Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Independent Uganda

September 8th 1962 was the day Uganda achieved independence from Britain. 2009 is not a major anniversary so we wouldn’t expect any particular commemoration in the media (absence of which on the occasion of Zimbabwe’s 30th birthday I noted), but let’s be honest, even were this the 100th anniversary the media would prefer to let Uganda’s progress under Black rule pass without comment. Uganda, you see, is another of those examples of Black people conforming to the racists’ stereotypes about them, disappointing the racedoesnotmatter crowd who insist we’re all equally capable of building and maintaining civilisations. But also significant in this story is the British Empire’s strategy of ‘divide and rule’ -- especially for those who realise the empire hasn’t ended and wasn’t British anyway.

As I did on Zimambwe’s 30th I’ll post here a meaty passage from David Lamb’s classic 1983 travelogue, The Africans. This from chapter 4, ‘The Ghost of Idi Amin’:

The date was January 25, 1971, and by the tens of thousands Ugandans poured into the streets of Kampala to celebrate the overthrow of their president, Milton Obote, a hard-drinking tyrant who had ruled the country since independence. The mastermind of the coup d’etat had once been, as is often the case in African revolts, the president’s trusted ally. He was a military man who had worked his way up through the ranks, establishing rapport with his troops and keeping his distance from politics and ideology. ‘I am not a politician but a professional soldier,’ the general said in his first address to the nation. ‘I am, therefore, a man of few words, and I have been brief throughout my professional career.’ He went on to say that his was only a caretaker administration, that power would be transferred to a civilian government as soon as elections could be organized. Ugandans were relieved. Neighboring African countries were reassured. The West was pleased. Almost everyone, in fact, agreed that this new man, Idi Amin, would make a steady, decent president.

Idi Amin was forty-six years old then, a mountain of a man with a cheery disposition and an earthy, barracks-style sense of humor. He had a second-grade education and spoke the smatterings of five languages, but handled only his tribal tongue with any degree of fluency. His former commanding officer in the British army, Colonel Hugh Rogers, remembers him as ‘a splendid and reliable soldier and a cheerful and energetic man.’ Others described Amin as a man with neither pretense nor ambition. What no one mentioned, though, was that Amin had all the qualities that make a dangerous leader in Africa: his instincts were primitive, his loyalties tribal, his orientation military.

Strange things started happening in Uganda almost from the day he took over. First, Brigadier General Suleiman Hussein, the army chief of staff and a potential rival to Amin, ‘disappeared.’ Permanently. Then Uganda’s chief justice, Benedicto Kiwanuka, was dragged from his chambers in broad daylight by Amin’s soldiers and was never seen alive again. The vice chancellor of Makerere University also disappeared, and the beaten body of Amin’s personal physician was found dumped along a road. Bodies floated down the Nile and turned up by the hundreds in Mabira and Namanve forests. The prisons filled up and prisoners were forced to stand in line and beat each other to death with ten-pound sledge hammers; the last man was shot. Entire villages populated by the Lango and Acholi tribes, which had supported Obote, were wiped out. The screams emanating each night from Amin’s secret-police headquarters became so regular and so blood-curdling that the French ambassador, who lived next door, lodged a complaint, and his wife, unable to sleep for nights on end, returned to Paris. Cabinet ministers, university professors, Christians, Asians, Jews - almost everyone except Amin’s inner circle of Moslems and Kakwas - experienced the wrath of a man gone crazy with power, a man obsessed with reducing Uganda to the lowest common denominator, his own.

Ugandans coined a word - Aminism - to describe the terrible happenings in their country, and by the time the Aminisms ended in 1979, an estimated 300,000 Ugandans - or one Ugandan in every forty - were dead. The carnage was tantamount to murdering the entire population of Louisville, Kentucky. It was as though Amin had studied presidential protocol in Papa Doc’s Haiti or Pol Pot’s Cambodia. And in the process the Ugandan people learned how to survive but forgot how to feel. ‘Killing was so commonplace,’ a grocer in Kampala told me, ‘that if you heard your brother had been picked up by the police, you knew that was the end of him. You’d say, “Too bad,” and you’d feel bad for a few days, then you’d just go back to work and forget about him.’ A single human beast, as playful as a kitten, as lethal as a lion, had managed almost single-handedly to destroy a nation of 13 million people.

