Kapuscinski on the rise of Idi Amin

From The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, trans. by Klara Glowczewska (Vintage, 2002), Kindle Loc. 1882-1918:

Amin is a typical bayaye [rootless, urban drifter].

He grows up in the streets of Jinja. The town housed a battalion of the British colonial army, the King’s African Rifles. The model for this army was devised toward the end of the nineteenth century by General Lugard, one of the architects of the British Empire. It called for divisions composed of mercenaries recruited from tribes hostile toward the population on whose territory they were to be garrisoned: an occupying force, holding the locals on a tight rein. Lugard’s ideal soldiers were young, well-built men from the Nilotic (Sudanese) populations, which distinguished themselves by their enthusiasm for warfare, their stamina, and their cruelty. They were called Nubians, a designation that in Uganda evoked a combination of distaste and fear. The officers and noncommissioned officers of this army, however, were for many years exclusively Englishmen. One day, one of them noticed a young African with a Herculean physique hanging around the barracks. It was Amin. He was quickly enlisted. For people like him—without a job, without possibilities—military service was like winning the lottery. He had barely four years of elementary schooling, but because he was deemed obedient and eager to anticipate the wishes of his commanders, he began advancing rapidly through the ranks. He also gained renown as a boxer, becoming the Ugandan heavyweight champion. During colonial times, the army was dispatched on countless expeditions of oppression: against the Mau Mau insurgents, against the warriors of the Turkana tribe, or against the independent people of the Karimojong. Amin distinguished himself in these campaigns: he organized ambushes and attacks, and was merciless toward his adversaries.

It is the fifties, and the era of independence is fast approaching. Africanization has arrived, even in the military. But the British and French officers want to remain in control for as long as possible. To prove that they are irreplaceable, they promote the third-rate from among their African subordinates, those not too quick, but obedient, transforming them in a single day from corporals and sergeants into colonels and generals. Bokassa in the Central African Republic, for example, Soglo in Dahomey, Amin in Uganda.

When in the fall of 1962 Uganda becomes an independent state, Amin is already, because of promotions by the British, a general, and deputy commander of the army. He takes a look around him. Although he has high rank and position, he comes from the Kakwa, a small community and one, moreover, that is not regarded as native Ugandan. Meantime, the preponderance of the army comes from the Langi tribe, to which Prime Minister Milton Obote belongs, and from the related Acholi. The Langi and the Acholi treat the Kakwa superciliously, seeing them as benighted and backward. We are navigating here in the paranoid, obsessive realm of ethnic prejudice, hatred, and antipathy—albeit an intra-African one: racism and chauvinism emerge not only along the most obvious divides, e.g., white versus black, but are equally stark, stubborn, and implacable, perhaps even more so, among peoples of the same skin color. Indeed, most whites who have died in the world have died at the hands not of blacks, but of other whites, and likewise the majority of black lives taken in the past century were taken by other blacks, not by whites. And so it follows, for example, that on account of ethnic bigotry, no one in Uganda will care whether Mr. XY is wise, kind, and friendly, or the reverse, evil and loathsome; they will care only whether he is of the tribe of Bari, Toro, Busoga, or Nandi. This is the sole criterion by which he will be classified and evaluated.

For its first eight years of independence, Uganda is ruled by Milton Obote, an extraordinarily conceited man, boastful and sure of himself. When it is exposed in the press that Amin has misappropriated the cash, gold, and ivory given him for safekeeping by anti-Mobutu guerrillas from Zaire, Obote summons Amin, orders him to pen an explanation, and, confident that he himself is in no danger, flies off to Singapore for a conference of prime ministers of the British Commonwealth. Amin, realizing that the prime minster will arrest him as soon as he returns, decides on a preemptive strike: he stages an army coup and seizes power. Theoretically at least, Obote in fact had little to worry about: Amin did not represent an obvious threat, and his influence in the army was ultimately limited. But beginning on the night of January 25, 1971, when they took over the barracks in Kampala, Amin and his supporters employed a brutally efficient surprise tactic: they fired without warning. And at a precisely defined target: soldiers from the Langi and Achole tribes. The surprise had a paralyzing effect: no one had time to mount a resistance. On the very first day, hundreds died in the barracks. And the carnage continued. Henceforth, Amin always used this method: he would shoot first. And not just at his enemies; that was self-evident, obvious. He went further: he liquidated without hesitation those he judged might one day develop into enemies. Over time, terror in Amin’s state also came to depend on universal torture. Before they died, people were routinely tormented.


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Filed under Britain, military, nationalism, Uganda

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