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Idi Amin Dada and African Dictatorships

Ryszard Kapuscinski interviewed by Wojciech Jagielski

[Extracts, translated by J. Cassian, from Jagielski's long and fascinating interview published in the August 23, 2003 edition of Gazeta Wyborcza, the Warsaw-based widest circulation Polish daily.]

Wojciech Jagielski: [ ... ] So Amin's violence didn't serve any nightmarish revolutionary aims as was the case with Pol Pot in Cambodia?

Ryszard Kapuscinski: Why would that be the case?! Amin, Bokassa, Mobutu or Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia were cynical opportunists. They weren't governed by any ideology, they had no vision. They only employed nationalist demagogy in order to have something to say, to fool people. They didn't even feel contempt, for in order to feel that, you generally need to cherish some kind of feelings. It was a pure, brutal struggle for power, completely lacking in cliched phraseology and ethical principles, on the part of very primitive people. People prepared to do anything to stay in power and at the same time gifted with animal cunning, together with an instinct for power and survival. Violence was employed on a massive scale, but almost mechanically, without animosity. Amin didn't treat his enemies as ideological adversaries only as a physical threat.

WJ: So he wasn't a bloodthirsty maniac deriving pleasure from his massacres?

RK: I first met him in 1962, when I was laid up with malaria in the newly opened military hospital in Kampala, a gift to Uganda from the British queen. Everybody came to see this marvel and one day Amin turned up as part of the military entourage. A really huge lad. A jovial, warm-natured jester, always quick to make jokes. Of course, he was psychologically immature - like a cruel, overgrown child, unbalanced, impulsive, changeable - in the morning he would manage to be cheerful, but in the evening he fell into a temper or depression. Once he was awake, he had to do something, he was everywhere, only to disappear suddenly for days on end or sink into torpor and inactivity. He got bored quickly, would jump out of his chair and leave. He had trouble organizing his thoughts, he spoke chaotically, didn't finish his sentences. But in this wildness and madness of his he acted very logically and consistently.

WJ: But what about those accusations of chopping up political enemies, keeping their bodies in his fridge, cannibalism?

RK: The usual gossip that always grows up around figures like Amin. Amin was unscrupulous when it came to murdering enemies or people who might become enemies. But he acted like an automaton, I don't think he got any pleasure from it. He removed his enemies as you might remove obstacles in your path.

WJ: He murdered hundreds of thousands of people out of mere calculation?

RK: He killed his enemies because he was afraid they would kill him. He ordered entire tribes to be put to death, because he feared they would rebel, he feared avengers might arise. With time he fell into a mania of suspicion and he saw enemies almost everywhere. Besides, he knew they were lurking in the shadows, that coups had been organized. So he carried out repressions and he himself never spent the night in the same place twice. He had over a dozen villas in and around Kampala and nobody knew where he was staying at any given moment. He would phone his ministers himself and call them to a session of the government and he would call one whenever he thought it appropriate. He gave them a quarter of a hour's notice. Back then Kampala was not a very big city, so nobody had an excuse for not turning up.

Amin introduced a situation of total disorientation. Nobody knew where he was, when and where he would appear. And he often used to fly by helicopter round the country and tried to be in as many places as possible. So it was said he was everywhere and nowhere. Moving around, he somehow carried the state along with him; without him nothing functioned, nothing existed.

He looked like something from an operetta in his splendid military uniform decorated with finery and medals he had invented and awarded himself. For example he awarded himself the Order of World War Two, and the Order of Conqueror of the British Empire. He declared himself president for life, a field marshal, the King of Scotland. He not only spoke lousy English, but even his knowledge of Swahili was very mediocre. Basically, he only had a command of his own dialect, Kakva. So very few people understood what he was talking about.

[ ... ]

WJ: In 1979 Amin was overthrown and he had to flee the country. Why did he lose? Did his instinct for self-preservation fail him?

RK: Constantly engrossed in his manias and not having the slightest clue how to run the country, he led Uganda, which the British once called the "Pearl of Africa", into complete ruin. I remember when I went to Kampala in 1978, my colleague in Addis Ababa reminded me to take a light bulb along with me. This was helpful advice since there were no light bulbs in the whole of Kampala and the entire city was engulfed in darkness.

There was nothing else either. Neither in the shops, nor in the bazaars. The soldiers whom Amin had given the shops which once belonged to the Asians had looted them or sold all the goods and then sat idle with gloomy faces amid the completely empty shelves, as if in some sort of office. Kampala, once a charming and rich city, was completely dead. The coffee, hemp and cotton plantations were abandoned and overgrown. Terrible poverty and famine set in and, at the same time, banditry and lawlessness. The bandits, all in uniform, stole everything with almost complete impunity. Apart from that, nothing functioned.