Eight years after the celebrations that marked Amin’s rise to power, Ugandans once again returned to the streets of Kampala in joyous revelry. Old friends embraced, and surprised to find the other alive, exchanged an eerie greeting: ‘You still exist!’ Their nightmare was over. Amin - the non-politician who became president-for-life, the professional soldier who became a common murderer - had fled to Libya, chased from Uganda by a ragtag army of invading Tanzanians and a handful of Ugandan rebels. It was V-J Day in Times Square, African style, and standing there on the steps of the parliament building, among thousands of dancing, singing Ugandans, I thought I was witnessing the rebirth of a nation. I felt good for Uganda and good for Africa. If ever an African nation had a chance and a reason to set aside personal ambitions and tribal suspicions in order to reconstruct a heritage, Uganda did.

The sun had just broken through a heavy overcast in Kampala that afternoon, April, 1979, and from the shadows of Parliament House an elderly man stepped forward, removed his glasses, bowed his head and asked his gathered countrymen to pray silently ‘for those who have died at the hands of Idi Amin.’ The crowd fell silent in prayer.

Yusufu L. Lule’s fingers fidgeted at the side of his blue safari suit as he prepared to take the oath as Uganda’s interim president. His eyes swept the crowd in Parliament Square and he spoke slowly, his voice quivering. The horror, he said, had ended. With the overthrow of Amin a new era of national reconciliation had begun. Lule, a distinguished academic who had come home from exile in London, stepped down and the throng went wild. They hugged, cheered, kissed and hoisted the Tanzanian soldiers to their shoulders, snaking through the parliament courtyard to the beat of drums. The leader of the Ugandan guerrillas, David Oyite-Ojok - who Amin once said was the ‘only man besides God’ he feared - waved his rifle overhead as he was swept onto a mass of shoulders and a thousand voices joined in the country’s new national anthem: ‘O Uganda, the land of freedom, our love and labor we give ...’ In the distance a church bell sounded. Then another and another, until finally a clanging chorus from the steeples swelled through all Kampala.

‘If they will only bring Amin here,’ shouted a former Kampala city councilman, Rashid Kawawa, ‘we will eat him on the spot. Yes, we’ll roast him and sear his skin and pass around chunks of him. He was a cannibal, so he would understand what we were doing.’

Amin's modest four-bedroom home was in the hills overlooking Kampala, only a mile or so from Parliament Square, and the next morning I walked through its open front door. I felt as though I were entering a hallucination.

His bedroom, like that of a child, was covered with pictures of military aircraft, scotch-taped to the walls. There were cartons of hand grenades under Amin’s bed and bottles of pills for venereal disease on his bureau. One closet was stacked with reels of ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoons, and a file cabinet was stuffed with black-and-white photos of tortured Ugandans, gaunt, maimed creatures who hardly resembled human beings at all. Amin’s health records were strewn about the floor; they contained no mention of the degenerative syphilis that an Israeli doctor claimed he had, but they showed that he had been suffering from gout and obesity for years. ‘You need a rigid exercise program,’ one doctor advised. Piles of never opened letters from foreign governments and his own embassies abroad littered the room.

‘I think it is safe to say that medically Amin was crazy,’ Solomon Asea, a doctor who had been Amin’s ambassador in Washington, told me. ‘He had a split personality. He could kill a person one minute and the next he’d be laughing and playing the guitar and he had no recollection of what he had done. In a medical sense, he wasn’t responsible for much of what he did. He should have been a patient, not a president.’

Sadly, the euphoria that engulfed Uganda in those first days of life without Idi Amin was short-lived and it soon became clear that there would be no miracles of reconstruction or reconciliation in Uganda. One nightmare had ended but another was about to begin. Uganda itself was about to complete the mission of destruction on which Amin had embarked.

