Chasing the really bad guys

How Australia helped install an African dictator in Uganda

In 50 years of journalism I never met a more unforgettable monster than Idi Amin, widely known as the Butcher of Uganda. He ruled the East African State from January 25, 1971, until 1979 when he was dumped by those who had been his original supporters, namely Britain, Israel and America.

Australia played a critical role too. As a slavish supporter of the British Empire and loathing anything from Africa that was “black”, white Australia fell into line with the demands of Britain, Israel, British royalty and the USA. Australia’s influential Bulletin Magazine ranted against “the nigger empire” and argued for the continuation of the country’s racist policy of White Australia. London’s Daily Telegraph published a rousing editorial declaring: “Good riddance to Obote”. The Times published a snooty editorial complaining: “The news of a coup d’état in Kampala comes as a surprise only because it has taken so long.”

Australia’s unconditional support for Idi Amin remains a closed chapter of the country’s history. The decision was never debated in Parliament, or the Press. Like Australia’s commitment of soldiers to Vietnam or the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, it happened without debate or public consent. Today Australia has become Washington’s closest ally in the US military encirclement of China and its war preparations in the Pacific, with Australia, New Zealand and Fiji doing all the dirty work.

Does anyone remember a debate in Parliament about the billions of dollars spent on arming Australia against China? No, I don’t. But mention the threat of war from China or Russia and Canberra falls into line: another Federal Election is in the bag with the major parties screaming that Australia is imperilled by invasion.

Rupert Murdoch, Australia’s most formidable propagandist, used to tell his reporters that the surest way to drive up circulation of his wretched tabloids was to tell Australians that they were facing imminent threat of invasion by either China or Russia. “It worked for Prime Minister Bob Menzies [the Liberal Party founder who ruled Australia from 1949 to 1966] so it should work for us too.”

Before he came to power and plunder, Idi Amin worked as a bellboy at a Kampala’s British-owned Imperial Hotel to supplement his tiny savings.

Settling into his dictatorial role, Idi Amin used his official position to murder and torture his opponents, starve fellow citizens, abolish all political parties and trade unions, ship abroad some of his ill-gotten gains, stop paying any taxation, leave the Commonwealth, and engage in widespread corruption as well as “crimes and misdemeanours”. He banned female Ugandans from wearing wigs or trousers, claiming they insulted Islam, but people in the street reckoned one of his many prostitutes must have caused him massive embarrassment. On a robust diet of cannabis, booze, blood and the entrails of his opponents, Amin’s demands became more unpredictable and alarming.

Hearing a speech by Princess Anne, sister of Charles, the future king of England, Amin announced that he liked her and would marry her. A London newspaper columnist saw Amin’s marriage proposal and joked: “Idi Amin wants to marry Princess Anne’s horse – now that’s a real story.” He developed a space programme and trained volunteers by putting them inside 44-gallon steel drums and rolling them down a steep hill. He even talked about creating a Royal Ugandan Navy (with Lord Mountbatten?) but when the proposed title spelled RUN the idea was dropped amid widespread ridicule.

In 1979 President Idi Amin fled abroad, first to Libya and then to Saudi Arabia where he lived in the southern capital of Jeddah surrounded by his many wives, children and grandchildren. His friend King Faisal made sure he was supplied with lots of booze and cannabis (known in Kampala as bhangi). They controlled his stormy temper and kept him happy. In any spare time he studied Islam where he could find nothing to support murder, rape, pillaging or corruption. On the contrary, Islam branded these crimes as sinful and opposed to the Prophet’s teachings.

Idi Amin died on 16 August 2003 at the age of 78. A flock of diplomats gathered at the funeral service, some admitting that they wanted to make sure he was dead. Lots of photographs and “selfies” were taken but the pictures were banned for publication by Islamic law.

Some reports claimed his body was shrouded in white silk while others claimed it looked like a cotton sheet. At his family’s insistence he was buried with a copy of the Koran. On his chest was the silver medal of Israel’s crack regiment, the Parachute Regiment, or Special Air Service (SAS). The brutal dictator whose military dictatorship wielded savage power in post-independence Africa was gone, leaving others to pick up the pieces.

Such was the man I met in Kampala in 1971, securing the first interview with him after his seizure of power. The documentary I made with our Granada Television film crew revealed something of his brutal regime to the world, to the consternation of the British Foreign Office. Reflecting on the crimes, then and now, of the colonial powers and their lackeys, I decided it was time to tell the full story. The result is my new book, Idi Amin: The Man Who Stole Uganda.


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