Journalists were generally not admitted to Uganda then and the clerk in the Ugandan embassy in Addis Ababa probably stamped my visa by mistake. In the Stanley Hotel, where I used to stay, I was the only white person at that time. At Entebbe airport I had already noticed that I was being followed by powerfully built, broad-shouldered, taciturn soldiers in uniforms and dark glasses. The regime's henchmen all looked like gladiators, because Amin put enormous value on physical training. They followed my every step, sat at the neighbouring table, never asked any questions, never spoke and would constantly look around.

At that time Uganda had four aircraft, one of which was at the exclusive disposal of Amin. It would fly to London on shopping trips for the president and his entourage. There were no luxury goods there- shoes or shirts. In Uganda there was nothing. In the end the Bugandans organized a guerilla movement. They got others to join them and received help from Tanzania. Amin in his arrogance invaded Tanzania but he was beaten and as a result Tanzanian tanks rolled into Kampala in 1979 and Amin fled - first to Libya, then Iraq, and finally to Saudi Arabia, where he has just died.

WJ: They say that Amin was and remains the shame of Africa.

RK: Amin is the shame of the whole world. The fact that he managed to rule so long and commit so many crimes was only possible thanks to the hypocrisy of the East and the West who were waging the Cold War for world domination in those times.

WJ: Many tyrants throughout the world can thank the Cold War for their power - Mobutu in the Congo, Mengistu in Ethiopia, military dictators in Latin America, the Khmers Rouges in Cambodia. The West as well as the Easy explained their lack of action regarding the genocidal crimes of the Khmers Rouges by their ignorance of the scale of the crimes. Were Amin's crimes an open secret too?

RK: Amin hid nothing. Everybody knew everything. Yet the American senate only introduced a resolution breaking off trade with Amin three months before his overthrow. At more or less the same time Soviet military experts were flying to Kampala. Mainly because Amin was invading Tanzania. One of the countless torture chambers in Kampala was opposite the French ambassador's residence. The tortured prisoners would have been screaming practically beneath his window. The Cold War was waged in a particularly brutal and cynical way in Africa, and Africa seemed powerless to do anything to stop it. Everyone wanted to have influence there, whatever the price.

WJ: Amin's 1971 coup was welcomed with delight by the West because Obote, whom he had overthrown, had been showing leftist tendencies.

RK: Amin became a Cold War hybrid and tried to ingratiate himself with everyone and extract money from all sides. He received money from Israel who wanted to make Uganda into a bridgehead for an eventual invasion of Muslim Sudan [the period of good relations between Uganda and Israel gave way to the events of 1976 when Amin gave his backing to the Palestinian terrorists who hijacked an Israeli passenger plane; Israeli commandos landed in Entebbe and rescued the hostages, and in retaliation Amin's soldiers murdered Dora Bloch, who was ill in hospital and had earlier been freed by the hijackers- W.J.]. At the same time, as a Muslim, he promised Saudi Arabia - in return for financial aid, you understand - to turn Uganda into a bridgehead for the expansion of Islam in Africa. The West was delighted that Amin had overthrown the left-wing Obote, and the USSR, which had just lost Congo-Kinshasa, where the pro-American Mobutu had come to power in another military coup, regarded Uganda as the most important base for military expansion in the Dark Continent.

I remember in 1978 meeting two Ugandan captains in the hotel talking Russian. They had been educated in Moscow and since they came from different Ugandan peoples, it was the only way they could understand one another. At the same time, Amin's officers were receiving schooling in military academies in the USA and Great Britain. Everyone wanted his man in Kampala. Amin knew this and exploited it unscrupulously. He knew that neither West nor East would criticize him for fear that he would support the other side. He felt he was untouchable and he said so openly. "Look how important I am", he would repeat to the Ugandans, "everyone comes to see me." He managed to invite both the US and Soviet ambassadors to his palace at the very same time and then deliberately kept them together in his waiting room.

WJ: Everyone laughed at Amin but he too, at least in the eyes of Africa, made a laughingstock of both West and East.

RK: The Cold War in Africa is one of the darkest, most disgraceful pages in contemporary history and everybody ought to be ashamed.

Info-poland is greatful to J. Cassian for making this translation available for posting. The above material may be copyrighted and is to be used for educational and research purposes only.


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