Africa: How Dictators Like Idi Amin Erred

Photo: Daily Monitor

Former president Idi Amin (second left) moves with some of his army commanders. Culture minister Yekosofate Engur was kidnaped by Amin’s men in February 1977, never to be seen again.


When serving as a diplomat in Sudan in the early 80s, I lived in the Al Amarat’s new extension of Khartoum. I was blessed with a neighbour on either side of my residence; one a London University educated professor teaching at Khartoum University and the other a Sheikh educated at the renowned Al Azhar University in Cairo which ranks as one of the oldest institutions of higher learning [in Islamic studies] in Africa and the world at large. Both were Muslim Sudanese-Arabs but made quite an effort to make me, a Christian, feel at home by regularly sending me Christmas cards and gifts throughout the six years I served in Sudan. I kept them as souvenirs.

At the behest of President Jaafar Muhammad Numiery, the leader of the ‘Republican Brothers’, probably a pseudo politico-religious affiliate of the ‘Muslim Brothers’ the regime feared so much was arrested; tried by Kangaroo Court, sentenced to death by hanging after being found guilty of heresy and treason; engaging in ‘subversive activities against the government of Sudan by law established’ even though Numiery did not originally rise to power through constitutional means but shot his way to power through a coup d’état he and his cohorts called a revolution in 1969. He later entrenched himself through a political contrivance known as the Sudanese Socialist Union. As the case of Yahya Jammeh graphically demonstrates, dictators would be ill-advised to rely solely on military preparedness as the source of their power, would they?

Whereas western diplomats shunned the public execution which took place in Sudan’s historic City of Omdurman, African diplomats attended incognito. The victim was hanged until he died. A West European trained medical doctor then examined the body for certification of death before it was crucified on a wooden cross and later carried by helicopter for disposal in the wilderness of the desert; for as the authorities said, a heretic did not deserve a descent burial. When I met the aforementioned neighbours for our usual chat over a cup of tea the mood was sombre. “Numiery has erred by killing a religious leader….For what he has done he is imminently finished. Khalas”, they declared. Numiery was indeed shortly afterwards overthrown by the Sudanese Armed Forces when he again erred by going on a trip abroad at a time of high political tension and rising military anomie in the country. “To save a bad situation from getting worse, men and officers of the Sudanese Armed Forces have decided to side with the people”, the coup announcer said.

Anyhow, my aforementioned former neighbours likened Numiery to Amin [both Field Marshals] who they said had likewise sealed his fate when, as we have now come to learn from various media reports, he didn’t only err but sinned through commission or omission when Janani Luwum, the Archbishop of the Church of Uganda and now a Saint, was killed in 1977. Acting on the military dictator’s orders State Research Bureau personnel tried to cover up the crime by arranging a fake accident scene. As it were, Amin was defeated and amid braggadocio flew to Libya before proceeding to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia after being overthrown by the TPDF assisted by the Uganda National Liberation Forces on April 11 1979; this writer who was completing a mid-career diplomacy training programme at the University of Nairobi was posted for the first time to Khartoum shortly after Amin’s overthrow.

But the error that triggered President Amin’s unceremonious exit was insulting Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, President of Tanzania, and then invading his country unprovoked! Insiders say it was the King of Saudi Arabia who had a soft spot in his heart for Amin, from time to time called him to order whenever the brutality of his henchmen went into excess! St Janani Luwum, as we commemorate your martyrdom, pray for us.

Mr Baligidde is a former diplomat.

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