- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2003

LONDON — Dictator Idi Amin, in the last interview he granted before his eight-year rule of Uganda came to an abrupt end on April 11, 1979, turned angrily on a persistent British Broadcasting Corp. reporter on the lawn of his palace beside the Nile in Kampala, Uganda’s capital.

The television reporter, David Lomax, had asked Amin how he intended to fulfill a public pledge of “a year of love, peace and reconciliation” when British expatriates in his country and hosts of his own citizens were being murdered.

“Tell me,” demanded Amin — who died an exile in Saudi Arabia Saturday — in a voice rising in outrage and sneering malice, “are you not afraid to be talking to the conqueror of the British Empire?”

Amin’s assumed titles of conqueror of the British Empire, president for life and commander in chief, and the medals for bravery he awarded himself — the Victoria Cross and Military Cross — reflected delusions of grandeur that at first seemed amusing.

He cultivated an irreverent, even buffoonish image, as when he had four white men carry his vast bulk in a sedan chair through the streets of Kampala to mock claims of European colonialists that in Africa, they were bearing “the white man’s burden.”

But long before his final interview, Amin already had displayed an enthusiasm for murder that earned him the nickname “the Butcher of Africa.”

Thus, when Amin asked the TV reporter if he was afraid, the journalist’s colleagues standing alongside him quaked.

One of them later recalled: “We feared that whatever our reporter replied — yes or no — Amin would order one of his three favorite ‘treatments’ — the helicopter treatment, the river treatment, or the hammer treatment,” all grisly forms of killing that had become commonplace. (Indeed, one of the four white men carrying the sedan chair, car salesman Robert Scanlon, was later accused of being a British spy and sledgehammered to death.)

Quick thinking by Mr. Lomax probably saved his life and those of his television producer, researcher and cameraman. Without a glance toward the stiffening phalanx of armed and tense security men nearby, he made no effort to respond to the dictator’s taunt and instead fired a different question.

Amin’s eyes darted to his bodyguards. He glowered, but answered the new question.

By the end of the interview, Amin had returned to his irreverent persona, shaking hands vigorously with the reporter and his colleagues and, from his 6-foot-7-inch frame, said: “It seems to me the people of Great Britain are getting smaller and smaller.”

His obsession with obtaining respect, admiration or deference from Britons explains a good deal of his disastrous dictatorship. Amin had spent much of his life serving British colonial rule.

As a boy, he had cleaned the gear of British officers, polishing their weapons and shining their shoes. As a soldier, he had risen through the ranks of the King’s African Rifles and captured the regiment’s heavyweight boxing title. Loyalty to his masters was drummed into him.

When the country’s first post-independence president, Milton Obote, appointed Amin chief of army staff, Mr. Obote thought he had selected a man too stupid to harbor political ambitions. One British ambassador in Africa told Richard Dowden, an Africa specialist who was teaching in Uganda, that Gen. Amin had just enough intelligence to know he couldn’t run the country.

Mr. Obote and the British ambassador were wrong. Amin was involved in lucrative arms smuggling to black rebels fighting Arab domination in Sudan, and Mr. Obote, sensing Amin’s increasing defiance, moved to demote him.

Instead, Amin — probably on Israeli advice — turned the tables on the president in a January 1971 army putsch and snatched his job.

At first Britain, the former colonial power, welcomed Amin’s accession, particularly his promises to reduce the country’s previous criticism of Britain for its continued trade with apartheid South Africa. The Ugandan army also sought and received military training from Israel, where Amin soon made a presidential visit despite the protests of Arab countries in Africa and the Middle East.

Things began to change when Britain refused Amin’s wish for a visit to Uganda by Queen Elizabeth or her mother and autographed pictures from them. He also wanted Britain to send him arms and set up his intelligence service.

Amin did make a tour of Britain and had a meeting with the queen, but that trip evoked media and diplomatic amusement rather than respect, and he soon turned inward to cement his power through fear.

His first victims were the prosperous 50,000-strong Indian and Pakistani community. Amin expelled nearly all of them after a “prophetic dream” in which he said God commanded him to reclaim the economy for black Africans.

His accusation that Asians dominated commerce and trade to the exclusion of Africans made him popular internally. Black Ugandans — many, of course, cronies of the dictator — seized Asian-owned businesses and soon mismanaged or destroyed them.

The expulsions caused international outrage, and supporters of Mr. Obote unsuccessfully attempted an invasion, adding to Amin’s paranoia.

The dictator began merciless attacks on real or perceived opponents. Some senior army officers vanished. Amin’s henchmen dragged Uganda’s much-respected Chief Justice Benedict Kiwanuka from his court, and he was never seen again. The dictator’s goons also beat up an Anglican bishop, John Sentamu, who fled to England.

Men from tribes rival to Amin’s were soon being slaughtered in the north. Throughout the capital and major cities, his harmless-sounding State Research Bureau and its Public Safety Unit were killing at will.