The Tanzanian army that had come to save Uganda now set out to ravage it, the unpaid soldiers taking at gunpoint what they wanted. Soon every soldier had a Seiko watch and a shortwave radio. The economy collapsed, the food supplies ran out, the morgues filled up, and the stench of death hung about. Honest men became thieves, and gangs of Ugandan bandits roamed the cities, killing and looting to survive. Western diplomats armed their homes with shotguns, German shepherds and grenades, and on occasion fought off attackers from their bedroom windows. Matts Lundgren, a United Nations representative, stationed two guards with machine guns in the garden of his Kampala home, and Joseph Bragotti, a Roman Catholic priest, started packing a .38-caliber revolver under his cassock. Chaos had given way to anarchy.

At Makerere University, professors stopped showing up for classes and spent their days scrounging for food. The hospitals ran out of medicine, and operations ceased because there were no anesthetics. Emergency supplies of food and medicine from international relief agencies poured into Uganda by the truckload but were hijacked almost as soon as they crossed the border. In the north, where drought and famine held the people hostage, and the cows seemed to have fared better than the humans, the Karamojong cattle herders routinely tossed the withered corpses of their little boys outside the villages each night. There were so many that the hyenas grew fat and lazy and the packs no longer fought and squealed over each feast. The boys were allowed to die because, when rations are meager, the Karamojong give the available food to their girls, who can be traded for cattle.

From their exile homes in Europe and the United States, thousands of young, ambitious and intelligent Ugandans answered President Lule’s call to come home and help rebuild their country. But the task overwhelmed them and, in the end, defeated them. The law of the jungle had reclaimed the soul of Uganda. There were no obtainable national causes left, only personal ones, and within weeks of becoming cabinet ministers and presidential advisers, the former exiles were demanding their 20 percent off the top of foreign grants and contracts. When someone spoke of ‘my people,’ he didn’t mean Ugandans in general; he meant the people of his particular tribe. If he said things were improving, he wasn’t referring to the national economy; he was talking about his overseas bank account.

Lule was the one man who had a chance to save Uganda. He was honest, intelligent and, at the age of sixty-seven, cared little for the trappings of power. More important, he was a Baganda, Uganda’s largest and best educated tribe, and thus commanded the allegiance of the majority. Had he been a dictator instead of a humanist, he might have succeeded. But Julius Nyerere, the Tanzanian president and Uganda’s de facto ruler, had installed Lule as his socialistic stalking horse. When Lule started speaking with a voice that was both independent and capitalistic, Nyerere spirited him out of Uganda, locked him up in a room without a telephone in Dar es Salaam and announced that Uganda would have a new president.

That man was Godfrey Binaisa, an attorney who had lived in New York and fallen on tough times, handling not much more than an occasional divorce case. I met him in the lobby of Kampala’s International Hotel, just after he had returned to Uganda. A once important official in the pre-Amin government, he was now portly and balding, and he wore a rumpled suit. Asked by an American journalist how to pronounce his name, he replied, ‘Be nisa to me.’ He hung around the lobby, bumming cigarettes, chatting with the Western reporters, saying no, he didn’t know what he would do now that he was back, but he hoped he could find some work. The next day he was as surprised as anyone to learn that he had a job -- as president of Uganda, having been appointed by a local committee, which decided that he seemed as harmless and as reliable as anyone available. One of his first moves was to hire an American public relations firm for $400,000 to clean up Uganda’s tarnished international image. An account executive from Washington, D.C., flew into Entebbe, brimming with confidence, carrying business cards that bore the notation ‘We can solve any problem.’ He left a few days later, shaking his head. What Uganda needed was a mortician, not a flack.

The cycle was soon to be complete. Binaisa was ousted from office by Nyerere, and the military returned to power. Idi Amin was thrown out of Libya after his bodyguards had a shoot-out with some of Muammar Qaddafy’s soldiers. He moved to Saudi Arabia, with two wives and twenty-three of his children, and announced his willingness to return to Uganda ‘for the good of my people.’ Meanwhile Obote, whom Nyerere had kept in waiting for just such a moment, had come home from Tanzania, won a fixed election and became Uganda’s president for a second time.* ‘Today we raise the banner of democracy once more and proclaim the rule of law,’ he said at his swearing-in ceremony. ‘The past is gone. We start a new future.’ This time, though, there were no celebrations. Within a few weeks Obote re-established the State Research Bureau, the security agency that was to Amin what Savak had been to the Shah of Iran. Torture became common again in the crowded prisons, people once more started ‘disappearing.’ The newly independent newspapers were closed down, dissent was muzzled, the International Red Cross and resident Western journalists were expelled. Uganda teetered on the brink of civil war that would pit tribe against tribe, and in the outlying districts a new guerrilla group, composed mostly of Baganda, launched its first attacks against the government installations in an attempt to bring down the Obote regime.

