The death of Idi Amin Dada on August 16, 2003, caused a stir of emotions in Uganda, the country he once ruled with an iron fist. His name is infamous and the crimes of his regime are endless. He ranks high among the worst dictators in world history and is a case study of the rampant abuse of power by a malevolent tyrant. Actor Forest Whitaker brilliantly played the late dictator in the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland. The film was fictionalized in part, but Whitaker capture the essence of Amin’s character and his performance was nothing short of phenomenal. The real Idi Amin was far worse as we know and there is a chance that the true number of the crimes committed by him and his henchmen will never be known. The fates of hundreds of Ugandans remain a mystery with no sense of closure in sight. Nearly four decades have passed since Amin fled into exile but he is a permanent part of Ugandan history. In this book by journalist Andrew Rice, we take a different look at the Amin regime, not through his life but through the lives of those who served him. The lives and stories intersect around the murder of Eliphaz Laki, the former county chief of Ibanda, Mbarara. In 1972, he was apprehended by Amin’s enforcers, led by Yusuf Gowon, assisted and abetted by Nasur Gille and Mohamed Anyure. His murder was covered up until his son Duncan returned to his native country in a quest to find his father’s killers. Duncan emigrated to the United States, settling in New Jersey with his wife. Their union produced four children and Laki supports his family as a lawyer. But the laws of the United States are different from Uganda as we see in the book. This is his story and a step back into time as we revisit the Protectorate of Uganda under the all watchful eye of Amin.
Before you open this book, I recommend that you remove any pre-conceived notions about Uganda. Personally, I found that after reading this book, there was much about the African nation that I did not know. In contrast to the picture of Africa being a land of savages, the truth is that colonialism, tribalism and corruption combined to eliminate any semblance of a properly functioning society. As Rice follows Duncan on his mission to bring his father’s killers to justice, the complex web of jealousy and suspicion ignited by Amin’s paranoia becomes evidently clear. Tragically, what could have been a great country, seemed to regress upon finally gaining its independence. In the book, as each character is introduce, Rice retraces their history, explaining in detail why they’re relevant to the current story. Expectedly, former leader Milton Obote appears throughout the story as he and Amin end up on a collision course for control of the country. The book develops into a history lesson on Ugandan politics and is a social study of the issues that continue to plague it today. It should be pointed out that the book is not a biography of Amin. In fact, as Rice points out, Amin’s early life is highly obscure and his exact date of birth was never been attained. The focus instead is on Duncan’s investigation with the help of a local investigator, Alfred Orijado. Their investigation leads them to the three suspects who are arrested and interrogated before signing confessions explaining their role in Eliphaz Laki’s death. And similar to the former Nazi officials, the Nuremberg defense once again rears its ugly head.
The trial eventually reveals the many flaws in the Uganda system while highlighting the progress that had been made administratively under the direction of former President Yoweri Museveni. Along with Amin and Milton Obote, Museveni is a permanent fixture in Ugandan history with the distinction of having served thirty-one years as the ruler of Ugandan. He has been called a dictator and if he should move to change the law to exempt him from retiring at the mandatory age of seventy-five, the accusations will hold more weight. Nonetheless, he is a walking piece of history at the age of seventy-one, having witnessed Uganda’s darkest times first hand. His prominence is slowly slipping as younger Ugandans look towards a brighter future with change in a new direction.
Westerners may find it hard to relate to the events in the book. For those of us lucky enough to have grown up in the United States, a civil war is unknown to us personally and something we have read about in textbooks. But for immigrants from Uganda who remember Amin’s reign, the terror remains with them every day reminding them of how tragic their lives once were. And while the ending is not what the reader may expect, the book is invaluable is showing what life was like in Uganda during that era. In death, Amin has joined the ranks of Hitler, Stalin, Lenin and other dictators whose dark legacies continue to haunt the nations they once ruled. Uganda continues to heal and the story of Eliphaz and Duncan Laki, is just one of thousands to be told about the maniacal Idi Amin Dada.