Idi Roi

Victoria Brittain

  • Ghosts of Kampala: The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin by George Ivan Smith
    Weidenfeld, 198 pp, £7.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 297 77721 1
  • African Upheavals since Independence by G.S. Ibingira
    Westview/Benn, 349 pp, £14.95, January 1980, ISBN 0 89158 585 0
  • A Political History of Uganda by S.R. Karugire
    Heinemann, 240 pp, £7.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 435 94524 6

The eight-year regime of Idi Amin in Uganda will go down in history as one of the 20th-century’s horrors that could have been prevented. From Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Macias Nguema’s Equatorial Guinea, the outside world was excluded, and was therefore relatively impotent and ignorant. That was not true of Uganda. Amin strutted on the world stage: he went to the United Nations, made official visits to West Germany and Israel, was received by the Queen, and was still getting rounds of applause from African crowds as late as September 1978 (at Kenyatta’s funeral) and from African heads of state, in the summer of the same year, at the Organisation of African Unity summit in Khartoum. To Britain’s disgrace, as George Ivan Smith points out, it will be remembered that Uganda Airlines flights to Stansted, where Amin bought the Western luxury goods that kept his inner circle loyal, went on until 4 March 1979, when the Tanzanian Army was on the point of ousting him. With the honourable exceptions of the Presidents of Tanzania, Zambia and Botswana, the world did not care enough about Amin’s butcheries to impose against him an economic blockade and a refusal to buy Ugandan coffee. This would have turned his bought army against him, probably within months. The United States closed its embassy in 1973, Britain in 1976. In neither case was it because of Amin’s murderous rule.

In another sense, Amin had made himself only too well-known to the outside world with his ludicrous telegrams to Nixon or the Queen, and the fatuous radio bulletins which he used both to rule his country (dismissing ministers, summoning church leaders) and to conduct a foreign policy of insults directed at other countries. A small dose of this should have been enough to convince the rest of the world that he was utterly unfit to run a football team, never mind a highly politicised, sophisticated and deeply torn society like Uganda. ‘Illiterate, a racist, tribalist and dictator ... an incorrigible liar with no moral or political standards ... of whom the only prediction which can safely be made is that he is unpredictable’ was the verdict of Amin’s Minister of Education, Edward Rugumayo, who defected in 1973.

How did such a man overthrow a clever politician like Dr Milton Obote? Why was he able to stay in power so long? What does his rule portend for the future of Uganda? George Ivan Smith’s book answers none of the key questions about ‘the rise and fall of Idi Amin’ but most of the answers are in G.S. Ibingira’s African Upheavals since Independence. Grace Ibingira was Amin’s ambassador to the United Nations until he, too, defected in early 1974. From the vantage-point of architect and Secretary-General of Dr Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) party – he subsequently became Minister of Justice, and was one of the five ministers detained by Obote in 1966 and released by Amin after the coup in 1971 – Mr Ibingira’s story of Uganda since independence, and of Amin’s place in it, has the advantages of abundant knowledge and of abundant time in exile to think out causes and effects. If now is the time to uncover the roots of the Amin phenomenon in the hope that it does not happen again (Master-Sergeant Doe of Liberia is still being rejected by African states as Idi Amin never was), then it is Mr Ibingira’s book that should be read in preference to Mr Smith. Mr Smith shows a generous spirit in believing rather more in the rebirth of Uganda, when dealing with the weeks after Amin’s fall, than the sad sequel of political musical chairs and resort to force was to justify: unfortunately, this is a measure of how little he has taken into account the crucial pre-Amin history. (And yet his book does a good job in concisely putting together the important 19th and early 20th-century history of northern Uganda and southern Sudan from hitherto scattered or unpublished sources.)

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