More than any other leader, Idi Amin, president of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, shifted international feelings about Africa from hope to despair. The news that he's spent much of this week near death in the King Faisal Hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, has revived memories of a time when his atrocities were impossible to ignore. His entire career raised terrible questions. Did this monster stand for the new Africa? Was he typical of leaders to come?
Three decades ago, African self-government was still a fresh reality, charged with optimism. After the collapse of colonial empires, journalists often came back from Africa with glowing articles and TV documentaries about vigorous new nations whose energies were at last set free. No one imagined that these were all democracies, but many believed Africa was heading in the right direction. In fact, anyone who felt otherwise was considered reactionary, probably bigoted.
And then came Amin, destroying the dreams of democrats and at the same time demonstrating that foreign countries looking for influence in Africa could be walking toward quicksand. Israel, as always desperate for allies, encouraged him in the beginning, and Britain rushed to embrace him. After all, he replaced Milton Obote, the Soviets' friend. When Amin took power (while Obote was attending a Commonwealth Conference in Singapore), the British embassy sent home heart-warming news: Amin was "popular and a natural leader of men," trained by the King's African Rifles. He loved the British. A 1971 Foreign Office paper, released this spring, said: "We now have a thoroughly pro-Western set-up in Uganda, of which we should take prompt advantage. Amin needs help." Soon he was having lunch with the Queen in London.
Israel helped too, but Amin turned out to be a demanding friend. Visiting Jerusalem, where he was met by an honour guard, he requested jet-fighters, armed boats, helicopters, and much cash, all of it to pay for a war he planned with Tanzania over a territorial dispute. When the Israelis turned him down, Amin went to Tripoli, talked with Muammar Gaddafi, and turned into a passionate anti-Zionist. He ordered all Israelis out of his country and gave the Israeli ambassador's house in Kampala to the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In 1976 he aided the Palestinian terrorists who hijacked an Air France plane and kept Israeli passengers at Uganda's Entebbe airport until they were rescued by Israeli commandos.
The British, the Americans and the Soviets had equally disillusioning relationships with Amin. Eventually they were glad not to be his friends, because his reputation had grown so toxic that it poisoned anyone near him. He became one of those mass murderers whose crimes can't be counted, only guessed at by demographers; to this day the estimates of the Ugandans he killed range from 200,000 to 800,000. Power unleashed his sadism, and many of his fellow citizens died under torture. People close to him claimed he was a cannibal and kept the heads of eminent victims in his freezer. He was also a cartoon dictator who made himself a doctor of law, gave himself the Victoria Cross, declared himself president for life, and offered free advice to Richard Nixon on Watergate. He had many medals.
Amin didn't like educated Africans, being nearly illiterate himself, and he wiped out most of the intellectual class. He also didn't like South Asians, and in 1972 ordered all 80,000 of them (including those born in Uganda) to leave within 90 days. Their 4,000 shops and businesses were confiscated and given to Amin supporters, who soon ran them into the ground. Those forced to leave included many doctors, dentists, veterinarians, teachers and technicians; the expulsion law crippled hospitals, schools, garages, repair shops and the economy. Nevertheless, this was, sadly, Amin's most popular decision. The relative prosperity of South Asians was widely resented, so Amin could use them much as Hitler used the Jews.
In retrospect it seems remarkable that the multitude of articles about Amin rarely mentioned that he was a Muslim. It was a different time, and most of the world didn't care. Saudi Arabia cared, however. The Saudis helped him while he was in power and helped him even more after the Tanzanian army and rebellious Ugandans forced him into exile.
He's spent most of the years since then as an honoured guest of the Saudi family. He's had a seaside villa near Jeddah, a Range Rover, support for various wives and platoons of children. His only duty for all these years, apparently, has been to avoid attracting attention. Recently Riccardo Orizio, an Italian journalist, visited him. He reported that the Saudi people know little about his existence because the Saudi family keeps its support for him as quiet as possible. "They know it's not something to be proud of," Orizio said. This week, as new stories everywhere report his location, his Saudi hosts must be suffering hideous embarrassment.
No doubt they will be among the many glad to see him go. John Donne, in the most famous of his sermons, wrote: "No man is an island ... any man's death diminishes me."