By Joel Kibazo, a media consultant and former director of communications at the Commonwealth Secretariat (THE GUARDIAN, 13/01/07):
I am not an anxious sort, but walking into a screening of The Last King of Scotland, I feared the worst. Almost every time Idi Amin’s name is mentioned in this country, it evokes one of two memories. To some, it is the expulsion of Uganda’s Asian community in 1972 that forced thousands into exile in Britain. To others, though, it is Amin the figure of fun, of bizarre antics and buffoonery. Was this film going to follow the same pattern?
For most Africans who lived through the years of brutality and terror as family and friends were murdered, tortured, or simply fed to the crocodiles in the river Nile, there has never been anything amusing about Amin. It is believed that by the end of his reign in 1979, perhaps 500,000 Africans had perished at the hands of his death squads. No one will ever know the true figure.
As children of a lawyer and senior civil servant, ours was an uneventful middle-class existence. That tranquillity was shattered by a radio announcement that my father had been made Amin’s justice minister and attorney general. He had not been asked. No one could refuse an appointment made by the great leader, nor displease him with unwanted advice. We were now all under a death sentence.
In an attempt to save family members as the brutality gathered pace, my brother and I were spirited away to Kenya, and eventually to a UK boarding school. The day came when Amin had had enough of my father confronting him. It was decided he should die in a car crash with the Anglican archbishop and the defence minister. The “accident” happened but, luckily, nobody had realised that my father was abroad. Having been tipped off, he arranged for my mother and siblings to join us in London.
Amin was enraged by his escape and our relatives were arrested and interrogated. Our property was seized. My father’s bodyguard paid with his life upon returning to Uganda alone. It is something that has never left me.
Yet Amin was widely portrayed as a comic figure. Yes, he had expelled the Asians and murdered a few people, but isn’t that what was expected of Africa, I used to hear. It was during the cold war, and the fact that Britain and Israel had supported the coup that overthrew the previous socialist-leaning government and brought Amin to power had long been forgotten.
But my fears that the horrors of the regime would be overlooked in The Last King of Scotland proved unfounded. The film is about a naïve young doctor who sets off from his native Scotland in the early 1970s to seek adventure and help the poor. Instead he finds himself caught up in a brutal African dictatorship. While it does not, and perhaps could not, capture the sheer terror we Ugandans lived under, the brutality is not glossed over. It also manages to avoid crudely stereotyping Amin as a “typical” African dictator. Many of his compatriots appear as amazed by his actions as any sane human being would be.
As a journalist and then a diplomat working in Africa, I have never lost the fear that such bleak days could be visited upon others. Look at some of Uganda’s direct neighbours: the 1994 genocide in Rwanda; the millions who have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the past five years; and the atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur region.
Today, Uganda is a different country, albeit poor, and damaged by a brutal war in the north. It has gone a long way in reversing Amin’s economic, social and political legacy. It has won praise for its fight against Aids/HIV, and the tourists are back. On New Year’s Eve I watched the fireworks from Kampala’s Sheraton hotel with my British daughters. Once upon a time, the loud bangs would have been gunfire, but now they were simply joyful celebration.