Several books, films and documentaries made on his life portray him as the continent’s icon of evil, and in 2021, yet another, biography, Idi Amin: The Story of Africa’s Icon of Evil, by British social anthropologist Mark Leopold examines the various accounts written about Amin by African and western writers.
Leopold sets out to answer a few basic questions to separate fact from fiction: What is the real truth about Idi Amin? Why did Amin, rather than other dictators of his generation, become such a lasting icon of evil? And if most writers on Amin present him as an unintelligent, buffoonish man, how was he able, then, to rise to the top in the military, and eventually assume the country’s top office and rule Uganda for nearly a decade? Did he simply stumble into success by accident? And just how murderous was he?
Leopold traces Idi Amin’s life to Koboko, northern Uganda, born of a Kakwa father, Amin Dada, a police office, debunking the story that Amin was nicknamed Dada because he was a womanizer.
The colonial army recruited northern Ugandans because they were believed to be physically strong. Amin was a naturally tall and well-built.
Despite his limited education he rose through the ranks to army commander in 1965, three years after Uganda’s independence, and that is how he worked closely with Milton Obote, whom he ended up toppling in a coup in 1971.
He anointed himself president of Uganda. Because of his little formal education, many took him for a fool and believed he was a puppet of Western powers.
Leopold writes: “As the decade (1960s) moved into its second half, many people, including even some British officials, had good reason to revise their disparaging opinions of Amin’s qualities and abilities. If, as I suspect Amin was by no means stupid, he may well have felt some contempt for those who thought he was.”
To survive in power, it is believed that Amin killed his political opponents while implementing policies that somehow endeared him to ordinary Ugandans. Others believed worse, and Henry Kyemba, once a minister in Amin’s government for instance, was the first writer to suggest that Amin was a cannibal in his book, State of Blood, published in 1977, while in exile. Leopold says these were just rumours without proving otherwise.
Secret to success
But still, Amin survived as president for almost a decade. According to Leopold, those years Uganda depended on coffee exports and world coffee prices remained high throughout his presidency, stablising the formal economy and keeping many Ugandans somewhat contented.
Leopold quotes British High Commissioner Jim Hennesey, who wrote in his annual review of Uganda in 1974: “A visitor to the country today may be forgiven for asking whether the picture of Uganda presented in the Western press is not just another example of hostile propaganda… The picture he sees is not one of widespread discontent, of a country verging on the edge of economic chaos.”
Leopold believes Amin had mastered the art of using the media to his advantage, which helped popularise him at home and abroad albeit, infamously.
His self-claimed credentials were nothing but incredulous: “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.” This was fodder for the media.
His other media stunt was in 1974, when he launched the Save Britain Fund, a mockery of the UK when the country was going through economic distress. It gave Amin immense international publicity.
Leopold writes: “He might have been one of the earliest politicians to realise the importance of mass media. He saw the need to dominate the news by all means necessary, even if it meant saying or doing ridiculous but dramatic things.
And even though his irrational actions and dramatic media appearances led many to question his sanity, Leopold contends that “there was, at least, some method in his madness and perhaps a keen, if unschooled, intelligence behind his moves.”
The writer’s view is echoed by Martin Ewans, head of Foreign Commonwealth East Africa desk in the 1970s whom Leopold quotes in what was termed as a ''think piece’’ titled Dealing with Amin: “I would never apply the word irrational to his actions, however bizarre or maverick they may appear. There is a brain there, and it works.”
The decision to expel Indians from Uganda in 1972, for instance, wasn’t really inspired by a dream, like Amin himself suggested. The move had been planned by Obote in his Common Man’s Charter presented to Parliament in April 1970. And Amin implemented it.
Leopold says that in 1976 Amin gave the Indian government $1 million as compensation for the properties the deported Indians left behind.
Idi Amin died in 2003 and was buried in Saudi Arabia.
How many people were murdered?
On the murders that Amin committed, Leopold cites Jan Jelmert Jorgense’s book titled Uganda: A Modern History, which suggested that, “If so many died, why did so few flee? Carnage by the state apparatus in such a short period at that magnitude should have resulted in massive emigration. I estimate that the total number killed at the hands of the state agents under Amin ranged from 12,000-30,000.”
“With that kind of variation among informed analysts,” Leopold writes, “it’s hard to see any of the figures as reliable.”
Bob Astles, the British confidant of Amin (portrayed as Nicholas Garrigan in the 2006 Hollywood hit movie based on Amin’s life, The Last King of Scotland), wrote in his 2013 memoir: “By 1972 soldiers all over the country were being paid to kill people because of land issues and personal jealousies… no serious investigations would be made… Then the head of state could be blamed through rumour-mongering.”
Leopold goes on: “I suggest there is a real ethical distinction between someone who consciously plans and carries out atrocious acts and someone whose incompetence and carelessness about the consequences enables others to get away with such actions.”
His final days
When he was finally deposed by invading Tanzanian forces in 1979 and forced into exile Tom Stacey, the Mail on Sunday journalist tracked down Amin to Jeddah, and said of the former president: “To the very last, he dreamed of returning to Uganda to live in dignified retirement as an iconic figure from an era which history somehow got all wrong.
“Unlike most of his fellow East African dictators, Idi never robbed his country’s exchequer. He came out with a dozen truckloads of personal kit, no more.”
About the killings during his regime, Amin told his son Jaffer Amin that, “People fought me, I fought them back, but I never killed innocent people. God will be the one to judge me.”
Idi Amin died in 2003 and was buried in Saudi Arabia.