In any country there must be people who have to die. They are the sacrifices any nation has to make to achieve law and order. –Idi Amin Dada
by KJ Howe
Africa was once my home. My father was responsible for telecommunications in Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. In the years I lived there, a larger-than-life figure played a critical role in shaping the country of Uganda. Idi Amin. TV, radio, public events–everywhere you turned, the gargantuan third President of Uganda was there. And my father had many meetings with him via his telecommunications work, witnessing the mercurial moods of this iconic character. This week, the Rogue Women Writers are focusing on villains–interesting ones–and Idi Amin Dada is that and more.
During his time in power, Amin shifted in allegiance from being a pro-Western ruler enjoying considerable support from Israel to being backed by Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, the Soviet Union, and East Germany. Amin’s leadership was characterized by human rights abuses, political repression, ethnic persecution, extrajudicial killings, nepotism, corruption, institutionalized racism, and gross economic mismanagement. The number of people killed as a result of his regime might have reached a half a million.
|Uganda decorated in the colors of the flag.
During his reign, Uganda was a hotbed of international intrigue and espionage operations. The British, American, Israelis, Egyptians, and others had active intelligence operations in Uganda, sometimes supporting Idi, sometimes trying to have him overthrown. At first, it was thought he would be a loyal ally to Britain, but soon after he was seizing all British businesses, offering to marry Queen Elizabeth (lucky her), and awarding himself the title CBE, Conquerer of the British Empire. He also claimed to be the uncrowned King of Scotland. Speaking of which, if you’re up for a phenomenal movie based loosely on the life of Idi Amin, watch The Last King of Scotland, featuring the talented and eerily believable Forest Whitaker who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Amin.
In June of 1976, Amin allowed an Air France airliner from Tel Aviv to Paris hijacked by two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–External Operations (PFLP-EO) and two members of the German Revoluntionaire Zellen to land at Entebbe Airport. There the hijackers were joined by three more. Soon after, 156 non-Jewish hostages who did not hold Israeli passports were released and flown to safety, while 83 Jews and Israeli citizens as well as 20 others who refused to abandon them (including the captain and crew) continued to be held hostage. In the famous Israeli rescue operation, codenamed Operation Thunderbolt (or Operation Entebbe), a group of Israeli commandos were flown in from Israel and seized control of the Entebbe Airport, freeing nearly all the hostages.
|Forest Whitaker Playing Amin in The Last King of Scotland
With at least seven wives and an estimated 43 children, Amin created an unforgettable legacy for future generations. Yasser Arafat served as best man at one of Amin’s weddings. His ego as large as his stature, Amin bestowed upon himself a title, “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Haadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beast of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conquerer of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.” Seriously.
Internal dissent coupled with both the economic collapse in Uganda and Amin’s attempt to annex the Kagera province of Tanzania in 1978 led to the unravelling of his eight-year regime. The Tanzanian army fighting alongside Ugandan exiles forced Amin to flee into exile–first to Libya, and then Saudi Arabia. It had been quite a journey for a man who’d been abandoned by his father, a man who started as a simple cook in the British army.
Sometimes it is hard to untangle the legend from the man. There were times Idi was funny, enchanting, and inspiring, demonstrating a mischievous sense of humour. He enjoyed sports, music, and playing games with children. Other times, he was a sadistic murderer, dismembering people, possibly including one or more of his own wives with his bare hands. There is credible evidence that he was a cannibal, and some think he was the victim of unchecked syphilis or bi-polar disorder or both. Even today, his shadow looms large over Eastern Africa.
After such a whirlwind of a life, his final days were surprisingly uneventful. Taking us full circle, my father came face-to-face with Idi Amin again when we lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. One day at the bank, my father saw a massive man in the line next to him. Idi Amin. Fortunately, my father encountered the public face of Idi–charming, warm, engaging–on that occasion. Tens of thousands of others had seen the darker side of Amin and not lived to tell about it.
In my upcoming novel, THE FREEDOM BROKER, elite kidnap negotiator Thea Paris faces an African General, a gargantuan burning for power and privilege, a man who had profoundly altered her family forever. Parallels? Perhaps. When life experiences imprint on writers, those moments seep into their books, a cathartic way of working out the footprints of the past that still haunt them.