Ten years ago, former Ugandan president Idi Amin died in exile in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah. He was 78. The then Sunday Monitor reporter, the late David Kibirige, had been the first to break the news of Amin’s illness. He died on August 13, 2003.
Uganda has now had 34 years to put the Amin government years behind it and a decade to put the person of Amin behind it.
However, interest in Amin both at home and worldwide, remains higher than it is for any other leader Uganda has ever produced and makes Amin one of the most fascinating and troubling leaders to have come out of contemporary Africa.
The Last King of Scotland, a British-American film production about Amin, premiered worldwide in Kampala in January 2007, starring the American actor Forest Whitaker in the role of Amin.
On August 11, 2013, CCTV-9, the English-language channel of the State-owned China TV network, aired a documentary on Amin titled “Idi Amin: Famous for the Wrong Reasons”, further indicating the enduring mystery, revulsion, fear, admiration and ambivalence surrounding this former military leader.
Since Amin’s death, too, a new movement and effort grew in Uganda to understand him and his legacy better.
Industrialist Christopher Sembuya in 2009 published a small book Amin Dada: The Other Side, in which he focused on the economic reforms that Amin initiated in 1972 that were to put much of the national economy in the hands of indigenous Ugandans.
Makerere University researcher Fred Guweddeko and the Monitor contributor, Mr Timothy Kalyegira, principally, wrote regular articles that attempted to re-open the debate about the figures of the number of Ugandans allegedly killed by the Amin regime.
One of Amin’s sons, Jaffer Remo, since 2007 has become the reasoned voice and face of the Amin family in the Ugandan and international media, speaking up for the late head of State’s legacy and becoming the de facto family spokesman.
Where in the 1980s it was next to treason and in the 1990s considered idiotic revisionism to state or write anything positive about Amin, after 2005, newspaper series on Amin became acceptable weekend publication.
The once unanimously accepted figure of 500,000 Ugandans killed during Amin’s rule has been questioned in many quarters.
Amin is back in the mainstream, back to being the subject of proper media and academic discussion and, amazingly, parts of his eight-year rule can logically and reasonably be compared with the once-dazzling record of the NRM government and Amin will be found to compare well.
Since Amin’s overthrow and death, a number of formerly state-owned corporations and institutions founded, acquired or maintained by Amin’s government, from Uganda Airlines, Uganda Railways, to embassies, Coffee Marketing Board and other properties, have either been sold or degenerated under the NRM government.
Since Amin’s death, too, Uganda has taken a steep nosedive in the quality of its public infrastructure and social services. Mulago hospital, once the pride of Uganda, became the sorry picture of decay and all across the country, government hospitals since 2000 continued to deteriorate.
All the army, police and airforce barracks that during Amin’s time were well-maintained, with proper accommodation for the soldiers and their families, with the army shop near Bulange, Mengo in Kampala fully stocked, after 2003 were in the same run-down condition as the government hospitals.
In the month that Amin died, August 2003, President Museveni sent his daughter Natasha Kainerugaba to Germany to deliver a baby.
The news caused a public uproar and from that point on, begun to end the high regard many millions of Ugandans once genuinely had for the Museveni family.
The image of the Museveni family as having fought and sacrificed for Uganda’s freedom was replaced by a new perception of them as a typical African First Family that uses the privileges of the high office for their personal pleasure and self-indulgence.
Since August 2003, the image has been tarnished even further. A cover story in 2008 in the new Kampala news magazine, the Independent, detailing the Museveni family connections at the centre of power sold out and required an additional print run to meet public demand.
By contrast since the late 1990s, the Ugandan media occasionally published stories about how part of Amin’s family in Kampala was struggling to get by, sometimes even unable to pay rent.
Most young Ugandans, used to hearing and reading stories of NRM ministers and army officers worth billions in stolen public money, could not understand how the dictator Amin they grew up hearing about, had somehow not abused his fearsome power in the 1970s to enrich himself.
With the distance of time since 1979, in a Uganda where more than 70 per cent of the population were born after Amin’s downfall and with the near endless daily news reports on corruption, decaying public institutions and abuse of office, Amin’s legacy is undergoing more measured, if not favourable, review.
Even after Amin’s former vice president Gen Mustapha Adrisi died late last month, President Museveni --- who 20 years earlier at the Kololo Independence Day celebrations had alluded to his predecessors as “swine” that Ugandans gave their precious pearls to and should never do so again --- conceded that Adrisi was, in Museveni’s words, a “good” man who had served in a “bad” government.
The one area where the NRM government and President Museveni personally had prided themselves in being most different from their predecessors, was the question of human rights, extrajudicial killings and the use of brutal force on the population.
But even in this regard, Ugandans and foreign watchers of Uganda in the 10 years since Amin’s death have had ample time to draw comparisons since 2003.
They have read about ISO and CMI safe houses, human rights groups have documented torture, the public has seen the High Court raided and surrounded by commandos and watched TV footage of opposition politician Dr Kizza Besigye nearly blinded by tear gas and pepper spray and Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago made sick by a tear gas canister lobbied into his car.
They have seen the Constitution altered to open up presidential term limits even after the Constitution-making process had imposed them in order to get away from the lessons the political class says it learnt from dictators like Amin.
The expression “orders from above” has become a code word for a style of leadership that blatantly disregards the law and proper procedure by the country’s rulers, usually meant as Museveni himself. The claim that only Amin ruled by personal decree, is overtaken by the new reality.
As time goes by and the longer the NRM government remains in power, the more perspective older Ugandans get of Amin’s eight years and the more likely that the younger generation will in their time start to view Amin as a hero, in the way the post-World War II European generation of Germans and Italians came to view Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
It is the irony of history, then, that the Museveni and FRONASA guerrillas who fought Amin during the 1970s, are the very people, by their conduct in power since 1986, who have done more to redeem Amin’s image and lead so many Ugandans who once dreaded the name Amin to start revising their view of Amin’s place in Ugandan history.