African tyrant: The truth about Amin

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(Like the young British doctor in 'The Last King of Scotland', Richard Dowden was living in Uganda when Idi Amin seized power. But he says the film is wrong to blame the UK for the coup that brought the tyrant to power.)

[Richard Dowden is the director of the Royal African Society.]

The first time I saw Idi Amin was when - as in the film - he leapt on to a platform in my local town to address the people. He used much the same words as he does in the film. "I am one of you, I know you, we are going to make life better..." And, like Nicholas Garrigan, the film's young Scottish doctor, I was swept along by Amin's ebullient enthusiasm, joining the crowd to shout a huge "O ye" in answer to his. He then picked us white muzungus out of the crowd and praised us, telling the people we had come to help Uganda, and Ugandans should welcome us and respect us. We got a huge cheer too. If he had offered me a job at that moment...

Forest Whitaker is a brilliant Idi Amin. The voice, the stance but most of all the eyes flicking this way and that until he chooses his mood: smile or smite. Seconds tick by as he weighs the choice, and then the huge smile lights up his face; or the storm breaks, menacing, murderous.

My challenges to the film are factual. The first concerns who put Amin in power. There is a moment when he confides in Garrigan: "Who put me here? - It was British." The assertion is repeated by Stone, a British diplomat, who says: "Given we were so intimately involved in him coming to power..."

Most Brits in Uganda believed their government organised the coup in 1971. Amin had been a loyal sergeant in the King's African Rifles, doing Britain's dirty work against the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s. It was assumed he was still "their boy". I too believed it was the British, until I read papers concerning the coup at the Public Record Office at Kew in London.

If the British did have a hand in the events of 25 January 1971, the plotters neglected to tell the British high commissioner in Kampala, Richard Slater. Foreign Office telegrams reveal a man shocked and confused at reports of shooting in the streets. As the day rolls on, Slater reports that the man who knows all about the coup is Colonel Bar-Lev, the Israeli defence attaché - the ambassador was away. Quoting Bar-Lev as the source, Slater reports: "In the course of last night, General Amin caused to be arrested all officers in the armed forces sympathetic to Obote ... Amin is now firmly in control of all elements of [the] army ... the Israeli defence attaché discounts any possibility of moves against Amin."...

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