On August 16, 2003, Idi Amin Dada, the third President of Uganda from 1971-1979, died in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. The official cause of death is multiple organ failure. Amin ruled Uganda with an iron fist and is considered to be one of the worst dictators the world has ever seen. His policies and thirst for blood caused the people of the east African nation to live in daily fear of torture, murder and other atrocities. His reign is constantly used as an example of the unrestrained abuse of power that is typical of a malevolent tyrant. Amin’s life was adapted for the silver screen in the 2008 film, ‘The Last King of Scotland’ starring Forest Whitaker.
Wole Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature, is one of Nigeria’s greatest writers and has written two books and multiple plays reflecting African culture. In 1984, he composed this masterpiece, a fictional play that looks into the psychology of homidical dictators and the surrealism that encompasses the world in which they live. The play is set at the fictional Bugaran Embassy opposite the United Nations in New York City. Life President Kamini, the main character, is a composite of the late Amin. He is surrounded by Benefacio Gunema (based on Macias Nguema), Emperor Kasco (based on Jean Baptiste-Bokassa) and General Barra Tuboum (based on Mobutu Sese Seko, formerly Joseph Mobutu), who serve as the African heads of state. The are supported by Gudrun, a Scandinavian journalist who soothes the ego of Kamini by re-enforcing his beliefs and statements. The additional supporting cast consists of the Chairman of the Bugara Central Bank, Bugaran Ambassador, Mayor of Hyacombe, Profesor Batey, a sculptor, Russian delegates, American, delegates, guards, task forces and the Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Kamini is at the United Nations with his delegation for financial assistance and global recognition as a world leader. He has instructed his chairman to approach the World Bank for a loan and even hired a sculptor by way of London to create a life-sized bust of himself to remain in New York. The loan is denied sending Kamini into a rage. The denial is the first in a series of events that leads to the destabilization of Kamini’s mind and regime. The genius in the play is the dialogue between the characters that is interspersed with references to authentic historical figures and the relationships between the Third-World nations and world superpowers. Gunema, Kasco and Tuboum are all tyrants and share the same ideology as Kamini. However, each is known to be evil in his own way and offers Kamini suggestions on how to deal with his problems. But what is tragic is that none are able to see the clearer picture, even as the Russian and American delegates enter after the news breaks of a coup in Bugara. The tyrants remain committed to their rule and Kamini, unable to grasp the severity of the situation as it develops. The play’s ending, while abrupt, showcases their naiveté and lust for blood that is typical of the worst dictators we have seen.
While the play was written in 1984, the characters and the events that take place are relevant even today. New dictators assume power in countries ravaged by imperialism after seizing control in the vacuum of instability created by political and military changes. We are reminded of how they come to power and the seduction of the throne that turns them into the monsters they become. They are never alone in their beliefs and actions and often rely on partnerships with other extremists to enforce their will and domination. Kamini and his associates are fictional characters, but they are based off real life individuals who brought their countries to the brink of ruin. Famine, corruption, poverty and violence became staples of their regimes fracturing society into many pieces. Some nations, have never fully recovered.
This masterpiece is an example to be used in discussions about dictators from any nation. Kamini could have easily been Rafael Trujillo, Josef Stalin or even Papa Doc Duvalier. The names and places are interchangeable. All dictators have common traits that are easily spotted and exploited. And when the time comes for the reign to end, the fallout is often dramatic and rapid resulting in the dictator resorting to extreme measures to retain power as we see through Kamini. Their lust for power serves to blind them from the reality of their environment and it is no wonder why they are often deposed of in the same manner in which they previously dispatched thousand and sometimes millions of people. Soyinka’s work is a timeless classic and after you have finished, you will see why it is a play of giants.