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Idi Amin v. Jomo Kenyatta: the making of anti-heroes

We ask two writers what they think about how the world remembers their country's most famous leaders.

African countries have had many leaders with great and controversial personalities. Mandela, Mobutu, Thomas Sankara, Gaddafi, Naser, Sékou Touré and Lumumba have all carved their unique place in history. Yet facts and figures often have little to do with how these people are remembered and with many, the politics, myth and actuality of their lives become entangled. As Napoleon put it most frankly: “history is a set of lies agreed upon”.

Idi Amin and Jomo Kenyatta are both controversial figures, each with disconcerting records of violence and corruption; yet the way they are remembered by the rest of the world is quite contrasting.

Here, two Msomi writers put forward their views on how these seminal leaders are remembered:

Idi Amin Dada

Eric Mwiine Mugaju is a Ugandan writer and blogger and graduate of LSE MSc Social Policy. He studied Law and Development at SOAS, University of London. His interests include legal issues in Africa and political economy. You can follow him on Twitter @e-mugaju

It seems to me that no African leader has generated as much intrigue as Idi Amin Dada, the self-styled conqueror of the British Empire and Ugandan dictator. Amin was cruel and unusual, but not uniquely so. So why has he earned an uniquely infamous status in the horrible dictators’ hall of fame?

There are at at least four films based on his life, including Mississippi Masala, The Raid on Entebbe, Hollywood blockbuster The Last King of Scotland and an upcoming remake of The Raid on Entebbe; almost all of which portray Amin as a crazed and unfathomable man. He continues to be talked about in news and popular culture well beyond his native Uganda almost 40 years after his demise.

I grew up in post-independence Uganda, shortly after the collapse of his regime and have since travelled widely in my own country. I’ve lived the majority of the last 15 years in the UK and over the course of time, have met many different versions of Amin and am very interested in how he reappears. I’ll tell you more about the 4 Amin’s I know in a moment. The first version, I met as a kid; the 2nd at high school; 3rd on the streets of London, and the final incarnation as an undergraduate student.

Growing up I lived in western Uganda, which had suffered quite considerably under Amin and during the subsequent fighting with Tanzania. However, as a child I remember Idi Amin being a comical character because of his poor English and ‘funny’ northern accent- if you spoke broken English you were laughed at by the other kids and called Amin. It didn’t help that his nickname was chikito (big shoe) in Runyankole on account of his big feet. This just added to the caricature we children understood him to be, and made him one funny guy. In reality, I think this was the effect of many parents trying to shelter their children from the ruthless side of Amin.

When I entered secondary school, I grew to understand Amin as a dictator possessing no fear or hesitation in killing those who went against his wishes. This grew out of through my civic education and history classes, but also came from lessons learned outside the classroom. The memory of the funny, oafish and big-footed dancer was quickly fading. Now that I was able to ask my parents and older siblings, I learned about that ‘random’ disappearances that plagued our area under his reign and about sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians that had taken place deep in the villages. It soon became clear that this Amin was not the same president we had joked about as kids. Claims of Amin’s cannibalism and feasting on his own son Moses abounded. Although dubious, these were commonly told stories that Hollywood would later seize upon to add a juicy twist to its scripts.

When I moved to Europe, I met two more Idis. Without a doubt, Amin was the man to put Uganda on the map for London’s average Joe and stories about him have been told and retold in films and documentaries for over 30 years. Upon meeting a new person in London the conversation normally goes something like this:

my name

your name

nice to meet you

you too

where are you from?

what about you? [pause] Uganda! Oh wow...Idi Amin!

I would say that 6/10 times, the man’s name pops up in the first minute of conversation. Some people even ask if he is still the President. Almost forty years on, Idi Amin is a living ghost who just won’t die.

Before we meet my last and final Idi (Idi The Misunderstood), I would like to say that what is often forgotten about the man is the ideology that sought justify some of his most notorious actions, including expelling Ugandan Asians from the country. I was born well after the end of British rule in Uganda, but on moving to London started to realise and experience racial inequality in the West. It can be easily seen in London: the worst and most humiliating jobs are reserved for black people. Toilet attendants (as if one needs help for such a private matter), bouncers (black men scare other bad boys, no?) and cleaners. Amin saw the remnants of this is postcolonial Uganda, and like his contemporary Mugabe, sought to rectify economic inequalities by embracing a policy of “Africanisation of the economy”. This leads me onto how I met the final version of Amin.

When I joined university and started mixing with wealthy, educated kids, I began to meet Amin sympathisers. They too were introduced to Idi Amin through Africa-for-beginners Hollywood fictions, but were now seeking knowledge and interrogating history after learning about the historical amnesia surrounding colonisation and the empire in their syllabi. Some were ashamed to learn about the empire’s activities while some chose to call it history and get over it (others didn’t- I met an interesting bunch). Often, people were happy to ignore the fact that Amin murdered thousands to focus on the ideology which led him to expel Asians, Israelis or kill and imprison those who questioned him.

