The name Idi Amin remains among the most infamous our world has ever known. Following the overthrow that removed Milton Obote (1925-2005) from power, the late despot ruled Uganda with relentless brutality as he enriched himself at the peril of hundreds of thousands of Ugandans. In January, 1979, the Ugandan National Liberation Army forced him into exile with the help of the Tanzania People’s Defense Force and former Libyan dictator Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi (1942-2011). Amin spent the last years of his life in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he died on August 16, 2003. Today, nearly fifteen years after his death, he is still reviled by those who remember a dark period in the history of Uganda.
Henry Kyemba (1939-) served under Amin in several high positions including Minister of Health. On a trip to Europe, he defected from Ugandan and was reunited with both of his wives and his children thereafter. He first wrote this book in 1977, shortly after he made his life changing escape from Amin’s domain. Twenty years later, the book was republished with a foreword by Godfrey Lule (Godfrey Binaisa, 1929-2010). This is Kyemba’s account his time serving under Amin and the nightmare that ensued. And what is contained in the pages of this book is a story that is not for the faint at heart and a critical inside look into the reign of the man who dubbed himself “The Last King of Scotland”. And for those familiar with Amin, the story is still fascinating and at times just mind numbing as Kyemba reveals the insanity that engulfed a doomed regime.
Kyemba begins this story by teaching us about Uganda’s history and the division of tribes that remains in place today. The names and places come together like a puzzle giving us a large image of the country. At first it may be challenging to follow along but as the story moves along, the reader will be able to remember the most important. He continues by introducing us to his life and his role under the administration under Milton Obote who is removed from power early in the story. From that point on, it is all Amin and the madness that came with him. Kyemba’s escape is the “happy ending” that can serve to uplift the spirit, but in reality, his heart and the hearts of others who escape Uganda bleed for the thousands who were brutally murdered.
The book is at times, tough to read and Kyemba does not sugar coat anything. Violence, racism and incompetence combined to for a cesspool from which many would never recover. Kyemba also discusses the major events that highlighted Amin’s rule including the death of his wife Kay, whose gruesome demise was documented in the film The Last King of Scotland starring Forest Whitaker, the death of Dora Bloch following the hijacking of Air France Flight 139 from Tel Aviv and the expulsion of Indians and Asians from Ugandan soil. In each case, Amin’s delusions and failure to grasp the situation, marked yet another tragic point in an already bizarre story. In one of the most touching moments in the book, Kyemba remarks on Bloch’s death and how it has stayed with him.
An extraordinary amount of courage was required to write a book of this nature. For Kyemba, Uganda will always be home and his memories will be with him for the rest of his days. For those of us who did not live under Amin, books like this give us an idea of what life was like under a regime that stood on the verge of spiraling out of control nearly every day. Amin escaped justice dying in his older years in Saudi Arabia. For thousands of Ugandans, his ability to avoid punishment and answer for his crimes is one of the true tragedies in the nation’s history. Dictators live in a world removed from reality with their power having blinded them to the reality of their situation. Amin was no different and in fact stood out for his relentless brutality and lack of comprehension of even the most basic government concepts. Kyemba’s story is similar to other survivors of murderous regimes but I assure even the most hardened readers will be moved. If you are curious about the notorious Idi Amin and his regime, this book will show you a side that needs to be shown.