UGANDA: Amin:The Wild Man of Africa

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"The second day Amin was in power, people started dying. He knows he is a man of death, and this satisfies him. 'I am power,' I have heard him say. 'I have power.' He is sane, very sane in some respects. The important thing to him is to survive—and thus to eliminate all opposition. To kill a wife, to kill a son —it doesn't concern him.

"He still knows almost everything that happens within the country. He knows about the most important killings. Even when he is sitting in his office and smiles to reassure someone he has ordered picked up, one of his own men on a chair in the corner already knows that the prearranged signals have been given to finish him off."

To be sure, Amin has his defenders. A European associate describes him as "a man without fear who has the courage of his convictions," adding: "All he wants is for the world to give Uganda a square deal." A dozen black American journalists visited Uganda some months ago and concluded that Amin had been much maligned. But neither hired hands nor strangers are the best judges of Uganda today. Says Thomas Patrick Melady, Washington's last ambassador in Kampala: "I hold that Amin is thoroughly sane, totally shrewd and fully accountable for every action."

In retrospect, it can be said of Uganda that its ancient monarchical divisions severely impeded its development as a nation after it achieved independence from Britain in 1962. For a while, Milton Obote, as Prime Minister, had an uneasy partnership with the last Kabaka (King) of Buganda kingdom, Edward Mutesa II, the dapper, Cambridge-educated "King Freddie," who became Uganda's figurehead President. But in 1966 Obote seized the presidency for himself and crushed the Kabaka's followers; King Freddie escaped to London, where he died penniless three years later. Obote never really succeeded in uniting the contending Ugandan tribes, and was easily overthrown in January 1971 in an army coup led by Major General Idi Amin. Obote took refuge in Tanzania.

Amin had been the heavyweight boxing champion of the Ugandan army for ten years. More important, he fought with the British in Burma during World War II and in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion (which he described as "the finest physical training a footballer could have"), and for five years he was the chief of staff of Uganda's armed forces.

At first, Amin promised free elections and declared that Obote could come home to contest them if he wanted to; Obote wisely stayed away. A few months later, Amin won the support of the Baganda people by bringing the body of King Freddie back to Uganda for burial. But by early 1972, to divert attention from Uganda's growing economic problems, Amin was threatening to invade neighboring Tanzania.

The following year he began his campaign to expel from Uganda 55,000 Indians and Pakistanis, most of them small businessmen and shopkeepers who constituted the most stable portion of Ugandan society. Three years later, when a British resident of Uganda, Denis Hills, called Amin a "village tyrant" in an unpublished manuscript, Big Daddy threatened to execute him by firing squad but eventually released him after James Callaghan, then Britain's Foreign Secretary, flew to Uganda at Amin's insistence to negotiate for Hills' life.

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