The Butcher of Uganda

Lunch with Idi Amin

  JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – The limo pulled into the Arabian Cleaning Enterprise compound on the outskirts of this Red Sea city and the unexpected guest climbed out of the rear seat. It was summer, 1982.

  Idi Amin, known as Dada to his family and friends and “The Butcher of Uganda” to most everyone else, towered above all the managers and other employees who came running out their offices and work stations to meet their infamous guest.

  Me?  Although I was employed as PR and public education director by the cleaning company’s parent firm, Waste Management International, I also was a freelance reporter for a number of American publications.

  I smelled story.

  After all, Amin, the former president of Uganda, had been booted out of office and his homeland and eventually exiled to Saudi Arabia after an 8-year reign [1971-1979] during which he was responsible for anywhere from 80,000 to 500,000 deaths, depending on the source.

  In the annals of post-world War II dictators, few matched Amin for the combination of brutality and charisma. His reputation was such, it was not hard to imagine him shaking one hand of a perceived enemy and then slicing off its mate with a machete, followed by the head while smiling the entire time. There were rumors of cannibalism and his keeping the severed heads of rivals in a freezer. As a result, he was a must read, appearing on all the major magazine covers in the U.S., U.K. and elsewhere as well as TV news programs.

  But since his arrival in Jeddah – he was reluctantly welcomed by the Saudis only because of his Muslim heritage - he had remained out of the limelight and largely forgotten. I was counting on Amin missing the attention and granting me an interview. 

  First, we had to get to know one another. So, I finagled my way into an invitation for lunch with a few of the other managers.

“Are you a killer?”

  After Amin toured the compound, we met in our cafeteria. There were five of us, including Amin. He sat at the head of the table. He wore a beige caftan and matching African kufi cap. His girth was such that no part of the chair he sat on was visible.

  A fine lunch was served, which Amin enjoyed – clearly the man loved to eat.

  As we ate there was 15 to 20 minutes of chit chat which, frankly, was uncomfortable. He was warm and gracious, smiled easily and, as advertised, had a big laugh. But as we conversed all of us were thinking the same thing: This man is a stone-cold killer.

  We also knew this. Here in exile minus the notorious henchmen who did much of his murdering, he was effectively neutered.

  With that in mind my colleagues, by previous agreement, ceded the floor to me.

  The exchange went something like this:

  “Mr. Amin……”

  “Please, call me Idi.”

  “Idi. You were president of a county. One of the most important men in Africa. Now you’re here in exile. That has to be difficult for you?”

  Suddenly serious, he pointed his finger at me and said: “The Saudi government and people have been gracious hosts. But one day I will return to Uganda and lead my people again.”

  “Why, would they want you back?” I asked. “Excuse me for saying this but according to reports more than 300,000 of your people were murdered while you were president.”

  Surprisingly, this comment brought not anger but a laugh as big as the man.

  “My friend,” he said after settling down, “you think everything you read is true. Idi Amin kills people. Idi Amin eats people. Idi Amin does this and that. Let me tell you something: My people loved me. And they will welcome me back. There are many there who fight for me now.”

  I skipped the frozen heads in the freezer rumor and moved on to something less volatile.

  “Is it true that you were banned from attending the Commonwealth Nations meeting in London?”

  His face lit up.

  “My friend, now this story is in fact true. Let me tell you.”

  And off he went on an animated 10-minute discourse on how in 1977 British Prime Minister James Callaghan announced Amin would be stopped if he attempted to enter England for the biannual meeting.

  “So, what did you do?” I asked.

  “I sent my plane to England,” he said, laughing now. “But I wasn’t on it.”

  What he did, he said, was send out various false reports. He was arriving by boat. He was flying to Libya first to see his good friend, Muammar Gaddafi, and then going to London. He even instructed the main Ugandan radio station to announce his arrival in London.

  The best part, he said, was listening to all the reports on the BBC.

  “They would say: ‘There has been a sighting of the Amin plane so he is coming after all.’ But I was never coming. I told my pilot to buzz Heathrow [airport], just to get them excited. That was fun. I really enjoyed that.”

  It was a funny story. And he told it well. But I thought it sounded more like a frat boy recapping a prank than a president playing a game of international intrigue. But, then, Idi Amin obviously was no ordinary president.

  And with that lunch ended, as did Amin’s visit.

Dada Meets Arafat

  The next day I called Life magazine and pitched a story on Idi Amin in exile. They loved it and told me to go for it.

