Uganda’s New Men

Victoria Brittain

‘Mustafa Adrissi, Idi Amin’s Vice-President, recently appeared before the Human Rights Commission in Kampala. In response to a question about the constitutional violations over which he had presided in Amin’s violent years, he asked: ‘What is this constitution? We never heard of such a thing before.’ This is the man who, told that foreign exchange was a serious problem, said: ‘Just shoot the fellow.’

Amin’s successors were little different, although the killings were less blatant: they took place in the countryside, and the victims had no one to speak for them. On a visit to Uganda earlier this year, Kenneth Kaunda broke the long public silence about Milton Obote’s second regime, saying that on his previous visit he had wept and prayed at the spectacle of the leadership’s heavy drinking habits. No one spoke up at the time, just as they knew but kept quiet about the gross corruption of the leadership and the brutality of the Armed Forces.

Amin and Obote have left Uganda indelibly marked by barbarity, debauchery and ignorance. And when, in the mid-Eighties, the Aids plague was reported to have hit Uganda with a special virulence, echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness resounded from a country which, for many non-Africans, has come to symbolise the continent’s spiral of poverty, violence and death. Aids is part of every life, every family, every conversation. Ed Hooper, a journalist who writes extensively about his own sex life and secondarily about Aids in Uganda, describes his relations with the Uganda of Obote and with the current regime as an instant and unhappy love-affair which had him hooked despite two bitter expulsions.[*] Hooper is one of many Westerners who are apocalyptic about Aids in Uganda – in contrast to most Ugandans, who describe it as ‘certainly less terrible than the slave trade’. The best part of his account of life in Uganda in the Eighties describes the Southern villages he found desolated by Aids. But he misses the chance to put this in the context of Uganda’s extraordinary transition from barbarism to a new kind of government – a government based on reconciliation and stripped of ideology. The unexpected success of the last four years in bringing together old enemies set a political trend which is being followed by independent Namibia and by Mozambique, and may soon be pursued by Angola and South Africa.

The inescapable memories of violence make it hard to believe in the present sense of security. Entebbe Airport evokes the pointless murder of the elderly Israeli hostage, Dora Bloch; Lake Victoria those of the four Scandinavian joumalists who set out from Kenya by boat to scoop their media colleagues with reports of the fall of Amin in 1979; the forests by the side of the road to Kampala saw countless executions of unknown men by the thugs of Amin’s State Research Bureau – once omnipresent in their dark glasses and sharp suits. Now the young soldiers at the rare roadblocks are the products of a very different military culture: during the war that brought this regime to power, hundreds of children attached themselves to the guerrillas because they meant security in a world ripped apart by the casual state terrorism of Obote’s men.

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[*] Slim (Bodley Head, 388 pp., £15.95, 29 March, 0 370 3 1342 9).