Today is 40 years to the day Idi Amin was driven out of power by Tanzanian soldiers and Ugandan exiled fighters. Yet his eight years in power cast such a dark shadow over the country that it is not uncommon, in foreign lands, for one’s Ugandan identity to immediately trigger inquiries or sympathetic grunts about Amin.
It does not seem to matter that he died a decade and a half ago, or that eight out of every 10 Ugandans alive today were not even born when he was ousted; Amin is a stubborn stain in our socio-political fabric.
Surprisingly for someone who had so much impact on the country, there is very little original scholarship or literature on Idi Amin. A lot of what exists, certainly in the popular media, is written, created or curated by foreigners, often with embellishments.
So apart from the myths (the human head in the refrigerator, a taste for human flesh, et cetera), other important questions, such as the exact number of people killed under this hand and regime, remain answered inconclusively.
Even basics, such as whether compensation was paid to departing Asians for their properties remains unsettled.
So in many ways it is not the things that we know about Amin that matter most, but those that we don’t know or can’t bring ourselves to ask. When joyous crowds poured into the streets in 1971 after the coup that brought Amin to power were they celebrating him or Obote’s departure?
Were there voices that, having condemned Obote for his unconstitutional power grab in 1965/66, and his use of the military to resolve political disputes, celebrated the coup – itself the highest form of using the military to resolve political disputes?
Did the political class at the time see the coup as a necessary evil to reboot the post-independence Uganda Project and rebuild it on firmer democratic foundations or merely good riddance to Obote?
How long did it take for people to notice a pattern in the disappearances or the bodies that started turning up in different places?
One might argue, with some merit, that some people did, indeed, see the worrying signs and called them out but then paid with their lives or had to escape into exile. Fair enough. But how come that very generation of Amin’s survivors, including some who fought against him, would go on to act in similar brutally cavalier fashion and with impunity in the regimes that followed?
When future historians examine the Nakulabye massacres of 1963, the murders in 1971-9, the blood-letting in 1981-5, and the massacres that followed the Kayunga riots of 2009 what fundamental differences will they find, particularly in holding those responsible accountable?
It is said that some societies get the leaders they deserve but some societies also deserve the leaders they get!
There must be certain material conditions present within a society to produce an Amin, a Mobutu or a Bokassa.
Even adjusting for the agency of external actors, a society that gets rid of a Patrice Lumumba and entertains Mobutu, or allows Blaise Compaoré to kill Thomas Sankara and carry on for decades, reflects, in its action or inaction, its collective ambitions and aspirations.
Simply put, Amin ruled us for eight years because we let him, and aspects of Aminism linger because we let them. Maybe we are not better than that; maybe we are that!
Some of those aspects become chronic. One of the enduring legacies of Idi Amin is the hollowing out of the middle-class and professional cadre, and creating conditions in which a culture of cutting corners or surviving at all costs emerged.
Thus we are a society where people are middle class by income, not lifestyle. A society where 10 people would rather jostle than queue up to enter an empty 14-seater matatu.
Where many rich aren’t innovators or smart entrepreneurs but simply mafuta-mingi tenderpreneurs, land grabbers, carpetbaggers and polished smugglers and tax cheats.
Many, although not all, of these things can be traced to the dislocation and crisis of the Amin years; 40 years later they are the way things work, not the way they fail. It is as if of all the things that Amin (and subsequent leaders) did and do, those that don’t kill us only make us stronger. Amin is long dead and gone, Aminism lives.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s
freedom fighter. [email protected]