[* Obote’s people were in firm control of the ruling Military Commission. Even before the Ugandans cast their first ballot, the electoral commission simply awarded seventeen seats in parliament to Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress Party. When early returns showed Obote trailing, the chairman of the Military Commission, Paulo Muwanga - a front man for Nyerere and Obote - announced that he alone would count the ballots and decide the validity of the election. Two days later Obote was declared the winner.]

Had the psychology and attitudes of an entire nation changed during its long nightmare?

‘No,’ the vice chancellor of Makerere University, Senteza Kajubi, told me one day after some thought, ‘I wouldn’t quite say that Uganda has produced a generation of moral cripples. But on the other hand ...’

He fell silent, searching for the words. ‘On the other hand,’ he repeated at last, ‘we obviously have been greatly affected by the experience of Amin and what came afterward. We have fallen so low that I wonder if we can ever climb back.’

To realize just how far Uganda did sink, it is worth taking a brief historical look at the country Winston Churchill described as ‘the pearl of East Africa.’ Landlocked Uganda is one of Africa’s most beautiful countries. It is a fertile land of high plateaus and lush green foliage that reach from the shores of Lake Victoria - the source of the White Nile - to the dry plains of the north. Blue crater lakes are tucked among the terraced hillsides, and within a day’s drive of Kampala, like Rome a capital built on seven hills, some of the most splendid wildlife herds in all Africa roamed through national parks as large as Rhode Island.

‘Uganda is a fairy tale,’ Churchill wrote in 1908 after arriving by train from the Kenyan coast. ‘You climb up a railway instead of a beanstalk, and at the top there is a wonderful new world. The scenery is different, and most of all the people are different from anywhere else in Africa.’

The early Ugandan people were farmers and warriors who developed five centralized, prosperous kingdoms: the Buganda, Bunyoro, Busoga, Toro and Ankole. From the mid-nineteenth century through to independence in 1962, the Baganda dominated Uganda. They were a proud, elitist people who considered themselves superior to other Bantu kingdoms in the Lake Victoria basin and to the Nilotic cattle-herding tribes of the north, the Acholi and Lango. They were ruled by a kabaka (king) and represented about 20 percent of Uganda’s population.

In 1894 Uganda became a British protectorate, and colonial administrators, utilizing the policy of ‘divide and rule,’ bestowed special favors on the Baganda. They became the backbone of the civil service and the vehicle for carrying out colonial policies. The other tribes sought, but did not receive, similar privileges. Unable to win responsible jobs in the bureaucracy or to dent the Baganda-dominated commercial sector, these outsiders had the choice of remaining neglected or finding new avenues into the mainstream of civilization. The Acholi and Langi, for instance, cast their lot with the military and became the tribal majority in the colonial army.

Unlike neighboring Kenya and Tanzania, Uganda moved toward independence without any united nationalistic front. Indeed, the Baganda even considered secession rather than risk the loss of dominance in a new nation. This absence of central authority would later prove to be a major obstacle to political stability. But Milton Obote, a Lango schoolteacher, promised the Baganda autonomy and managed to put together a loose coalition that led Uganda to independence, with himself as prime minister and the kabaka as president.

It soon became apparent Uganda was missing another element that was to become important in Kenya’s success - European settlers. There were 43,000 whites in Kenya at independence, and more than 5,000 of them were farmers who had settled in the highlands north of Nairobi. Kenya was their home and they had a stake in making the new republic work. In Uganda the 8,800 whites were administrators, professionals and technicians. They would stay for three or four years, then move on when their contracts were up. The settlement of whites in Kenya had been a conscious decision of the British government for two reasons: Kenya was on the coast and more accessible to travelers than landlocked Uganda; and Kenya’s farmland, though not as fertile as Uganda’s, was less densely populated and thus did not require the displacement of large African groups. If the British had settled Uganda instead of Kenya, it is entirely possible there would have been no Life-President Idi Amin and no socioeconomic debacle in Uganda - and no mini-miracles of progress in Kenya. For, however much European settlers retarded the Africans’ advancement, their presence represented strong authority, law and order, political stability - concepts that African colonies could carry with them into independence.

