Excerpt from The Shadow of the Sun by Ryzsard Kapuscinski:
I once considered writing a book about Amin, because he is such a glaring example of the relation between crime and low culture. I was in Uganda many times, saw Amin more than once; I have a small library of books about him, and stacks of my own notes. He is the most well known dictator in the history of contemporary Africa and one of the most famous in the twentieth century the world over.
Amin belongs to a small ethnic group called the Kakwa, whose territory encroaches on three countries: Sudan, Uganda, and Zaire. The Kakwa do not know to which country they belong, although they view this question with indifference, preoccupied as they are with something else: how to survive despite the poverty and hunger that prevail in this remote region without roads, cities, electricity, and cultivatable land. Anyone with some initiative, wits, and luck runs as far away from here as possible. But not every direction is a propitious one. Whoever goes west will only worsen his circumstances, because he will stumble upon the thickest jungles of Zaire. Those setting off northward also err, because they will arrive at the sandy, rock-strewn threshold of the Sahara. Only the southerly direction holds promise: there the Kakwa will find the fertile lands of central Ugagnda, the lush and splendid garden of Africa.
It is there, after giving birth to her son, that Amin’s mother makes her way, the infant on her back. She comes to the second-largest city (or, rather, town) in Uganda after Kampala — Jinja. Like thousands of others at that time, and millions upon millions today, she arrives in the hope of surviving, in the hope that life here will be better. She has no skills, no contacts, and no money. But one can make a living in a variety of ways: through petty trade, brewing and selling beer, or operating a portable sidewalk eatery. Amin’s mother has a pot and cooks millet in it. She sells portions on banana leaves. Her daily earnings? A serving of millet for herself and her son.
This woman, who made her way with her child from a poor village in the north to a town in the wealthier south, became part of the population that today constitutes Africa’s biggest problem. It is composed of tens of millions who have abandoned the countryside and migrated to the monstrously swollen cities without securing adequate housing or employment. In Uganda they are called bayaye. You will notice them at once, because it is they who form the street crowds, so different from ones in Europe. In Europe, the man on the street is usually heading toward a definite goal. The crowd has a direction and a rhythm, which is frequently characterized by haste. In an African city, only some of the people behave this way. The others are not going anywhere: they have nowhere to go, and no reason to go there. They drift this way and that, sit in the shade, stare, nap. They have nothing to do. No one is expecting them. Most often, they are hungry. The slightest street spectacle — a quarrel, a fight, the apprehension of a theif — will instantly draw large numbers of them. For they are everwhere around here, idle, awaiting who knows what, living who knows how — the gapers of the world.
The principal characteristic of their stance is rootlessness. They will not return to the countryside, and there is no place for them in the city. They endure. Somehow, they exist. Somehow: that is how best to describe their situation, its fragility, its uncertainty. Somehow one lives, somehow one sleeps, somehow, from time to time, one eats. This unreality and impermanence of existence cause the bayaye to feel himself in continuous danger, and so he is increasingly tormented by fear. His fear is amplified by his condition as a stranger, an unwanted immigrant from another culture, religion, language. A foreign, extraneous competitor for the contents of the cooking pot, which is empty anyway, and for work, of which there isn’t any.
Amin is a typical bayaye.
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 non-commissioned 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 exmaple, 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-Africa 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 white 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 white. 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, Uglanda 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 minister 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 paralyizing 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.
All this took place in a provincial country, in a small town. The torture chambers were located in downtown buildings. The windows were open — we are in the tropics. Whoever was walking along the street could hear cries, moans, shots. Whoever fell into the hands of the executioners vanished. A category soon emerged, then grew and grew, of those who in Latin America are called desaparecidos: those who have perished, disappeared. He left his house and never returned. “Nani?” the policeman routinely replied, if a family member demanded an explanation. “Nani?” (In Swahili the word means ‘who”; the individiual is reduced to a question mark.)
Uganda started to metamorphose into a tragic, bloody stage upon which a single actor strutted — Amin. A month after the coup Amin named himself president, then marshal, then field marshal, and finally field marshal for life. He pinned upon himself ever more orders, medals, decorations. But he also liked to walk about in ordinary battle fatigues, so that soldiers would say of him, “You see, he’s one of us.” He chose his cars in accordance with his outfits. Wearing a suit to a reception, he drove a dark Mercedes. Out for a spin in a sweat suit? A red Maserati. Battle fatigues? A military Range Rover. The last resembled a vehicle from a science-fiction movie. A forest of antennas protruded from it, all kinds of wires, cables, spotlights. Inside were grenades, pistols, knives. He went about this way because he constantly feared attempts on his life. He survived several. Everyone else died in them — his aides-de-camp, his bodyguards. Amin alone would brush off the dust, straighten his uniform. To cover his tracks, he also rode in unmarked cars. People walking down a street would suddenly realize that the man sitting behind the wheel of that truck was Amin.
He trusted no one, therefore even those in his innermost circle did not know where he would be sleeping tonight, where he would be living tomorrow. He had several residences in the city; several more on the shores of Lake Victoria, still others in the countryside. Determining his whereabouts was both difficult and dangerous. He communicated with every subordinate directly, decided whom he would speak with, whom he wished to see. And for many, such a meeting would prove the last. If Amin became suspicious of someone, he would invite him over. He would be pleasant, friendly, treat his guest to a Coca-Cola. Executioners awaited the visitor as he left. Later, no one could determine what had happened to the man.
Amin usually telephoned his subordinates, but he also used the radio. Whenever he announced changes in the government or in the ranks of the military — and he was constantly instituting changes — he would do so over the airwaves.
Uganda had one radio station, one small newspaper (Uganda Argus), one camera, which filmed Amin, and one photojournalist, who would appear for ceremonial occasions. Everything was directed exclusively at the figure of the marshal. Moving from place to place, Amin in a sense moved the state with him; outside of him, nothing happened, nothing existed. Parliament did not exist, there no political parties, trade unions, or other organizations. And, of course, no opposition — those suspected of dissent died painful deaths.