Amin was a product of an empire, as was the Ugandan Indian presence- South Asians were brought to the country by the British. Both groups were subjected to controlled antagonisms and the creation of racial hierarchies by the British (we’ll gloss over the fact that a large section of the Indian population has its own particularly undesirable caste system for now).

The point is, Amin was created and trained by the British who mistakenly expected him to behave as a puppet after he removed (to great celebration) his predecessor, the socialist Milton Obote. The sense of celebration lasted less than a year; he soon proved himself to be eccentric, unpredictable and uncompromising. But still, returning to my original question of why is Amin so enduring (weren’t many great leaders also dictators?) I ask what has Amin done to make him the subject of so many films, win him sympathisers and cement his place in popular consciousness half a world and century away?

For the likes of Hollywood, the same characteristics that made Amin a joke for us as kids make him fantastic film fodder. He not only plays into the stereotype of paranoid rulers and violent African men that pervades mainstream films aimed at a primarily white audience- he’s also naturally eccentric, larger-than-life and, in all honesty, kind of funny. In real life he played an accordion which he carried with him everywhere, meaning he could create a party wherever he went. He was always smiling and not shy to join in with traditional dances; he was a sports fanatic, a competent swimmer, a boxer who loved motor racing...he was a man who had been greatly shaped by the circumstances around him and also held tightly his own convictions. The experience of the Mau Mau fighting for the British had helped him in becoming President, where in growing paranoia he found himself fighting against everyone.

It is unusual that the film which probably presents Amin in the most one-dimensional light should be acted by someone whose conception of Amin probably falls into the "misunderstood" camp. Recently, Forest Whitaker, who won Oscar for his portrayal of Amin, conceded that while Idi Amin was murderous, he also reshaped opportunity for Africans. He was a product of colonialism and was demonised not based entirely on what he did to Ugandans, but for what he did not do for Britain.

Amin was also not shy to wade into the Palestinian issue, by allowing a plane hijacked by Palestinian terrorists to land and Entebbe. This became the subject of another Hollywood film, The Raid on Entebbe. The Raid on Entebbe II is coming in soon, with Hollywood set to continue to cash on this eccentric figure.

In short, we have a character who is vilified by the West, loved by Hollywood, a comic character for children in Uganda and who is lauded by the Arab world thanks to his stance on Israel and standing with his Muslim brothers in Palestine. He was fearless in speaking his mind and not shy to express any opinion without heeding his spin doctors’ advice.

Amin played his own rules without compromise. He was simply not a politician. While others, such as Kenyatta, seized the opportunity to play politics to acheive their means, Idi Amin was unique in his poor grasp of politics, sense of optimism despite this, and the means he used to achieve his ends. He has been portrayed as a monster and caricatured by children but we are yet to see a Hollywood blockbuster on “The Making of Idi Amin”.

Jomo Kenyatta

Kwame Sipul Otiende’s interests include political settlements, development economics, global supply chains and security in Africa. He has a BA Politics and Development from SOAS, University of London and an MSc Global Supply Chain and Logistics Management from the University of Sussex.

I recently came across a Newsnight feature on the 1980 Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) elections which made very interesting viewing. What caught my attention was the questioning of asking newly independent Africans on how they felt as newly independent citizens- hopeful for the future and for Mugabe’s potential. By contrast, many of the white Rhodesians interviewed were visibly angry, upset and scared. At the close of the report, the anchor offers consolation saying “remember Jomo Kenyatta who was loathed and feared by Kenya’s whites as the Mau Mau leader and became the father of one of Africa’s most harmonious multi-racial societies.” Yet Kenyatta’s rule was plagued with corruption, political assassinations and violence committed against his own citizens. How has Jomo Kenyatta secured a position as both the darling of the West and hero of Afrocentric scholars?

Jomo Kenyatta's life is a study in political astuteness, incredible luck and demagoguery. From the outset, young Kenyatta seemed to possess wily political awareness. While working at an early age as a carpenter’s apprentice, store clerk and water meter reader, the future President changed his name from Johnstone Kamau to Johnstone Kenyatta; a move which he would claim was inspired by the gift of a beaded belt he was given by a Masaai and habitually wore (Kenyatta being its traditional name). In what I don’t believe to be coincidence, the name also works as a play on the words Kenya and taa, meaning “light of Kenya”. When he later moved to London, he would assume “Jomo” in the place of Johnstone, reincarnating himself as Jomo Kenyatta, African independence leader.

Even at this early age he realised how powerful-sounding Africanised names would be beneficial in his political career, decades ahead of African leaders like Zaire’s Mobutu (full name Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Bang, née Joseph Désirée Mobutu) who would ride the wave of bombastic-sounding name-changes in the late 1970s. Kenyatta was amongst the first (if not the first) to do this. For a young man from the village with little life experience, his shrewdness was already showing. This natural ability to manage his public image was key to the way he is remembered today.

