Kampala, Uganda | By Asuman Bisiika | I still remember the euphoria at home when my father broke the news of Idi Amin’s successful military coup against President Milton Obote. And I still remember how my people (the Bakonzo) referred to Amin: Omusabuli wa Uganda (the saviour of Uganda).
For my father, I can understand the triumphal elation; because I was later to know he was a dyed-in-the-wool Democratic Party member who hated Milton Obote with a passion.
In addition to those hazy recollections of the earlier days of Idi Amin’s rule, what I remember vividly is the social and economic situation we were later to witness in the mid-seventies.
My late father was a tea addict though he viewed this as merely being Muswahili or Muslim. But in 1975, the old man could not buy sugar because there was no sugar to buy.
Perhaps guessing that the situation may not improve in the short term, he made a sugar cane plantation. We pounded sugar canes to get its sap. This sap was then added to hot water mixed with herbs like kijani chai or mujaja.
We also used to wash our clothes (school uniforms, could we afford more than that?) with Pawpaw (papaya) leaves and Nzumbu (another herb). ‘We lived like that until Godfrey Binaisa removed Amin,’ my mother used to pull off this line to capture the dire economic situation under Amin’s regime.
I also still remember how the entire Kasese District almost became part of then Mobutu’s Zaire (economically, socially and culturally). All over a sudden, we started seeing brands like Sozaplast (Societe Zairoise de Plastique) for plastic shoes and basins, Sotext (Societe du textile) for cheap fabrics.
When a global brand campaign for Good Year tyres was launched in the 70s, we got it from Zaire. I also cannot forget the romance with rugabire (car tyre shoes); we used to call them Gudir. The Zairoise pronounced Good Year as Gudir. I was later to learn in 2002 that Gudir meant Good Year, a tyre brand. Come on…!
We started picking some French words like allor (so) quelquefois (sometimes) quelque chose (something) donc (therefore), pas ancore (not yet). One would most likely find us singing Nani aliona Mobutu? Mie (who saw Mobutu? Me.) or the Zairean National Anthem. Files in Kagando Hospital were called fisi; a Lhukonzo corruption for fichier in French).
With hindsight, I can now say: That is how bad things were. So, I don’t need lessons in GDP figures or other non-essentials during Amin’s time.
But wait a minute. The Bakonzo still hold Amin in awe; for isn’t he the one who declared the creation of Rwenzori (now Kasese District) and Bwamba (now Bundibugyo District) from Toro District for which they had fought a bitter war with the government of Uganda.
Talk of the axe and wind! Ahhm, isn’t Amin the one who in 1974 opened (the operational word now is ‘gave’) Saad Memorial School, the first secondary school in Kasese and Bundibugyo districts? The people of West Nile may have a lot to say about Amin than the Bakonzo. Yes, plus he was a Muslim like me.
Which brings us to Mr. Timothy Kalyegira and industrialist Christopher Ssembuya’s recent romantics with former President Idi Amin. Without being detained by Kalyegira and Ssembuya, we should ask our selves: why is former President Idd Amin becoming politically sexier? Actually even more sexier than President Apollo Milton Obote?
The process to ‘resurrect’ Idi Amin began in 1986. As an NRM cadre, one would not end a presentation without mentioning the line: ‘the dictatorial regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote.’
President Museveni referred even to past leaders (a euphemism for Obote and Amin) as swine; quite an uncharitable remark from a head of state referring to his predecessors.
Some cynics suggested that President Museveni was using the mistakes of Amin and Obote as a bogey to keep communities that had a problem with these regimes in line. It indeed worked. Witness: In 1986, while Presidential Candidate Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere was addressing a rally in Lira, he said he would bring Obote back if elected.
For the rest of his campaigns in south and western Uganda, Presidential Candidate Museveni picked Ssemogerere’s remarks as his campaign tool chiding Ssemogerere for wanting to ‘bring back the killers’. Poor Ssemo’s campaign team even attempted to deny it. That’s how bad things were.
But Amin? Former President Idi Amin had the advantage of being Ngamba Nyenka (dictator) as the Batoro would say. And unlike Obote who had issues with the most populous tribal community in Uganda, the love and hatred for Idi Amin was national.
Almost all the things Amin did were of a national nature. Even the killings had a national ring to them. That is why even peripheral communities like the Bakonzo also had their share of killings. In my own village alone, I remember two killings: Mirumba and Makali, ordinary peasants. The only unordinary thing I knew about the two peasants is that they had relatives living outside the country.
And since Ugandans always don’t think national, it is not surprising that Amin being recycled earlier than Obote whose ‘national mistakes’ have been overshadowed by the problems he had with Buganda Kingdom.
But the ultimate reason for the resurrection of Idi Amin is the now palpable national frustration with President Museveni’s overstay in power and the near collapse of the administrative structures of the state.
How did we reach here? Students of revolutions will tell you that there always comes a time when the revolutionary progression regresses. The truth is that the NRM revolution is in regression. And like many other revolutions before it, the people are feeling nostalgic of the very ‘bad past’ the revolution claims to have liberated them from.
The biggest political action that has eluded Ugandans is a peaceful hand-over of power from one leader to another. The population is increasingly resigning to the reality that President Museveni is unwilling to hand-over power. This resignation is aggregated into a desperation that is helping a person hitherto viewed as the national anti-hero to acquire a heroic review.
That’s why I have to buy a copy of Chris Ssembuya’s book and buy Timothy Kalyegira lunch one of these days. Not because they understand Amin more than me; but for capturing the frustrations of the people in clever way.