During the 2016 election campaign in Uganda, presidential candidate Amama Mbabazi made some waves with a promise to return the remains of former President Idi Amin to his home district of West Nile. Uganda’s former dictator is currently buried in Saudi Arabia, where he spent his final years in exile after fleeing the country in 1979.
Idi Amin ruled Uganda between 1971 and 1979. He is buried in Saudi Arabia.*
Mbabazi’s promise echoed one of Amin’s own shrewd political moves. Almost immediately after deposing Milton Obote in a military coup in 1971, he arranged the return of the remains of Mutesa II, the kabaka (king) of the southern Buganda kingdom. Mutesa – nominal president of Uganda after independence- had died in exile in the UK, having been driven out of office by Obote. Even though Amin himself (as army commander) had helped Obote depose the kabaka, the move won him considerable favour in Buganda in the early days of his government.
In making his promise, Mbabazi spoke of a need to confront and forgive the wrongs of the country’s past. Some argue that Amin’s legacy is a useful tourist attraction in a post-‘Last King of Scotland’ world. Promises to build memorials and museums to Amin have been made before by another political hopeful, Abed Bwanika; and Amin himself, never encumbered by humility, pledged a large museum to his own government in 1973. And it is striking that Mbabazi’s promise roused only modest interest in Uganda itself, whilst Western news sources took it as cue to revisit the more sensational stories that surround the deceased dictator. Internationally Amin is still a byword for senseless violence or ignorance- but that is not the case in Uganda.
Effective. Strong. Honest. These are words that appear with surprising regularity during discussions of Amin’s historical significance in the country today. There is no doubt that this reappraisal stems in part from the passage of time. Uganda’s population is overwhelmingly youthful, and those with memories of the 60’s and 70’s are increasingly thin on the ground. But it is also fuelled by ongoing frustrations that some Ugandans have with the current NRM government. Just as the popularity of the kabaka – and indeed the military takeover – spoke volumes about feeling toward the Obote government in the late 60’s and early 70’s, so too does Amin’s ongoing historic rehabilitation owe much to a growing sense among many Ugandans that Museveni has been in power for too long. His recent election victory demonstrates that these voices remain in the minority, but the margins of his success are growing slimmer.
But this rose-tinted assessment of Idi Amin is more than just reappraisal. One must also recognise the genuine popular support that Amin once enjoyed in large parts of Uganda. Recent historical work on Uganda in the 70’s challenges the idea that it was characterised by nothing more than chaos and death. Amin’s ceaseless tours of the districts and use of local languages enabled him to quickly ingratiate himself after seizing power. His initial release of hundreds of political prisoners had the same effect. His ‘economic war’ for Ugandan economic independence, which began with the expulsion of the Asian community from the country and redistribution of their businesses into Ugandan hands, may have ultimately been economically disastrous, but at the time it was very popular. Nostalgia for these actions endures long after their most negative economic and social consequences have faded.
On the global stage his denunciation of Israel and Britain (initial allies whom he had quickly cast aside) struck a chord with many; it still resonates in an unequal world. For many Ugandans, the real historical villain was (and remains) Obote – who came back to power again after Amin’s fall in 1979, and whose second regime was extremely oppressive and violent. It has been argued that Obote’s relative non-existence in the Western historical consciousness as compared to Amin stems in part from our preference for a more stereotypical ‘African’ dictator figure
Amin was routinely caricatured in Western media, far more than his predecessor Obote.
The violent excesses of Amin’s regime were many, but the chief victims were often on the peripheries of the nation, notably the Acholi, Langi and Lugbara in the north, and the kingdoms of the south-west. In a country whose national narratives are heavily dominated by the south and the capital, this often meant anti-Amin voices went comparatively unheard, and that they still do today.
Many of the regime’s victims came from the peripheries of the country
Time and energy has been devoted to online journalism revisiting episodes of violence during his regime, often with an eye on reassigning fault away from Amin, and even attempting to shift it onto Museveni. Presented with the casualties of the 70’s era as a reason to treat pro-Amin sentiment with skepticism, one informant relativised Amin’s excesses by dryly noting that ‘all Presidents kill’. Here again the intersection of memories of the past with the politics of the present is unmistakable. Mbababzi’s campaign fizzled out, and Idi Amin is still buried away from Uganda. Quite how far his bones will travel remains to be seen.
*Photo Attributed to Archives New Zealand [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons