Like the young British doctor in 'The Last King of Scotland', Richard Dowden was living in Uganda when Idi Amin seized power. But he says the film is wrong to blame the UK for the coup that brought the tyrant to power
Published: 16 January 2007
The first time I saw Idi Amin was when - as in the film - he leapt on to a platform in my local town to address the people. He used much the same words as he does in the film. "I am one of you, I know you, we are going to make life better..." And, like Nicholas Garrigan, the film's young Scottish doctor, I was swept along by Amin's ebullient enthusiasm, joining the crowd to shout a huge "O ye" in answer to his. He then picked us white muzungus out of the crowd and praised us, telling the people we had come to help Uganda, and Ugandans should welcome us and respect us. We got a huge cheer too. If he had offered me a job at that moment...
Forest Whitaker is a brilliant Idi Amin. The voice, the stance but most of all the eyes flicking this way and that until he chooses his mood: smile or smite. Seconds tick by as he weighs the choice, and then the huge smile lights up his face; or the storm breaks, menacing, murderous.
My challenges to the film are factual. The first concerns who put Amin in power. There is a moment when he confides in Garrigan: "Who put me here? - It was British." The assertion is repeated by Stone, a British diplomat, who says: "Given we were so intimately involved in him coming to power..."
Most Brits in Uganda believed their government organised the coup in 1971. Amin had been a loyal sergeant in the King's African Rifles, doing Britain's dirty work against the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s. It was assumed he was still "their boy". I too believed it was the British, until I read papers concerning the coup at the Public Record Office at Kew in London.
If the British did have a hand in the events of 25 January 1971, the plotters neglected to tell the British high commissioner in Kampala, Richard Slater. Foreign Office telegrams reveal a man shocked and confused at reports of shooting in the streets. As the day rolls on, Slater reports that the man who knows all about the coup is Colonel Bar-Lev, the Israeli defence attaché - the ambassador was away. Quoting Bar-Lev as the source, Slater reports: "In the course of last night, General Amin caused to be arrested all officers in the armed forces sympathetic to Obote ... Amin is now firmly in control of all elements of [the] army ... the Israeli defence attaché discounts any possibility of moves against Amin."
In the following days, the Israelis take the lead. Bar-Lev is in constant contact with Amin. Slater tells London that Bar-Lev has explained to him "in considerable detail [how] ... all potential foci of resistance, both up-country and in Kampala, had been eliminated." How does he know this? The Uganda military radio network had been provided by the Israelis. Soon afterwards, Amin made his first trip as president - to Israel.
At the time of the coup, Slater had recently declared that Amin had "just enough intelligence to realise he couldn't run the country". He also said that he was fed up with the president, Milton Obote, who had taken a strong stand against British arms sales to South Africa, and was threatening to nationalise British companies in Uganda.
The suspicion at the time was that the British prime minister, Edward Heath, wanted Obote out of the way at the Commonwealth Conference then taking place in Singapore, where arms sales to South Africa would be a hot topic. But elsewhere in Africa, Britain tolerated critics. In Tanzania, President Julius Nyerere had nationalised British companies and was even more anti-apartheid than Obote. But when he had been threatened by a coup, the British sent in the Marines to keep him to power. The British never tried to remove President Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia, despite his critical stance on South Africa.
But why should Israel be interested in Uganda? Slater never directly accused Israel of being behind the coup, but he did explain why they might have been. In the Six-Day War, Sudan had backed the Arab cause, and Israel wanted to take the fight to its enemies. They were supporting rebellion in southern Sudan, supplying the Anya-Nya fighters with weapons. As Slater said: "They do not want the rebels to win. They want to keep them fighting."
Obote had been trying to make peace in Sudan, but, unknown to him, Amin, then head of his army, had been secretly supplying the Israeli weapons to the rebels. Amin had good friends in Israel, and suddenly the Israelis had the opportunity to remove the man who was trying to broker peace, and put their man in power.
But if the British did not organise the coup, they were quick to take advantage of it. Bruce McKenzie, MI6's senior Africa operator, was also the Kenyan president's foreign affairs adviser. (Perhaps that was a deal they had made with Jomo Kenyatta. The British would keep him in power if he accepted that one of their agents was in the heart of his government.) McKenzie urged London to support Amin. His first trip after the coup was also to Israel, where he met the prime minister, Golda Meir. She was said to be shocked at Amin's shopping list for arms.