In 1924, he joined the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) in 1924 and quickly rose up through the ranks to become its Secretary. By 1928 he had taken on various political projects, running a moderate Kikuyu newspaper, and taking a lead role in the KCA. This granted him a platform to speak publically on Kikuyu land problems, winning him further support.

That same year, he travelled to the UK to study, where he fell in with a communist crowd. After a short time studying in Russia he moved back to London, gaining degrees at both UCL and London School of Economics, where he published his celebrated (if nostalgic) thesis on Gikuyu culture, Facing Mount Kenya but more importantly, rubbed shoulders with the international political elite of the future.

On returning to Kenya in the early 1930’s, he found a country where politics had moved forward and the Kikuyu were even more agitated about land. A political chameleon, his communist association and experience as leader of the long-standing colonial agitator KCA would win him support of the radicals, while his social ‘finesse’ and academic credentials could woo the constitutional (Democrat) factions. By that point, he was of an advancing age and utilised African respect for the elders to place himself as the sole leader of the group. He became the independence movement’s centrepoint, to the extent that when he was arrested by the colonial authorities, the clarion call from political parties across the board was “no uhuru without Kenyatta”.

Yet, it’s after independence that the real Kenyatta emerges. Kenya’s first President must have learnt something in his western sojourn, as he came back to Kenya with a big appetite for land. His family, friends and other hangers-on engaged in rapacious grabbing of what were lands then-owned by the departing British settlers. In central province, his home county, he refused to resettle Kikuyus who had lost land to the British, positioning them in the Rift Valley instead. This was to cause major conflict in later years after his demise.

With the rise of dissent within the KANU party, disappearances and deaths of politicians began to take place: first was Pio Gama Pinto and then, famously, Tom Mboya and JM Kariuki. While this was happening, Kenyatta kept singing to the tune of African solidarity, but understood the need to not rock the boat on the international stage; many settlers who did not leave straight away soon discover that the government was willing to play ball with them, as the promise of land redistribution faded.

Meanwhile the Mau Mau, guerrillas who had fought in the forests for land and independence, came back to a life with no jobs and no land. The only tenable difference for many was that the overloads had changed; it was no longer the British lording the country’s wealth, but the nouveau riche, whose expensive taste in European-manufactured cars soon earned them the nickname the ‘wabenzi’.

Despite all this, Kenyatta was still recognised as somebody who had led the struggle for independence and was quick to capitalise on this status. As it became clear that land redistribution was slipping further and further down the agenda, he tried to deflect criticism with a distraction technique, dwelling on the tribe-wide sense of achievement at having won independence through the Mau Mau. Drawing on the famed oath of secrecy taken by warriors during the Mau Mau, he started a tribe-wide oath where partakers would swear to always support him as their leader.

Beyond Central Province, Kenyatta did not hesitate to use violence to quash any rumblings of discontent. In the North Eastern Provinces, Kenyatta engaged in a 5 year long war against ‘shifta’ (a derogatory name for Somali guerrillas operating in the northern regions) which decimated the economy of the region and resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Kenyan Somalis at the hands of state police, under Kenyatta’s orders. The manyattas springing up over Kenya’s North-East during this time were clearly inspired by the British concentration camps set up during ‘The Emergency’, yet bizarrely the international community remained largely silent on the abuses and massacres. Even within Kenya, the outcry was tempered, and many of the crimes have only been officially recognised in the last few years with the findings of the TRJC report in 2013. Unlike Amin, Kenyatta was given free reign in this department to attack his own citizens.

He also notoriously supported continuing relations with the apartheid South African regime, together with Israel. In fact, he provided Kenyan airports and airspace for the 1970’s Israeli raid on Entebbe in neighbouring Uganda. This caused much chagrin within most African countries, especially Tanzania, which was at the forefront of helping rid of apartheid by providing tactical and financial support to the nascent ANC.

Yet, there were no sanctions for Kenyatta, no gruesome hollywood epics detailing the rollercoaster ride that took him from of shamba-boy to London socialite; rebellion in the forest to Benz-driving fatcat; to paranoid megalomaniac, ally to apartheid and finally ruthless oppressor. Instead he is remembered as a pan-Africanist leader. Why?

In truth, the question needs much deeper research. However I personally believe that the by choosing Capitalist allies over Communism, Kenyatta saved face. He shed the skin of his Moscow days and thanks to his knack of being able to read the signs of times, saved himself from the fate of numerous independence leaders who were killed or overthrown in later years. Kenya was, and remains, a vital ally and ‘anchor state’ to the West; these foundations were laid by Kenyatta and, perhaps as a token of thanks, he has been spared the indignity of exposure by Western popular culture in a way that Amin was not.

What do you say? Why are do so many political figures become the subject of a "single story"? Comment below or share your thoughts with us on Twitter.





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