As it turned out, Obote had no intention of sharing power with the kabaka, Freddie Mutesa, a slight, elegant figure who had once served as a lieutenant in England’s Grenadier Guards. Obote wanted absolute control, and his accord with the Buganda kingdom erupted into confrontation; secession again became the Buganda cause. In 1966 Obote called on his army chief, Idi Amin, to put down the rebellion with minimum force. Instead Amin blasted through the kabaka’s palace with tanks, and King Freddie, the last in an unbroken line of ruling royalty dating back to the sixteenth century, escaped over a wall and fled to London, where he died a penniless alcoholic five years later. The monarchy was abolished, Obote became president, and Amin was now a man to be reckoned with.

Despite tribal rivalries, Obote’s misdirected leadership and the absence of exploitable minerals, Uganda had a great deal working for it in those early days of independence. Makerere was a superior university, referred to as ‘the Harvard of Africa.’ The economy, based on agriculture and buoyed by the presence of 70,000 Asians, was healthy, the tourist industry was booming. The health system was one of the finest in the Third World: there were forty-eight hospitals, several hundred rural dispensaries staffed by paramedics, a surprisingly sophisticated facility for psychiatric care, a tropical-medicine institute of international note, and black Africa’s best city hospital, Mulago in Kampala. There were excellent hotels and game lodges, 1,000 miles of paved roads, and an extensive rail network that stretched to Mombasa on the Kenyan coast, six hundred miles away. Even more important, there were the Baganda, a people far less primitive than most other Africans in the neighboring countries.

The man responsible for Uganda’s destruction was born in 1925 to peasant parents who scratched a meager living from their two-acre plot. Idi Amin was a Moslem and a member of the small backward Kakwa tribe, a people noted for little except their lack of education and their penchant for soldiering. His parents separated shortly after his birth and Amin was raised by his mother, who lived sometimes in the barracks, with a succession of military men.

In 1946 Amin joined Britain 4th King’s African Rifles as a kitchen helper. Knowing that the British did not favor the Kakwa,

he listed his tribe on the registration forms as Acholi. Amin never fought in India and Burma, as he later claimed to justify the medals dripping from his uniform, but by all accounts he was a tough, courageous, unquestioning soldier. He fought well during the Mau Mau Emergency in Kenya in the 1950s and later was promoted to lieutenant, an unusually high rank for an African in the discriminatory colonial promotion system. ‘Idi was a fine chap,’ one of his British officers remembered, ‘though a bit short on the gray matter.’

By 1962, the year of independence, Amin had displayed the first signs of the brutality that was to become his trademark. As a platoon commander, he was assigned the task of ending a tribal war between two neighboring people, the Turkana of Kenya and the Karamojong of Uganda. He accomplished that job, but a month later several bodies were disinterred from shallow graves in the village where Amin’s unit had operated. Villagers had been tortured and beaten to death; others had been buried alive.

‘Some pretty fearful things have been going on in Turkana,’ Kenya’s deputy governor, Sir Eric Griffith-Jones, said, ‘and it looks as if there is some evidence apparently that one of the Uganda army people has so brutally beaten up a complete Turkana village, including killing, that I think we shall have to take criminal proceedings against him.’

The name he mentioned was Idi Amin. But Sir Walter Coutts, the British governor of Uganda, on the advice of Prime Minister Obote, quashed the charge. Amin was one of only two African officers with the British army in Uganda, and with independence only weeks away, a court-martial could have been embarrassing to all concerned. It was the gravest misjudgment the British made during their sixty-eight years in Uganda.

The Uganda flag replaced the Union Jack over Kampala on October 9, 1962. The new banner bore the national emblem, a crested crane, and a series of horizontal stripes: a black one for Africa, a yellow for sunshine, a red for brotherhood. There was irony in each symbol, for in time Obote’s country would slaughter much of its wildlife for food and profit, Africa would turn its back on Uganda, sunshine alone would not be sufficient to make the farmlands flourish, and brotherhood would become fratricide.

