Idi Amin Hero Or Villain ? His Son Jaffar Amin and Other People Speak by Jaffar Amin and Margaret Akulia. 575 pages. Published by Millennium Global Publishers.!Available for purchase at https://www.createspace.com/3452322 Reviewed by Jack Toronto
Idi Amin: Hero or Villain? His Son Jaffar Amin and Other People Speak, the first in a series dedicated to giving the whole picture of Amin’s tumultuous presidency of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, is a must-read for anybody attempting to understand his rule. His reputation is, to put it mildly, negative. The opinion on www.about.com, “…the ‘Butcher of Uganda’ … possibly the most notorious of all Africa’s post-independence dictators,” is typical. Jaffar Amin and Vancouver-based writer Margaret Akulia adopt the Adiyo story-telling style of Amin’s tribe, the Kakwa, to augment the public record with details of his childhood, service as a young soldier and eventual rise to President of Uganda after deposing Milton Obote, the country’s first post-independence President, in a January, 1971 coup. Adiyo narrative is an oral history of the people told in a gathering overseen by elders with all present invited to add their comments to the story as it unfolds. The principal story teller in this first volume is Jaffar Amin; others will have their chance to respond in subsequent books. It took this non African reader some time to adjust to history told in a different way. Expecting an academic conceptual analysis I encountered languid repetitions of events, digression to wider context and unfamiliar names that kept me looking back to keep track only to find the clarification farther on. The struggle to engage with Adiyo paid off with entry to an African story told in an African way. And what a story it is, full of mysticism, scenes of family life, adventure, sex, violence and international intrigue.
Idi Amin’s formal education ended after Primary 4 when he was sent to a Muslim study centre to be immersed in the Koran. He toiled as a Kasanvu cheap labourer harvesting sugar at age 11 and by 12 had joined the army working in the Kitchen Mess of The Kings’ African Rifles. He rose quickly through the ranks. He must have started siring children shortly thereafter. Jaffar, the illegitimate son of a teenager hired to care for the children of one of Amin’s wives, recounts an official occasion at which President Amin’s children were lined up to greet guests. The line was thirty yards long and not all the kids were there.
Readers are given an inside view of aspects of life in late colonial and early post colonial Africa that are crucial to understanding this period in history. The challenges of forging a coherent nation amidst complex and often conflicting tribal, clan and family loyalties; African benefits from and dislike of colonial rule; total lack of preparedness of African leaders to govern their newly independent countries; the power of the army to sustain or topple governments, it’s all here. Idi Amin is just one example of a “big man” swept to grandiosity in a culture which honours the big man. Woven through it all is a second story, that of Jaffar Amin’s childhood, his place among his legitimate and illegitimate siblings, being taken from his mother at age three to be raised by his grandmother, an aunt, step-mothers and foster parents and witnessing moments of crisis and triumph in his father’s life.
By my reading the most serious political mistake Idi Amin made as president was committing himself and Uganda to the Arab side in their conflict with Israel. He also transformed his heart-felt opposition to racism and colonialism to bombastic claims to be the “Conqueror of The British Empire” and world leader of Black struggles against oppression when he might have devoted all of his attention to keeping Uganda afloat. Was he solely responsible for the deaths of thousands, especially during the murderous chaos of his final three years in power? Jaffar’s claim that much of the mayhem was instigated by followers of Milton Obote intent on destabilizing Amin and reclaiming power is plausible. His rejection of the cannibalism charge is persuasive. The supposedly digested son later turned up alive and well. Furthermore, surely Idi’s cook would have known.
Idi Amin: Hero or Villain? I don’t know. Jaffar Amin does not exonerate his father of wrong. Neither does he ask his readers to accept his version of events calling instead for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring the whole truth to light. A Truth and Reconciliation would be most valuable but until it arrives I’ll pin my hopes for the whole truth on Volume II, Other People Speak.