by | Aug 28, 2016 | KJ Howe | 9 comments

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.

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  1. S. Lee Manning

    Another true life villain who thought he was the hero of his own story. And what a fascinating life experience. Amin is perfect as a starting point for your own villain. Glad your father survived intact. Great blog.

  2. rjjh

    Africa's history is full of so many amazing characters both heroes and villains. Thank you for bringing this one to live so well with your blog post. Idi was one of the most memorable characters of the 20th century.

  3. KJ Howe

    Thanks, Sandy. I love what you said about being a hero in his own mind. This is often the most interesting aspect of villains. They don't see themselves as bad guys, but rather heroes. It's fascinating. Thanks!

  4. KJ Howe

    rjjh, I'm enthralled with Africa and all the fascinating elements of the continent. Part of my book is set in Zimbabwe…and we all know Mugabe warrants his own blog post. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Sonja Stone

    KJ, what a gripping story. Your personal connection (fortunately once removed) is fascinating. And what a small world that your father would cross paths with Amin in several countries.

  6. KJ Howe

    Hi Sonja, it was eerie, like coming full circle for my father to run into Idi again in yet another faraway place. Idi never really answered for his crimes, but the General in my book definitely has more of a comeuppance. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Karna Bodman

    Oh K.J. what a fascinating story about a truly evil man — so interesting that your father crossed paths with him (and emerged to tell the tale!). This reminds me of a little local story that happened in our own DC neighborhood involving that dictator. The Ugandan Embassy is near our home and a Congressman and his wife lived across the street. One day there was a knock on their door. When they opened it, the Ugandan Ambassador rushed inside, pulled out his passport and said to the Congressman's wife, "Please help me, I can't even trust my driver. He's loyal to Idi Amin. So let me come in. I defect to you!" (They helped him). Thanks for your great post today!

  8. KJ Howe

    Hey Karna, that is a fascinating story about the Ugandan Ambassador. He was smart to defect–Amin's paranoia was legendary, and I'm sure the Congressman saved that man's life. Thanks for sharing!!!

  9. Anonymous

    I also love the way you frame this story, with your dad and Idi Amin. What a monster Idi Amin turned out to be, and tragic for his people and neighbors.