Obote was a resourceful and strong-willed man, a socialist and a theoretician. A decade earlier he had been offered a scholarship to study law in the United States, but the colonial authorities refused him an exit visa on the grounds that knowledge of American law would be useless in Uganda. Now Obote had his chance to experiment. He crushed the monarchy and nationalized the economy. He got his attorney general - the Bagandan who would later resurface as president, Godfrey Binaisa - to rewrite the constitution, consolidating virtually all powers in the presidency. Uganda, Obote said, was putting distance between itself and the stereotyped European systems. Indeed it was. And the tribes grew restive, the economic foundations quivered, the army waited.

In January 1971 Obote flew to Singapore for a Commonwealth meeting to rally support against Britain’s decision to sell arms to South Africa. Before he left he made a fateful mistake: he ordered Amin and his defense minister, Felix Onama, to explain in writing the disappearance of $4 million in army funds and weapons. The demand hastened the inevitable, and on January 25 Amin and his soldiers seized power. The result was tantamount to arming a mob of twelve-year-olds and telling them they were now running a country.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it was Amin the buffoon, not Amin the butcher, who first caught the world’s attention. A hulking six-foot-four 240-pounder, he raced around Kampala in a red sports car, plunged fully clothed into swimming pools during diplomatic functions and promised to make Uganda more prosperous than Japan. He divorced three of his five wives en masse in 1974 - the dismembered body of one of them, Kay, was later found in the trunk of a car - and fired his winsome foreign affairs minister, Elizabeth Bagaya, accusing her of having had sexual intercourse in a lavatory at Orly Airport in Paris.

‘The problem with me,’ Amin said, ‘is that I am fifty or a hundred years ahead of my time. My speed is very fast. Some ministers had to drop out of my government because they could not keep up.’

To students at Makerere University he said: ‘Now I have got a couple of rockets for you. You are responsible for teaching people hygiene. You must make yourself very smart, very clean, very healthy. I find that the VD is very high. If you are a sick man, sick woman, you had better go to hospital, make yourselves clean or you will find that you will infect the whole population. I like you very much and I don’t want you spoiled by gonorrhea.’

And to Lord Snowdon, after the breakup of his marriage to Princess Margaret, he wrote: ‘Your experience will be a lesson to all of us men to be careful not to marry ladies in very high positions.’

The world chuckled, Africans applauded, and Ugandans died, often at the rate of 100 to 150 a day.

From politician to peasant, no one was immune. Education, money or influence was enough to mark a person for death. Social gatherings, even close relationships, were best avoided because Amin’s spies were everywhere, in the ministries, the shops, the airports, the bars, the hotels, the taxis, the schools. To survive, one stayed quiet and unnoticed, melting into the crowds regardless of his station in life.

‘Sometimes my husband and I would talk quietly in our bed about what was happening to Uganda,’ said Judith Mulondo, the mother of two young boys. ‘But we’d never mention our feelings or Amin’s name in front of our children. They might have let it slip at school. Then there would be a knock on your door, and those knocks were the same as death notices.’

One undercover agent, in a document found in Amin’s house, used these words to pass along an execution order to his superiors: ‘This person is so close to me that I cannot take any action on him. So if action is to be taken, it should be carried out in such a way that I am not discovered.’

An attorney told me of walking to work every morning in a T-shirt and tattered slacks so that he would not draw attention to himself as a member of the upper class. A businessman left his Mercedes-Benz in the garage and bicycled to work for the same reason. University students interviewing for jobs would identify themselves as high school dropouts because Amin apparently was intent on eliminating the country’s intelligentsia.

Big Daddy, as the international press called him, evoked a peculiar response in black Africa and became for a time a sort of perverse folk hero. Savage though he was, he had qualities that Africa’s unsophisticated leaders rather admired: he dealt with anyone who crossed him as casually as a child would squash an ant; he said all the right things about nationalism, economic development and human dignity, and the fact that what he said was either outrageous or spurious was immaterial to his presidential peers; he humiliated the Asians, expelling Uganda’s entire community of 70,000 in 1972;* and he toyed with the Europeans, once forcing British residents in Kampala to carry him on a throne-like chair. Many African presidents would have loved to have the gall to be as crudely blunt.