  I found out where Amin lived and drove there with my interview proposal. He lived in a large beige concrete house surrounded by a wall topped with an iron fence like every other home on the block. A group of children of varying ages played soccer in the front yard. [Amin was known to have six wives during his life – some of them at the same time – and anywhere from 40 to 60 children, with no set number ever verified.]

  I met a security guard at the gate. He did not invite me in so I left my package for Amin.

  “Please have him call me to arrange a meeting,” I said.

  The call never came. I followed up with no success. I later found out that one of the conditions for Amin and his family being allowed to stay in Saudi Arabia was not granting media interviews.

  That was that, I thought.

  But, then, two months later Yasser Arafat showed up in Jeddah. He was on the run from the Israelis, who had routed the PLO out of Lebanon in the siege of Beirut during which they dropped an imploding bomb on a Beirut building, assuming Arafat was there. He was not.

  Three key members of the Palestinian cause joined him in Jeddah, a rare event considering each was an assassination target. One night all four sat at a table on stage in a hall where hundreds of Saudis turned up to hear Arafat speak.

  I was there, covering the event for The Washington Post, and was the only reporter in the room. I made my way to the front, joining a standing crowd between the stage and first row of seats. I turned to look at the crowd and there sitting several rows back, standing out like a grapefruit in a basket of oranges, was Idi Amin. He looked sharp in an all-white caftan.

  I smiled and waved. He waved back. I took his picture.

  I then turned and snapped a photo of Arafat and his three cronies.  Arafat looked directly at me with a menacing glare. He didn’t smile. And he certainly did not wave.

  Idi Amin followed by Yasser Arafat.

  That, as they say in the media biz, was a moment.

  

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  Postscript: As promised, Amin attempted to return to Uganda to seize power but failed and never set foot in his country again. He died in Jeddah in 2003.

  The man who called himself His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, CBE, Lord of all the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular was buried in an unmarked grave. His exact age was unknown. He was somewhere around 80.

  The most comprehensive Amin obituary was written by the late Patrick Keatley of England’s The Guardian newspaper, who spent years reporting on East Africa. He covered Uganda during Amin’s reign, writing about many of the atrocities, among other topics. That eventually earned him a place on the president’s lengthy Must Be Killed List so he stayed away from Uganda until Amin left.

  In the obituary, Keatley said of Amin: “[He] was neither well educated nor particularly intelligent. But he had a peasant cunning which often outflanked cleverer opponents. He also possessed a kind of animal magnetism; a quality he used with sadistic skill in his dealings with people he wished to dominate. Turned against men, this magnetism was used as by a snake on a rabbit; Amin soon learned how to exploit it to frighten, dominate and command.”

  In a fictional film account of Amin’s reign, “The Last King of Scotland” [2006], he was portrayed by Forest Whitaker with such force and chilling realism that Whitaker won an Oscar for the role.

  Of Amin’s surviving children, one of the most visible and outspoken is Jaffar Amin. In 2010 he published “Idi Amin: Hero or Villain?” which attempts to dispute many of his father’s crimes.

  Jaffar Amin, 54, lives in Kampala, the Ugandan capitol, with his wife and six children. Two of his brothers are involved in politics. But, looking to the future, Jaffar sees another Amin possibly restoring the family’s legacy.

  “I will be my second son Idi Amin’s No. 1 cheerleader when he stands for high office 40 years from now, inshallah,” Jaffar Amin told Foreign Policy reporter Justin Rohrlich in 2015.

  The idea of an Amin leading Uganda once again is not as crazy among Ugandans as it would be to outsiders. The current president, Yoweri Museveni, has been in office 35 years. In the beginning he was lauded as a rare African leader who touted democracy and enacted successful economic and social reform policies. More recently, charges of corruption, human rights violations and violent voter suppression have become the norm.

  Last year, when he turned 75, Museveni finagled a change to the constitution’s age limit for presidents, allowing him to run for a 6th term in January. He won with 58 percent of the vote and immediately placed his main opponent, Bobi Wine, under house arrest.

  Last week I spoke with David Meffe of Montreal, a freelance reporter and field researcher for a number of human rights organizations, who lived in Uganda from 2017-20.

  He pointed out that Uganda has the world’s youngest population. They have no memory of Idi Amin, Meffe said, but are definitely up-to-speed and not happy with the current administration

  During a hike with friends in the country’s western highlands last year, one member of Meffe’s group joked about Idi Amin. The group’s guide, a young man named Peter, said loud enough for everyone to hear: “I would prefer Amin to Museveni.”

  That stunned the group, Meffe said.

  “We thought he was joking. And when we asked why – bringing up the fact that Amin famously fed people to crocodiles - Peter said: ‘Yes, but there was no corruption. Now, there is only corruption.’”