Was Amin’s terror exaggerated?

Idi Amin takes oath of office. COURTESY PHOTO

What you need to know:

Information Gaps. Amin’s regime was brutal and murderous but as this article from the Third World Quarterly journal a year after his overthrow shows, he was also the victim of exaggeration and misinformation.

How much of the anguish of Uganda between 1971 and April 1979 was due to the tyranny exercised by Idi Amin? How much of it was a consequence of sheer anarchy and normative collapse?
Tyranny involves centrally-directed force; anarchy entails decentralised violence. The two processes could reinforce each other.

Governments scared of what appear to them to be anarchic trends could get more tyrannical.
On the other hand, groups which are dissatisfied with the credentials of a government, and are unwilling to concede its legitimacy, could destabilise society as a whole.

A third possibility is when groups take advantage of either governmental weakness or general erosion of public morality - and create even further arbitrariness and insecurity in society at large.
The precise balance between tyranny and anarchy in the Third World as a whole varies from country to country. In Amin’s Uganda, the tyrannical factor was by far the more publicised, partly because of the flamboyant personality of Idi Amin and his capacity to attract international notoriety. But in fact, by 1977 Uganda had become as much a case of sheer decentralised violence as one of purposeful tyranny.

This is not to deny the argument that many of the more publicised murders were indeed centrally-directed, often instigated by Field Marshal Idi Amin himself. The murder of Chief Justice Kiwanuka in 1972,the murder of Vice-Chancellor Kalimuzo of Makerere University in the same year, and the murder of Archbishop Luwum in 1977 along with two cabinet ministers, were almost certainly ordered by Idi Amin himself.

But far less publicised were the far more numerous cases of wanton decentralised brutality – of individual soldiers ‘executing’ a man behind a dance hall in order to ‘inherit’ his girl friend for the night, or of civilian criminals wearing army uniforms on loan from real soldiers as a strategy of extorting money. On balance many more people must have died, or been mutilated in Uganda as a result of decentralised violence than in response to purposeful brutality by the regime.

This is not a defence of the regime. After all, a government which is incapable of preventing such lawlessness should long have abdicated and let others try their luck in restoring decency and order. But when we are trying to understand the real causes of violence in a society it is not enough to focus on the bizarre brutality of a simple individual, no matter how powerful.

It is tempting to reduce all causation to the personality of Idi Amin. But just as it is simplistic to attribute the birth of Protestantism to the constipation of Martin Luther, so it is simplistic to attribute the collapse of decency and order in Uganda to the reported venereal difficulties of Amin.
The personalistic approach to the study of Uganda’s recent history has been aggravated by the fascination that Amin commanded in the international mass media - a bizarre symphony of shrieks of pain, sighs of despair and thuds of fatal finality.

The Makerere ‘Incident’
A related obstacle in the effort to understand what was going on in Uganda was the problem of assessing the reliability of the news which came out of Amin’s Uganda. One item of news in 1976 illustrated this issue dramatically for this writer.

This was a bad story about Uganda which became one more Amin headline item in the world press. In August 1976, it was reported that a massacre of students had taken place on the campus of Makerere University in Uganda. The report was detailed. It included the precise place where the massacre took place (on Freedom Square in front of the main Administration Building), the approximate number of casualties (at least 100 and conceivably up to 800), the details of other brutal atrocities (mutilation of breasts of girl students), the usual sexual assaults (soldiers raping girl students), et cetera.

I was in Kenya when this story broke in British newspapers. I flew to Dar es Salaam. I had dinner the same week with the former President of Uganda, Dr Milton Obote, at his residence-in-exile in Tanzania. Also at Obote’s dinner was David Martin, the British journalist mainly responsible for the story of the ‘massacre’ on the Makerere campus. I expressed puzzlement at the dinner over the apparently exclusive nature of such a news ‘scoop’.

A massacre in front of the main building of the only university of a country, situated in its capital city, seemed unlikely to remain unnoticed to all but British observers. Even the Kenya newspapers, next door to Uganda, seemed to be citing only British sources. Obote and Martin assured me of the veracity of the story.

The following week The Observer in London, carried another Martin story about the ‘massacre’ on the campus in Uganda. The story was carried worldwide by western networks. My wife first heard the story on her car radio in a local Canadian broadcast. She was so disturbed by the news and by its likely impact on me that she immediately put through a transatlantic telephone call to me in Dar es Salaam to find out how I was taking it. (We lived on the Makerere campus for about 10 years.)

Since then, I have checked out the story meticulously, receiving confidential evidence from about 15 witnesses who were on the campus on that day. The witnesses were of six different nationalities – ranging from Ugandan to West German. I am now completely satisfied that there was no ‘massacre’ on the Makerere campus in the first week of August 1976. There was indeed an ‘invasion’ of soldiers, seemingly invited by the university authorities themselves in the face of student unrest.
The soldiers did get out of hand and started beating up students, kicking them, injuring them with rifle butts. But nobody was killed. And apparently no girls were raped, let alone mutilated. In short, there was no ‘massacre’ in the sense of killings.

The ‘bad’ story
David Martin probably sincerely believed his story. But his first story was datelined Lusaka in Zambia, and his second came from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. He had never been to Uganda since Amin took over power in 1971.Yet one bad story by a sincere but mistaken British journalist captured the attention of much of the world press.

No retraction or correction has ever been made by The Observer. Clearly there was enough brutality committed by Idi Amin without our inventing fictional instances as well. The man was guilty enough to qualify for the most torrid recesses of hell. Yet one lurid error by a British journalist was enough to misinform the world. The ‘information gap’ was playing games with both the obscenities of an African tyrant and the credulousness of the rest of the world.

We are all caught up in the contradictions of ‘the information gap’ under a military tyranny.
Was Amin as bad as the international press portrayed him? Precisely because Amin was a tyrant we may never know for certain. David Martin was reporting from Zambia about Uganda partly because he simply could not do it within Uganda. He would have been killed on Amin’s orders anytime he chose to arrive in Uganda- not least because of his prior anti-Amin reports, let alone his book General Amin.

Amin’s brutal control of the media in Uganda - including the execution of some editorial personnel of Uganda television and of the Luganda newspaper, Munno – denied the tyrant even the mitigation of some of his own offences. The ‘information gap’ did at times earn him worse publicity than he deserved – though he did deserve a lot of negative coverage all the same.

[Extracted from Between Development & Decay: Anarchy, Tyranny and Progress under Idi Amin by Prof. Mazrui. First published in Third World Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Jan., 1980), pp. 44-58.
Continues tomorrow.