[* Amin gave the Asians’ shops and businesses to his army cronies. As happened in Zaire, many of them simply sold the existing stocks and closed up permanently. The Asians were never compensated for the loss of their businesses.]

But the price Uganda paid! Amin declared himself a doctor of philosophy and the chancellor of Makerere University, and the onetime ‘Harvard of Africa’ became a university of semiliterates, acquiring not a single book for its library or classrooms between 1976 and 1979. Inflation rose more than 1,000 percent during Amin’s eight-year reign, while basic wages went up only 54 percent. By the time Amin was overthrown, a man earning the minimum wage of $34 a month had only enough money to buy ten loaves of bread.

The roads cracked and filled with potholes; the factories closed; the wildlife herds were machine-gunned by soldiers for meat and ivory; the coffee plantations stood idle; Mulago Hospital became a scandal, its toilets stopped up, its water taps dry, its sixty-bed wards jammed with three times that many patients and filled with rats, cockroaches, lice, fleas and bedbugs. The country’s sixteen psychiatrists - along with as many as 100,000 other Ugandans - went into exile, the rural health clinics closed, the tourist industry evaporated.

Even in its dying days, Kampala was a lovely city, laced with tree-lined avenues, waving palms and municipal gardens. The skyline was dominated by the sixteen-story International Hotel and a fine mosque. The Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals stood atop two of Kampala’s hills, and on a third, Kasubi Hill, were the tombs of four kabakas, including King Freddie, whose body Idi Amin had had exhumed in England and flown home to Uganda in an early attempt to win Buganda backing. On the sides of the hills, just a five minute drive from the downtown square, were some of the most gracious suburbs in all Africa, their stately mansions covered with ivy and set back from the road, surrounded by gardens that seemed always in bloom. There were sidewalk cafes such as Chez Joseph to enjoy on warm summer nights, frequent choral and dance performances at the National Theater, and the campus grounds of Makerere University were as pleasant and as pampered as those of any rural American college.

If you had flown over Kampala in a helicopter, the capital would have looked as tranquil and attractive and everyday normal as, say, Medford, Oregon. It was only on ground level that you realized what was happening. In the shop windows were impressive stacks of cans of paint, cartons of small electric appliances, boxes of liquor; but the contents all had been emptied and the displays were only a facade. The 300-room International Hotel - formerly called the Apolo, Obote’s middle name - looked like any Holiday Inn, but the restaurant served only bread and instant coffee. The electrical generators had broken down and guests huffed up fourteen flights of stairs by matchlight. The water system was out of service too, and if you wanted to take a bath, you pulled the fire hose down the corridor and filled your tub from the emergency tank on the roof. The performances ended at the National Theater; waiters in white jackets stood in the cafes with soiled napkins over their arms but with no customers to serve; the large clock in Independence Square stopped, ticking off not a second over the course of several years.

Amin’s Entebbe State House on the shores of Lake Victoria - the Ugandan equivalent of the White House - appeared immaculate outside to passers-by. Inside, though, sofas were covered with cigarette-burn holes, drapes had been pulled off the windows, beer bottles cluttered the closets, grease covered the kitchen floor and bullet holes dotted the ceiling of the living room, where Amin regularly used to blast away with his revolvers to summon his staff.

The worse things became in Uganda, the more adaptable and accepting the Ugandans seemed to become. If there was no food in the stores, they picked fruit and ate steamed, mashed bananas, which are served with local spices and are known as matoke. If the phones didn’t work, they did their business in person. If friends and relatives died for making ill-chosen comments, they became silent. If there was no public transportation to get them to their city jobs, they walked. They did so without complaint or apparent anger. ‘Shauri ya Mungu,’ they said - Swahili for ‘It’s God’s will.’ To a Westerner, such fatalism might be dismissed as passivity. But there is more to it than that. Like so many Africans, the Ugandans had lost control of their lives. They lived in a feudal-style system in which one’s well-being depended on an allegiance to a man or a group of tribal barons, and that attachment did not include the right to question. The tradition of giving all power to a village chief, the era of colonialism, and the repressiveness of men like Obote and Amin had taught them obedience, even servitude. They had learned the art of survival.

