Now that Forrest Whitaker has won the Oscar for best actor in The Last King of Scotland, the Ugandan Tourist Board is hoping the film will have the same effect as Out of Africa had on Kenya 20 years ago. And rightly so. The "Pearl of Africa" has much to offer: great lakes, mountains and gorillas, the source of the Nile, perpetual summer, and its friendly handsome people. But it needs much more than Hollywood to do justice to the extremely complex personality of Idi Amin, president of Uganda from 1971 until 1979.
Amin was a paranoid and brutal buffoon, one of the most extraordinary characters ever to lead an independent nation. His reign was extraordinarily brutal. When he deposed the corrupt government of Milton Obote, he was cheered on by Western observers. The New York Times spoke of his "gentle political deftness". But within months, the murders began. The Army was purged of soldiers from rival tribes. Thousands of bodies were thrown in the lakes and rivers. There were reports that he feasted on his victims. In 1972, he expelled tens of thousands of Asians with British passports and distributed their property to his cronies. The total of deaths under his reign could have been as high as 300,000.
He used his position to display his grotesque sense of humour. In one of his most memorable stunts, he proclaimed himself President-for Life in 1975, and was borne in a palanquin by 14 whites to symbolise the "white man's burden". His messages to world leaders were a startling innovation in foreign policy. "I love you very much," Amin wrote to Julius Nyere, president of neighbouring Tanzania. "And if you were a woman, I would consider marrying you."
Eventually, he went too far and invaded Tanzania. Within months, he was in exile, first in Libya, and then in Saudi Arabia and his wives and numerous children (reported variously as 32, 40 or 43).In his later years, he cut a sorry figure, where he eked out his days visiting Pizza Hut and driving aimlessly around Jeddah.
This is the Idi Amin which the Western world remembers and The Last King of Scotland memorialises. But just for the record, not all Ugandans see things this way. Speaking to professional people and civil servants of Amin's time, one comes across people who remember him with a certain affection. It is an interesting example of shifting perspectives in foreign affairs.
The press here in Kampala has been full of articles on Amin. There have been interesting interviews with one of his sons, Jaffar, a manager with Air Express who also does voice-over advertising and with Amin's teacher in the army, Andrew Tindikawa.
Jaffar, Amin's tenth child, is writing a book on his dad, presumably to set the record straight. He remembers him as a simple man who disliked airs or pedantry and a strict and loving father. Most of what he says is corroborated by others who have no reason to sing his praises. According to Jaffar, Amin had a strong sense of loyalty to his country, and expected no less from his staff. Many, he laments, have wrongly understood this as paranoia and megalomania. In an autocratic state, he points out, it is easy to blame all kinds of atrocities on the man at the top. He genuinely wanted to make changes in the country which would benefit the common man. In fact, when Amin took over there was widespread jubilation.
And so it continued until Amin detected the first signs of opposition. Jaffar admits that if he discovered someone was disloyal, he would "get rid of" him, but by transfer, not execution. His dad was always busy – others say "hyperactive"- his head always buzzing with ideas, a man of superhuman energy.
Andrew Tindikawa, says that Amin was "extremely intelligent", but because of his dirt poor background and lack of any kind of formal education in his early years, he took five years to learn how to write his name in full. He made no secret of this and tried to overcome it by associating with people who were better educated. Eventually he managed to understand and speak fairly good English. He was very fluent in Swahili, which he could also read.
He was a fearless soldier. Once, Amin's driver was shot during an attempt on his life, and Amin drove him straight to hospital. Tindikawa, who knew him well, describes him as being scheming and suspicious below the congenial, jolly surface. Perhaps, worst of all, he was highly superstitious; his mother had predicted that he was destined to head the army and the country one day, something he never forgot.
Amin had his vision for Uganda. He wanted a country with good educational and medical systems. He sent his own sons to the best Catholic boarding schools for boys and made sure they were properly disciplined. A Catholic missionary teacher remembers that one day Amin's helicopter landed outside his door. He said he wanted more missionaries of that congregation in his schools. When it was pointed out that some were leaving because their work permits had not been renewed, he extended the permits.
One retired teacher and leading educationist remembers how well Amin looked after the teachers. He had a great ability to motivate people, he recalls. With the assistance of an excellent Minister of Education, who lasted the whole regime, he reorganised and improved the education system, which remains to this day.
Amin was an exceptional sportsman: swimmer, boxer, marksman, basketball player and rugby-player. Uganda's golden age of sports achievement was during his years. In 1972, at the Munich Olympics, John Akii-Bua won Uganda's only gold medal in athletics ever. In 1978 Uganda reached the finals of the Africa Cup for soccer, and never again. Ugandan boxers and hockey-players were a force to be reckoned with, and top coaches were hired from overseas. The sports sector was efficient, the players well fed and looked after. Of course, this was used as a propaganda tool.
And the infamous disappearances and murders and his notorious henchmen? Many of these were from the Sudanese side of the border and cared little for the Ugandans to the south. Many of the atrocities were performed by Amin's functionaries and agents at the village level, who carried out what they thought were Amin's orders, and had suspects arrested and executed. They thought that by so doing they would secure their own positions.
Sadly, I'm sure that most Westerners will use The Last King of Scotland as a history lesson about Uganda, reinforcing the stereotype of bloody African dictators, from Amin to Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa, of the Central African Republic, to Robert Mugabe, of Zimbabwe. And the lesson will be, as a British diplomat suggests in the film, that violence is the only thing Africans understand. The one-sidedness of that message is underscored by the fact that the story is told through the eyes of a young white man who never existed. We are still waiting for films which are truthful about the complexities of African society and African history.
Martyn Drakard is MercatorNet's contributing editor for Africa. He lives in Kampala.