McKenzie reported to the Foreign Secretary, Alec Douglas-Home: "The way is now clear for our high commission in Kampala to get close to Amin." The British press also welcomed Amin. The Financial Times declared him "Man of the Week"; The Daily Telegraph called him "a welcome contrast to other African leaders and a staunch friend of Britain".
In Kampala, however, Slater - who comes across in the records as a decent and honest man - is worried about Amin, and wants to keep a distance. But, urged on by McKenzie, Douglas-Home gives Slater his orders: "The PM will be watching this and will, I am sure, want us to take quick advantage of any opportunity of selling arms. Don't overdo the caution."
Despite the reports of mass murder of the ethnic groups who had supported Obote, and the assassination or disappearance of anyone who spoke out, the Heath government invited Amin to London for a state visit, where he rode with the Queen in an open carriage, and dined at Buckingham Palace. He was also taken on visits to army camps and invited to buy whatever weapons he wanted. Sell before the Israelis do, was the message.
Around the end of 1971, Amin visited Libya and came away a changed man - not in character but in political direction. Perhaps they gave him nicer weapons, or did not charge him. Maybe he felt patronised by the British, as he had been all his life. Not even now he was president did they really respect him. Perhaps he was persuaded that Africans should stand with the Palestinians. He was not alone. Arab countries did a deal with Africa: support the Palestinians, and we will support you against apartheid in South Africa. So Amin turned on his British supporters, and on the British in Uganda. In 1972, he expelled Uganda's Asians and took hostages. Life became difficult for whites even out in the villages, and when Amin declared that we were all British spies, I decided it was time to leave.
My second problem is with the film's ending, which announces on screen that Idi Amin was overthrown by the Tanzanian army in 1979, having killed 300,000 people, as if that was the end of the nightmare. In fact, it was only half way through.
When I arrived, he was very popular among the Baganda people, whohad hated Obote. He also had that streak of populism the film captures perfectly. He could move crowds to cheer and dance and sing. In a strange way, many Ugandans learned to duck and weave and live with him. I had become a journalist then, and Ugandan friends begged me not to write bad things about Amin because that would enrage him - and when he was enraged he was dangerous.
How many people he killed can only be speculation, but the terrible truth is that things got worse. In the next months there were three presidents and Milton Obote, Uganda's first president, was returned to power in a fraudulent election in 1980. To its eternal shame, the Commonwealth gave it a stamp of approval. That is when southern Uganda's nightmare begun.
Amin had killed anyone who threatened him, and purged the army with massacres of ethnic groups that he thought did not support him, but on the whole he left the little people alone. His successor was very different. Between 1980 and 1985 in the Luwero triangle around Kampala, the number of civilians murdered by Obote's British-trained soldiers approached genocidal levels, as whole villages were exterminated.
And that war has, in a way, continued until today in the north. In Acholi district the Lord's Resistance Army, which never accepted President Yoweri Museveni's rule, has killed tens of thousands, but many more have died in disease-ridden camps they have been forced to live in. That war is hopefully coming to an end with peace talks in Sudan, and this could heal the rift between the northern and southern peoples of Uganda that politicians have kept open since colonial times.
Later this year, the Commonwealth will be able to make amends, holding its heads of government meeting in Uganda. They will meet in the conference centre - the very one that, in the film, Amin is shown smiling over Dr Gilligan. (It had just been built at that stage).
I nearly met Amin in Jeddah in 1986. The Saudis had caged him there in a comfortable house, as he was a Muslim. Through an Ethiopian journalist who knew him, I sent him a message, and he invited me for lunch. But as I approached his house, the Saudi secret police politely turned me back. A few months later he escaped, flying to Nigeria in pink robes. He still looked in perfect health - British-spread rumours that he was dying of syphilis and alcoholism turned out to be untrue. He finally died in Jeddah in 2003. He will never be rehabilitated, but to this day when you mention his name many Ugandans laugh rather than weep.
Richard Dowden is the director of the Royal African Society