Heavyweight boxer, army general, canibal, mass murderer, and president for life of Uganda Idi Amin, the Butcher of Africa, died yesterday in Saudi Arabia. He came to power in 1971 in a military coup, overthrowing Milton Obote. He ruled Uganda until 1979, when another military coup kicked him out. During that time, he transformed Uganda from a wealthy and beautiful tourist resort nation, teeming with wildlife, industry, and commerce, into an impoverished hole, where no tourist would dare set foot, and no company would dare invest. He used to go out into the game reserves with a machine gun and shoot herds of rhinos, for fun. These days, it’s very difficult to guess that rhinos used to move in herds, since there are not enough of them left to make this possible. Idi Amin is almost single-handedly responsible for bringing that about. He was also responsible for the deaths of more than 500,000 people, many of whome he killed personally. He tortured many others, and thousands of people disappeared for years, and when they emerged, they were reluctant to talk about what had happened in that time. Idi Amin is one of the most wicked people to have lived in our life time.
Yet, somehow, Saudi Arabia, a God fearing nation, decided to keep him as an honored guest, paying him a stipend that allowed him to live in luxury until his death yesterday. Their reasoning, presumably, was that he converted to Islam. This apparently means that he should not be turned over to his countrymen for a trial by his peers, but should be treated like a foreign dignitary, and supported in luxury for more than 20 years.
His family continues to insist that none of what I’ve talked about ever happened. They claim that he was a peace-loving guy that was just deeply misunderstood, and that the media made up a bunch of stuff. Stuff like the heads and penises in his fridge, and the arms in his freezer. Stuff like chopping off peoples’ heads because they were taller than him. Stuff like being personally responsible for the Air France plane that was hijacked to Entebbe in 1976 (see the movie Raid on Entebbe for a fantastic portrayal of this event), and like executing journalists that dared to criticize him, and like throwing his political opponents to the crocodiles, and like deporting every citizen and resident of asian or indian origin. The Indians, like in many african nations even today, form the core of the economy, owning or managing many of the businesses. Expelling them destroyed the economy pretty fast.
After 1979, Uganda went through what we used to refer to as the “president of the month” phase, and I went to school with a few of president’s kids during those years. They seemed to remain rather friendly with one another while their fathers exiled one another. In particular, I seem to remember that we went to school with Lule’s and Okello’s kids. I guess their rules weren’t actually consecutive.
The current president, Yoweri Museveni, took power in a military coup also, in 1986, although he has been elected in moderately fair elections since that time.
With the last of the African strong men being kicked out of office (like Charles Taylor and Daniel Moi) and dying off (like Idi Amin and Bokasso), one is almost tempted to hope for a new era in Africa, when people can actually live in peace with one another. Of course, there are still lunatics like Robert Mugabe who are leading their people into a future of international alienation and poverty, but one hopes that he will not last forever.
If you’re interested in Africa and how it got into the mess that it’s in, an excellent book on the subject is Things Fall Apart. There’s also a new book called The Zanzibar Chest, which tells the story from the perspective someone who grew up in Africa, as the son of a colonial soldiering family. This was recently reviewed on NPR and sounds very interesting.