The last king of Scotland?

Idi Amin: The last king of Scotland?

Price, Stuart

The award-winning film, The Last King of Scotland, has brought a new depiction of Idi Amin to screens around the world, and in the process, brought back memories for many in Uganda. But, asks Stuart Price in Kampala, does the film really capture the true character of the man?

It was the tear. People just didn’t know how to escape the tear,” recalls Elizabeth Nakigudde, 49, the manageress of a bookshop in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. “During Amin’s time, it was very frightening with all the drunken soldiers manning roadblocks across the city at night. You never knew it they would come to your house from one night to the next.”

Although Nakigudde’s recollections conjure up visions of a dark period in Uganda’s post-independence history, the cinematic adaptation of Giles Foden’s novel, The Last King of Scotland, portrays ldi Aniin Dada as a man with an almost humorous side.

The film rolled into Kampala tor the continemal premiere complete with speculation, hype and even red carpet and paparazzi treatment,

An intriguing relationship between Amin and a young Scottish doctor by the name of Nicholas Clarrigan, The Last King of Scotland tells the fictitious story ot their accidental association, leading Carrigan to become his personal physician.

It is a clever fusion of fact and fiction, and derives its name from Am in s apparent love ot .ill things Scottish. In many ways, the relationship between the two mirrors that of Amin and the British in real life.

When he first came to power in 1971, after overthrowing President Milton Obote’s government in a military coup while he was attending a Commonwealth Summit in Singapore, Uganda’s termer colonialists welcomed the change ot power. The American newspaper, The New York Times, even wrote of Amin’s “gentle political deftness”.

Having served in the King’s African Rifles wand playing a role in the British operation to quell the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya during the 1950s. Amin was very much the military man. Yet, as is the case of his friendship with Garrigan on the screen, he soon fell out of favour with the British.

Amidst a series of disastrous economic decisions, not least the expulsion of the Asian community from Uganda in 1972, who were, in effect, the backbone of Uganda’s economy, a deteriorating human rights record, and increasingly brutal suppression of those with a differing political and ethnic affiliation. Uganda and Amin soon became an international pariah.

As this deterioration occurs, Garrigan grows increasingly desperate to escape the country. Although a fictitious narrative of their relationship, the story is set amongst the real events that took place during Amin’s rule in the 1970s.

In post-independence southern and eastern African, a clique of socialism led by the inspirational Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere stretched in an arc from Dar es Salaam to Kenneth Kaunda’s Zambia and Obote’s Uganda. When Obote announced on Libour Day in 1970 that he was to nationalise the country’s industries, the British said “No”.

Tanzania supported Obote and that is why they were never happy with his overthrow by Amin. It was common knowledge back then that the British played a major role in bringing Amin to power because of Obote’s move to the left.

But after the expulsion of the Asians, things changed and eventually Amin was overthrown, which ironically, although somewhat unsurprisingly, the British were also involved in.

So how well did Forest Whitaker – the man tasked with filling the boots of the larger-than-lile Amin, and who went on to win best male actor at this year’s Oscar ceremony in Hollywood in March – depict the true character of Amin? And does the Him capture what it was like during those days?

Martin Ndiho, a 26-year seller of pirate DVDs on the streets of Kampala said of the film: “I think it is good for Uganda as it teaches others about our history which should not be forgotten. Somehow, people will understand about how bad leadership can corrupt a country. I used to view Amin as a murderer, but now I see him as just being ignorant of life.”

The first mainstream motion picture to be filmed entirely on location in Uganda, The Last King of Scotland also scooped best film at this year’s British Academy Film Awards.

At a press conference before the African premiere, Whitaker said that filming m Uganda, as opposed to South Africa which had originally been touted as a location, was crucial in order “to be surrounded by people who have experienced Amin” and who knew the situation emotionally and internally.

“All the people were helpful in trying to guide us to the truth. He was one of the few African leaders who have ever just told Westerners to get out of the country and would, on the international playing field, make fun of them. As a result many of the pan-Africans look at him with real admiration.”

Amin was an eccentric character. He once wrote to Julius Nyerere: “I love you very much, and it you were a woman, I would consider marrying you.” He was also rumoured to have written to the Queen of England, Elizabeth II: “Dear Liz… If you want to know what a real man is like, come to Uganda…”

Present at the screening was President Yoweri Museveni, who, as the leader of a then guerilla force allied with Tanzanian forces, finally overthrew Amin when Kampala fell on 25 January 1979. In the past, he had often referred to Amin as a “buttoon”, but after seeing the film he was a little more complimentary about the portrayal of his former adversary.

“I salute the actors, especially Mr Whitaker. He was real Amin, capturing his mannerisms and alternating between buffoonery and a deadly person who could address a press conference here when his henchmen were killing people behind.”

Thompson Baale, 53, [not his real name] served as a soldier in the Ugandan Army during Amin’s reign. He says he joined back in 1971 because as a young man, like many others he believed being a soldier would be an adventure, a chance for life and to see more of the world.

“Amin used to visit us in the barracks once every six months or so. He was not learned as a leader but was a soldier through and through. He had to rely on others to politically lead him.”

Now a security guard in Kampala, Baale says that as members or the then Ugandan Army, they did not really know too much about the atrocities committed at the time. “Some say 500,000 people were killed, others 800,000. People disappeared, yes, hut a lot of it was propaganda on the part of his detractors.”

Henry Kyemba, Amin’s former health minister and author of the hook, State of Blood, begs to differ. “Many innocent lives were lost, in those days it was quite normal to see corpses floating on the river. In Amin’s time when people were killed, they got rid of them in all kinds of surroundings; in lakes, in forests and along the roadside.”

Says Baale: “Antin was trying to do his best for both Uganda and Ugandans. Certainly in the beginning, things were very good, hut after the Indians were expelled things started logo had.”

Baale was put in prison after surrendering in 1979 to theTanzanians und detained for five years without charge purely tor being a soldier in Amin’s army. “That tear which people talk about was certainly there. People would come for you during the night. Tribalism began to increase with the purge against the Acholi and Langi soldiers of Obote’s former army, but I was outside that ethnic divide as 1 am rroni western Uganda.”

Jaffar Amin, one of Amin’s many children, says that history has judged his father wrongly. “When people talk about the so-called massacres, they tend to contuse two periods: The authoritarian epoch of my father and the period afterwards. I don’t want to refute that completely, but it should be clarified in a peace and reconciliation committee.”

Back in her bookshop, Nakigudde, having known Amin, says Whitaker really tried to portray Amin. “It was a good try, but in real life he was very fierce, with an intimidating personality and imposing physical figure. Yet in the film, I thought he amie across as more fun.”

By her own experience, she says the story of The Last King of Scotland is very mild compared to what it was actually like to live during that period. “To Uganda as a nation, Amin was the lowest point. When he died it was the end ot an era. The Oscar was not just for Whitaker, it was for all Ugandans. I never thought anything good could come out of Amin for Uganda.”

Copyright International Communications Jun 2007

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