Positive side of Idi Amin
President Amin (center) talks to the press in New York after he had laid a foundation stone for a 14-storey building that will house the Uganda mission at the UN.
Positive side of Idi Amin
Idi Amin and an unidentified woman. Although he was regarded as a dictator and killer, others say Amin was not all wicked. COURTESY PHOTO
For all his brutality, Idi Amin had a positive side to him, as this article, the second of three from the Third World Quarterly journal a year after his overthrow shows.
Amin was one of the most brutal rulers of the 1970s, a villain of Uganda, but he seemed to have risen to become a hero of the Third World.
It is untrue to suggest that the Third World approved of Amin’s brutalities against his own people, what needs more explaining is the ambivalence of the Third World about Idi Amin, rather than any unqualified approval of him.
Much of the West was quite clear in its verdict that the man was evil and should disappear from the scene as soon as possible. For much of the Third World, Amin, at least for part of his period in office, was not a case of unmitigated evil. He had that profoundly dialectical quality of heroic evil. And whether one applauded the heroism or denounced the evil depended upon one’s priorities.
In other words, Amin’s significance in the 1970s was more positive in international affairs than in domestic affairs. The degree to which the Third World was ready at times to forgive his domestic excesses provided he remained in resistance to the mighty, was indicative of a major moral cleavage between the Northern hemisphere of the affluent and the Southern hemisphere of the exploited and underprivileged.
Almost six years after Amin seized power, President Jimmy Carter rose to power in the US became a new moral voice of the North. His proclaimed crusade for human rights in different parts of the world turned out to be a continuation of the ideological battle between the Soviet bloc and the West.
However, instead of simply proclaiming himself anti-communist - as the America of John Foster Dulles tended to do – Carter led the more positive, normative crusade of favouring civil liberties, the satisfaction of basic human needs, and the promotion of liberal values and compassion. The North-South implications of Carter’s strategy clearly had a bearing on southern rulers like Idi Amin.
One of the first differences between Carter and Amin was the huge difference between their respective bases of power. Carter was President of the most industrially powerful and perhaps mightiest country militarily in the world. Idi Amin, on the other hand, was the ruler of a relatively small African country which had become under him, one of the world’s poorest countries.
Carter came to power in a free competitive election while Idi Amin usurped power in a military coup. Once elected, Carter was the political centre of one of the most stable political systems in the world but Idi Amin was for a while the political centre of one of the more chaotic and chronically-unpredictable political arrangements of the 1970s. There was therefore a substantial difference in their power bases, as well as in the legitimacy of these bases.
Carter used the metaphor of the preacher as his political style. But with regard to Amin, one could focus on the image of the warrior. In moral terms, Carter has been a preacher of human rights. To him and to most people, even among Amin’s own admirers, the Ugandan ruler was one of the great violators of such human rights.
However, with these apparent differences, there were areas of similarity. From 1977, Carter headed a country which was at the centre of world politics, but he himself came from the periphery of that country, a little town in Georgia. From 1971 to 1979, Idi Amin headed a country which was peripheral in world politics, but in addition, he, like Carter, came from a peripheral part of his own society.
Carter assumed power in a mood of moral righteousness after Watergate. Idi Amin also assumed power in a mood of moral righteousness after abuses of power and political excesses under Milton Obote. Carter declared his readiness to purify the nation and restore its moral purpose. Idi Amin made similar proclamations by moving imposing a new national code of conduct, ranging from control of drinking hours to insistence on moral decorum in dress.
Carter came to power, seemingly influenced by religious fervor; he is after all among the twice born but Idi Amin also came to power seemingly motivated by religious aspirations, ranging from the ambition to create a truly ecumenical state in Uganda to the apparent conviction that he was in communion with God and was His instrument for social and political reform.
Carter aimed to lead a moral crusade in Washington DC itself and beyond. Idi Amin sought to lead a moral crusade within Uganda and then to link it to a political crusade against imperialism worldwide.
Significance for Blacks
In comparing Carter and Amin, one should also examine the significance they held for black people within America which is, the second largest black nation in the world after Nigeria. Uganda, on the other hand, is one of the middle-range African countries in terms of population, and definitely one of the smaller ones in area.
Both the ascent of Carter to power and the activities of Amin raised the hopes and sometimes stimulated the imaginations of black Americans. In the case of Carter, the optimism was partly based on the role that black Americans had played to bring him into power at all, and because they think he understood their aspirations much more than northern politicians do.
The black American response to the phenomenon of Idi Amin arose partly out of black enthusiasm for Amin as a black nationalist. Amin’s expulsion of the Asians in 1972, in the face of massive opposition from Britain, whose citizens the majority of the expelled Asians were, was to many black Americans a stroke of nationalistic genius. Amin seemed determined to put Uganda’s destiny into black hands. His dedication was not necessarily to the creation of a kinder Ugandan society, but simply the creation of a situation where black people of Uganda wrenched their economic destiny from the hands of non-black people.
But what about all that brutality which Amin committed against his own black people within Uganda? Some black Americans simply did not believe the reports, which were after all derived from the white-controlled media.
On the other hand, those who believed the stories about Amin’s brutality-could always say, “What is the big deal? We have been experiencing brutality right here in America for 300 years, and continue to do so in ghettos and police cells. What does it matter if a black ruler has to be brutal at times in order to be effective in his struggle against white power?”
Many black Americans had become numbed to some extent by the heritage of brutality in America’s own society. Majority of them were descendants of slaves and are themselves today among the poorest and most impotent sectors of the population of a country which is at the same time among the richest and powerful in the world.
[Extracted from Between Development & Decay: Anarchy, Tyranny and Progress under Idi Amin by Prof. Mazrui. First published in Third World Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Jan., 1980), pp. 44-58.