Tragically, Amin would not have lasted as long as he did if Africa had had the courage to isolate him, and if the East and West had cared less about their own interests and more about Uganda’s. But Libya helped train Amin’s army and sent military advisers and civilian technicians. Saudi Arabia promised Amin $2 million in the dying days of his regime in the name of Islamic brotherhood. The Palestine Liberation Organization provided personal bodyguards as a reward for Amin’s anti-Israeli ravings. Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh sent university professors for Makerere, doctors for Mulago, engineers and other professionals. The Soviet Union gave sophisticated weapons, East Germany trained the secret police.

The West’s interests were economic. The United States - which to its credit did institute a trade embargo shortly before Amin was toppled - was for years the biggest purchaser of Uganda coffee. Western companies supplied the country with petroleum. Britain, Uganda’s largest trading partner, sold Amin everything from radio technology to drugs to military uniforms. It was not until Amin ordered the murder of Uganda’s Anglican archbishop and two senior cabinet ministers in 1977 - Amin said they died in a car accident - that world opinion turned solidly against the man who had once seemed such a good-natured oaf.

Amin was facing pressures at home, too, at the time he killed the archbishop. His army was restless, and tribal fighting broke out in the barracks. Amin needed to put his soldiers to work. The solution he came up with was to start a war. On October 30, 1978, the Ugandan army invaded northwest Tanzania, annexing 710 square miles without opposition. The occupation, Amin announced, was ‘a record in world history,’ completed in the ‘supersonic speed of twenty-five minutes.’ Julius Nyerere responded that Amin was a ‘snake’ mentally damaged by syphilis. He summoned his generals and ordered a counterattack. The initial results were a case study in how not to wage war.

The first day the Tanzanians mistakenly shot down three of their own planes. A week later the counteroffensive had to be halted entirely because no one was sure where the ammunition stockpiles were. One Tanzanian battalion never got the word of the delay and headed off for Rwanda, planning to veer north into Uganda. But the unit got lost in the Rwandan forests and wandered for days, unable to find its way either into Uganda or back to Tanzania. Most of the Tanzanian military vehicles broke down, so the generals had to commandeer buses, Land-Rovers and cars in Dar es Salaam, 850 miles from the front. The convoy finally got rolling. Many of the vehicles ran out of gas en route. The soldiers abandoned them and finished the journey on foot.

When the two armies at last caught up with each other a few weeks later, there was little enthusiasm for any fighting. Soldiers just set up camp on either side of the Kagera River. Nyerere, though, was determined to complete the job, and in the spring of 1979 he brought the twenty-eight Ugandan exile and liberation groups to a conference in Moshi, Tanzania. They included Marxists and monarchists, socialists and capitalists, tribalists and nationalists, men who were united only in their resolve to rid Uganda of Amin. Nyerere scraped together a 50,000-man people’s militia, composed largely of illiterate youths pulled off the streets and out of the bush. It was more a mob than an army, for its members had no rank and little training, but together with a handful of Uganda rebels they pushed north, crossed the Kagera River and moved into Uganda. Amin’s soldiers - supposedly the best armed and trained in East Africa - threw down their weapons at the first sound of gunfire and fled. Several hundred Libyan soldiers, dispatched to Uganda by Colonel Muammar Qaddafy in an eleventh-hour attempt to save Amin, took up the front-line positions around Kampala. They broke and ran too, and the capital fell without a battle. Amin escaped on a military flight to Tripoli, and Yusufu L. Lule stepped out of the shadows of parliament to speak about the new beginning that was never to be.

Uganda no longer exists today as a viable nation. It has disintegrated into a cluster of tribal states. Its cities have become frontier towns, terrorized by bandits who will kill for a Seiko watch. Its government is a collection of outcasts and misfits serving only themselves. Most of the bright young Ugandans who came home after Amin’s overthrow already have returned to exile. There was nothing left to rebuild. The economy, the governmental infrastructure, the spirit of reconciliation had all been destroyed. The Ugandans had committed national suicide and by the summer of 1983, upwards of 200 people a day - most of them women and children - were dying as government troops and anti-government guerrillas leveled villages, ambushed buses, shot up churches, raided houses and did their utmost to make sure the legend of Idi Amin was not forgotten.

David Lamb, The Africans (Methuen, London: 1985) pp.77-92.

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