“Lacking capacity to govern coherently, Amin increasingly lived in a fog of confusion and suspicion,” said Mr. Dowden, the scholar then living in Uganda who now heads the London-based Royal African Society.

In January 1977, Amin had Archbishop Janani Luwum and two of the Anglican prelate’s ministers arrested and murdered, accusing them of plotting his overthrow.

Henry Kyemba, a former justice minister who fled Uganda, said Amin had bouts of insanity and ate human flesh. Accounts of the dictator keeping the severed heads of actual or perceived opponents in his refrigerator were reaching London. In one reported instance, human heads were cooked and served in covered silver dishes to Amin’s shocked Cabinet ministers.

But perhaps nothing did more damage to Amin’s battered image than his killing of Dora Bloch, an elderly Jewish woman from Britain — probably by the tyrant himself as she lay in a hospital after Israeli commandos rescued the passengers of an El Al airliner diverted to Kampala by Palestinian hijackers.

The Israelis’ near-complete success — the rescuers lost future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother in the shootout — was a personal humiliation for Amin, who had backed the hijackers.

As his international standing plummeted, his soldiers raped and robbed at countrywide roadblocks, and Amin’s security men continued to kill the rapidly dwindling number of real or imagined opponents. They also targeted those who violated the tyrant’s personal monopoly by smuggling Uganda’s main cash crop, coffee, to Kenya in boats across the Idi Amin Dada Sea, as he had renamed Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest inland body of water.

It was on its shores that the dictator would relax most days, as he was served tea and gargantuan meals by his murderous security chief, “Major” Bob Astles, a sergeant in the British army before Amin’s coup.

Amin put Astles — his pet “white rat” — in charge of the security and death squads, feeling he could not have full confidence in black Africans.

This trusted underling knew he had to satisfy his master’s every whim. A journalist in that British television team recalls that Astles, after an interview in which he praised his boss, rushed across the lawn with a tea tray breathlessly calling, “H.E., H.E.,” the initials of Amin’s preferred title: “His Excellency.”

The BBC television team escaped with their reels of film that evening in a chartered plane flown secretly from Kenya to a little-used Ugandan airstrip, but Amin himself was trapped by his self-imposed international isolation.

The Ugandan dictator tried but failed to patch up long-running animosities with neighboring Tanzania. “If you were a woman, I would marry you,” Amin famously told Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere in public, adding: “but since you are not a woman, the question does not arise.”

Rebuffed by Mr. Nyerere and with Uganda’s economy in steady decline, Amin sent his army into northwest Tanzania in 1978. Tanzanian troops and Mr. Obote’s guerrilla forces slowly pushed Amin’s forces back to Kampala within six months and took over the country.

The deposed Amin, claiming adherence to strict Islam, was sheltered first by Libya and then by Saudi Arabia. His British henchman Astles — jailed in Kampala for several years before he was acquitted of complicity in the crimes of his master — returned to England a broken man.

While luxuriously accommodated in Jidda on the Red Sea coast, Amin avoided interviews. A British reporter who sought permission from the Saudi information ministry to meet the exiled ex-dictator was told: “It is better you do not ask this request.”

Amin made at least one effort to regain power by force, but failed. His country continued to bleed. Observers now agree that more Ugandans were killed under Mr. Obote’s second spell in power than the 300,000 who may have died during Amin’s brutal rule. New governments came and went, and civil war broke out in 1981.

By 1986, Yuweri Museveni clinched power in Uganda’s civil war and gradually brought the country under control. His free-market economics have led to the best cell-phone system in East Africa, a plethora of free-speaking radio stations and genuine elections.

Amin’s ruinously expensive palace on the Nile, built for an Organization of African Unity summit, is now a fancy hotel. Uniquely frank grass-roots education programs have helped to cut dramatically the incidence of AIDS in Uganda over the past few years.

Not all has gone smoothly in the new Uganda, though. Ethnic clashes continue in the north. Ugandan forces have intervened in the conflicts of neighboring countries, especially Congo — in recent years the scene of what has been called “Africa’s first world war,” because so many countries were involved.

Through all this, Amin remained safely in Jidda, cheating the early death that specialists had predicted would follow from his alcoholic binges while in power. Even after lapsing into a coma from kidney failure last month, Amin hung on longer than doctors expected.

Following his death five days ago, Amin was buried before sunset, mourned by few. His demise is seen among Africans as symbolizing hard-won democratic progress from the bad old days a quarter-century ago.

Five months after the Ugandan dictator’s overthrow and exile, the Central African Republic’s self-crowned “emperor,” Jean-Bedel Bokassa, was ousted in a bloodless coup aided by France, that country’s former colonial master. Both tyrants are now dead.

• Paul Martin, a longtime Africa and Middle East correspondent, was a young researcher for the BBC television team that filmed Idi Amin’s last interview before losing power.

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