The name Idi Amin has gathered so much negative connotations over the years that it is understandable why most people in today’s world may not want to know anything about the man behind the name. It is taken for granted that there is nothing good about the former Ugandan head of state, Gen. Idi Amin Dada. The consensus: He was one of the worst leaders that ever walked the planet; a disgrace to Africa.
Most of the films and media materials about him perpetuated this perception. In biographical movies, he was depicted as a paranoid despot, a flesh-eating daylight vampire, a buffoon whose only educational qualifications were the ones he awarded himself when he became the overlord of the 24 million-people landlocked East African enclave in 1971.
I still cannot erase my memories of one of such movies which I watched during my primary school days. My innocent mind could not comprehend such barbarity – where an archbishop was killed by a President, and in the next scene the murderer opened his refrigerator and pulled out a blood-wet chunk of human flesh and chucked it into his fetish mantra-reciting mouth. It was horrifying.
In fact, one of such flicks, the Last King of Scotland, played by one of my favourite actors, Forrest Whitaker, won an Oscar. I saw the movie in 2007. Great performance by Whitaker, which I enjoyed because I was an adult and was not horrified. By then, I knew it was just a movie.
Believe it or not, most of the dramatic depictions of Idi Amin are not accurate. They were exaggerated for effect, and to institutionalise the already existing image of the tyrant as painted by the Western world immediately his politics turned East-friendly during his years in power in the 1970s.
An aside: This is why I always maintain that leaders should write their own story, no matter how ugly. The narrative you pen of yourself shall aid posterity when the time comes for a posthumous court hearing in order to determine your legacy profile. If you did not leave a memoirs or autobiography, your enemies shall write one for you. At that time, nobody would be able to contact you to edit the copy.
It was of recent that I finally took time to watch a true life documentary film on Idi Amin. I listened to him talk in real interviews and attend to real life government demands and functions as the head of state, not dramatised or staged. It was not perfect, but it was a fair portrayal of a real (bad) man in a real environment. It is left for the viewer to judge, without having the “badness” shoved down their throat.
The title of the movie is “General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait” a 1974 documentary film made by French director, Barbet Schroeder, with English dialogue. The film depicts Amin at the height of his power. It is an extended character study of its subject, which followed Amin closely in a series of formal and informal settings, combined with several short interviews in which Amin expounds his unconventional theories of politics, economics, and international relations.
Included in the film are many candid scenes of Amin and his military in action: the paratroopers practise their exercises on a slide similar to those that would be found in a children’s playground; a welcoming committee of villagers is forced to flee the dust and backdraft from Amin’s helicopter as it lands; a cabinet member picks his nose with the end of a pencil during one of Amin’s speeches in a cabinet meeting.
In one sequence, Amin rebukes his cabinet ministers for their failure to represent Uganda “correctly” to the world. Even while remonstrating with his foreign minister for his public-relations failures, he is jocular and joking as always – two weeks later, the documentary points out, the foreign minister’s body was found floating in the River Nile.
It was in the movie, while he gave a particularly interesting interview sitting backing a lush garden, that I discovered that Idi Amin had a “green streak”, that is, a leaning towards environmentalism. Amin’s environmental proclivities no one has ever noted, ostensibly because the people he killed never allowed the world take notice of the trees he saved.
In the interview he discussed how to effect environmental awareness among the populace.
“You can educate people through traditional dance. How to make a good garden like this – it will be in the song. When you are singing people are watching. You talk about the flowers, how you can make a very good garden in your house.”
As the interview progresses, one notices that Amin becomes suddenly excited, as one who is discussing a deep passion exudes when expressing such innate feelings. He suddenly interjectes, “This song has got meaning. I must go and make this song!” I also noted that the next sequence in the documentary film shows a Ugandan drama troupe entertaining audience in a green themed dance-drama where the actors and dancers all wear leaves and wield one wildlife artifact or the other.
The interview continues, “You must have a house with pit latrine. Make it clean. People understand all. And you must boil water before you drink because you may help disease in the stomach; you are helping the doctor (by boiling your water before drinking).”
Here, Idi Amin was discussing water sanitation and hygiene matters in a most rudimentary manner which once again shows an underlying concern for environmental challenges. I do not think that as a military leader he was playing politics by trying to discuss the issues that the people faced. A leader such as himself almost always stays with discussions of governance at a high level, and assigns civilian appointees and associates to outline details. I believe that for him to go from describing military operations to detailing WASH survival tips – while wearing full military regalia – he must be an environmentalist at heart.
What is more, he also hinted at a crude understanding of global warming. Remarkably, that was at a time when the idea of a warming earth had not even been broached by scientists.
Continuing in the interview, he said, “You must work hard. You must produce more foods for export, for selling, to get more money, and for reserve in case of dry season, because of the hot sun. You will have a reserve food in your store. You will not die of hunger.”
I underline the phrase “because of the hot sun” due to its significance. When Amin gave the interview, the word, “global warming”, had not entered the dictionary. The term, global warming, was first used in its modern sense on August 8, 1975 in a science paper by Wally Broecker in the journal called “Are we on the brink of a pronounced global warming?”
So, I believe that in spite of Amin’s blotched image, he had all it takes to metamorphose into a green giant. If the idea of global warming and climate change was on the global front burner in his time, there was the likelihood that he would have used the term in his interview – and propaganda. Hence, instead of saying that Ugandan farmers were threatened by the hot sun, he would have said they were threatened by climate change.
Indeed, knowing the kind of showy politics he played at the global scene, he was the kind of African leader that would easily become the self-appointed apostle of climate change. He would have sought to out-play America’s former Vice-President Al Gore. He would have gone to Europe to embrace green politicians like the French green politician Dominique Voynet. He would have sought to become a green star.