On Sunday, July 22, while visiting my parents, we were surprised to hear, via CNN International, that former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin had fallen into a coma. A little background, first: My father was a counselor for the Ugandan Mission in Canada, then Uganda’s ambassador to the U.S., and, finally, Uganda’s ambassador to the United Nations. Idi Amin, a fifth-grade dropout, pretty much left the mechanism of the foreign ministry to run itself, but planted spies and yes-men throughout the organization and at strategic overseas locations to ensure loyalty to his regime. My father’s direct contact with him was minimal, but Amin’s pernicious influence was felt throughout the Foreign Ministry.
As you can imagine, the ’70s were a paranoiac time for my family. Even as the staff of the overseas embassies tried to better relations with Uganda and improve tourism and trade, Amin would, on occasion, interfere with their work. One infamous incident was Amin’s October 1, 1975, address to the General Assembly as chairman of the Organization of African Unity. My father, then the Ugandan ambassador to the U.N., spent an entire night drafting a politically sensitive speech. Amin then blew into town on a jet with skimpily dressed personal dancers (remember, this is Kips Bay in October) and his own food — live chickens (he feared poisoning by enemies at the Waldorf Astoria) — in tow, and tore up my dad’s speech: He had his own in mind. At the General Assembly, Amin, with all the sangfroid you might expect of a fifth-grade dropout, equated Zionism with racism. He got a standing ovation.
In 1979, as Amin’s stranglehold on power slipped, he recalled all foreign ambassadors. Reports of the murders of those diplomats who returned filtered back, and my father sought refugee status in the U.S. for himself and his family. I was seven at the time.
Now flash forward 24 years. Amin ultimately escaped — lurching into Saudi Arabia, that great friend of the United States. Amin had been Muslim, spewed anti-Semitic rhetoric, supported Arab nations, and was something of a martyr to the Arab world because of the notorious events at Entebbe. He wound up with four wives and a vast stipend from those stalwart allies of the Bush administration, the House of Saud.
And now, after Uganda had righted itself, and my family had expelled the residual toxins of the era, the old dictator had fallen into a coma; fancy that.
At the end of July, an employee of the King Faisal Specialist Hospital told the AP, on condition of anonymity, that “Amin came in with high blood pressure and since then has suffered kidney failure.” Amin has been in a coma since then; he is believed to be about 80 years old. Hearing that this bogeyman monster of my paranoid ’70s childhood was 80 and in a coma over kidney failure should have awakened a sense of pathos, but, to be honest, it hasn’t.
There is currently a huge debate in Uganda over Amin because his family has asked the current Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, to allow him to return from exile for burial. Museveni’s government has refused, saying Amin would be allowed to return to the country only to stand trial for crimes.
These are, quite frankly, my thoughts exactly.
Unfortunately, on July 23, 2003, President Museveni reversed himself at a workshop on the northern Uganda conflict at the International Conference Center. In the speech, Museveni said that Amin’s family could bring back the body if the dictator died in exile. “But we shall not give him state honors,” he added. “He will be buried like any other ordinary Ugandan.”
In the end, what are a couple hundred thousand dead Ugandans when burial honors are at stake? I cannot forgive Idi Amin for the deaths of members of my family or for his tyranny — nor can I find the compassion in my heart to remain silent on his final burial place. As far as I’m concerned, until we — citizens of the world — relegate tyrants to the lowest rung of the ladder of humanity, the position will continue to hold allure. Idi Amin seized power in 1971, the year of my birth, from Milton Obote, who was away on a foreign visit. Obote, the exiled former dictator who headed the murderous “General Service Unit” in the 1960s, e-mailed the state-owned New Vision last week, urging the government to allow Amin’s body back for burial.
Raptors of a feather stick together, it seems.
— Ron Mwangaguhunga is former editor of MacDirectory. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.