a heart of darkness. The few Englishmen resident in Uganda were routinely harassed, and in one episode, Amin threatened to execute a writer named Denis Hills who had called him a tyrant in an unpublished manuscript. Undoubtedly the high-water mark of Amin's rule came when the then-British foreign secretary, James Callaghan, was obliged to fly to Kampala to plead (successfully) for Hills' life.

By then, Amin's tyranny had turned Uganda into a charnel house. In 1972, he summarily expelled 50,000 third-generation Ugandans of Asian descent, mostly Indians, thereby sending the country's entrepreneurial class into exile. He assembled a sinister corps of guards and executioners -- with organizational names such as the Public Safety Unit and the State Research Bureau -- to torture and kill members of the rival Acholi and Langi tribes, and then random Ugandans.

Amin's victims were, at first, largely powerless: farmers, shop clerks, students whose wives or money were coveted by the death squads. In due course, however, the killings became indiscriminate: ex-Cabinet members, teachers, Anglican clergymen, judges, business executives, physicians and even foreigners joined the ranks of the shot and dismembered. In eight years of misrule, as many as 300,000 Ugandans, out of a population of 12 million, had been put to death by the chancellor of Makerere University.

The interesting fact about Idi Amin is that, despite his arresting combination of lunacy and terror, he was by no means sub-Saharan Africa's premier agent of slaughter. Since 1960, about 9 million black Africans have been killed by their fellow Africans: a little more than 2 million in the Congo, 2 million in Sudan, a million each in Nigeria and Mozambique, Ethiopia (855,000), Rwanda (823,000), Uganda (555,000) and so on. The economies have suffered as well: The majority of African countries have seen stagnation or deterioration since independence in the 1960s and, according to a comprehensive study by the Hoover Institution, "most ... are poorer than they were in 1980 -- sometimes by very wide margins."

A half-century after independence, it is difficult to blame imperialism for the horrors of homegrown tyranny and socialism. What Africa needs is not infusions of government-to-government cash from well-meaning Western nations (such as our own) or temporary truces between warlords, such as the one just concluded in Liberia. What Africa needs is a commitment to personal liberty: Independence from Europe is history, but freedom from the Idi Amins of the continent has yet to come.

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