Historian, Tim Taylor is no stranger to my blog, and today I’m privileged to host the first in his new series. In my honour he’s decided to feature one of Africa’s most unpleasant and notorious villains, a dubious honour. But like all men, Idi Amin did not start as a monster. In fact, a member of my family played rugby against him in the past…
Hello Jane, many thanks for hosting me today!
My novel Revolution Day follows a year in the life of Latin American dictator Carlos Almanzor. Carlos is a fictional figure and is not based upon any particular individual. Nevertheless, his life and career share many elements with those of real dictators and in some cases I consciously drew on historical events in writing the novel.
I thought it would be interesting to explore, in a series of blog posts, the lives of some real-life dictators, and to look for similarities and differences between their careers and characters and those of my own fictional dictator. In the first of this series I’m looking at Idi Amin of Uganda.
Details of his early life are sketchy, but Amin was born about 1925, probably in Kokobo in north-western Uganda, then part of the British Empire. In 1946 he joined the King’s African Rifles, a colonial regiment of the British Army, and quickly rose through the ranks, becoming one of the first two Ugandans to be commissioned as an officer in 1961. He was a successful sportsman during his early military career, excelling at rugby, swimming and in particular boxing, becoming light heavyweight boxing champion of Uganda in 1951, a title he held until 1960.
Following Ugandan independence in 1962, Amin continued to rise in the new Ugandan army, becoming its commander in 1965. In this role he would lead a successful operation against King Mutesa (a former Ugandan President) of the semi-autonomous Kingdom of Buganda in the south of Uganda, forcing him into exile. Amin was at this time close to President Milton Obote, but relations between the two soured, and on 25 January 1971, having learned that Obote planned to have him arrested, Amin sent his troops into the capital, Kampala, while Obote was abroad at a commonwealth Summit, and a week later declared himself President of Uganda.
Once in power, Amin ruthlessly eliminated potential threats to his regime. Soldiers from the Acholi and Lango tribes, loyal to Obote, were massacred in their barracks in July 1971. An abortive coup attempt by Obote supporters in 1972 was followed by a purge of the Army. Killings of ethnic groups and individuals considered hostile, including journalists, religious leaders, bureaucrats and foreign nationals, continued throughout his eight years in power: total deaths have been estimated at some 300,000, in a country of 10 million.
In August 1972, declaring an ‘economic war’, Amin expelled some 60,000 Ugandan Asians, who were forced to settle in the UK and elsewhere. Their departure, together with the handing over of their businesses to Amin’s supporters, had a disastrous effect on the Ugandan economy. Amin defended his ethnic policy on the grounds of transferring economic control of Uganda into the hands of Ugandans. In practice, however, most positions of power were given to the small minority of Ugandans who, like Amin, were Muslim and of the Kakwa tribe.
Amin’s Uganda had difficult relations and territorial disputes with its neighbours Kenya and in particular Tanzania, whose leader Julius Nyrere had given sanctuary to Obote. This, together with the alienation of many of his former supporters, eventually led to Amin’s downfall. In November 1978, after some Ugandan troops mutinied and fled to Tanzania, Amin invaded Tanzania and annexed part of the Kagera region. Nyrere mobilised the Tanzanian army, which counter-attacked
together with Ugandan exiles. Despite Libyan support, the Ugandan army was forced to retreat, and in April 1979 the Tanzanians entered Kampala. Amin fled, first to Libya and subsequently securing asylum in Saudi Arabia, where he lived until his death in 2003.
Carlos and Amin. Although the life and career of my dictator, Carlos, share many features with a number of historical dictators, he has relatively little in common with Amin. One thing they do share is their shifting pattern of international alignment. Initially on good terms with Britain and other Western nations, which saw him as preferable to the left-leaning Obote; after the expulsion of the Ugandan Asians, Amin turned instead towards the Soviet Union, East Germany and Libya. Carlos, on the other hand, is initially closely aligned to the Soviets, but when their economic support falters he initiates a pragmatic rapprochement with the USA, only to break with the Americans once again a few years later.
Both men also partake in the cult of personality so often favoured by dictators: thus Carlos appoints himself an Admiral despite his lack of any military career, and his rise to power is celebrated each year and mythologised in numerous bad films. Amin took this kind of megalomania to an absurd level, styling himself “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular” and even more bizarrely, King of Scotland!
As men, however, the two are very different. Carlos, for all his many faults, retains the core of his humanity: he clings to power in the delusion that he alone is qualified to wield it rather than craving it for its own sake. Amin, however, had no such scruples. Though eccentric in his behaviour and often portrayed as a buffoon, he was brutal, volatile and egotistical, and once in power showed himself to be an authentic monster. In the words of his Guardian obituary by Patrick Keatley, “Amin brought bloody tragedy and economic ruin to his country, during a selfish life that had no redeeming qualities.”
Many thanks for hosting me, Jane. If your readers found this post interesting, they might like to know that Revolution Day is currently on special offer for Christmas at 99p/$0.99!
Information about the book and excerpts can be found on the Revolution Day page on my website: http://www.tetaylor.co.uk/#!revday/cwpf.
(I enjoyed reading REVOLUTION DAY – you can read my review of Tim’s book HERE)
Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/timtaylornovels
Tim was born in 1960 in Stoke-on-Trent. He studied Classics at Pembroke College, Oxford (and later Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London). After a couple of years playing in a rock band, he joined the Civil Service, eventually leaving in 2011 to spend more time writing.
Tim now lives in Yorkshire with his wife and daughter and divides his time between creative writing, academic research and part-time teaching and other work for Leeds and Huddersfield Universities.
Tim’s first novel, Zeus of Ithome, a historical novel about the struggle of the ancient Messenians to free themselves from Sparta, was published by Crooked Cat in November 2013; his second, Revolution Day in June 2015. Tim also writes poetry and the occasional short story, plays guitar, and likes to walk up hills.