Uganda -News 1999
Johannesburg, South Africa. February 19, 1999
An audience with Big Daddy Idi
To punish the Ugandan media for running false stories that he eats dozens of oranges a day, Idi Amin refuses to have his photograph taken
In his first in-depth interview with a Ugandan newspaper in a decade, Idi Amin talks about exile, politics, Yoweri Museveni ... and food and motor-racing.
By YUNUSU ABBEY of the New Vision, Kampala
GOOD Samaritan in Jeddah had given me that long sought-after journalistic prize: Idi Amin’s current telephone number. At about 11am Saudi time, I telephoned the former Ugandan dictator’s home. The phone rang for two minutes, but the only response I got was a fax tone. So I sent him a fax, with my full particulars and address.
Unexpectedly, later in the day at about 4.30 pm, I received a call in my hotel room. As soon as I picked up the receiver a deep voice said: “Hello, can I speak to Yunusu Abbey?” Knowing the voice to be that of “Big Daddy”, I trembled and answered back in shaky tones: “Speaking, sir.” He immediately switched to Swahili and talked politely. “Habari gani. Habari ya siku mingi [How are you? Long time no see ... ].” Later Amin called again to tell me he had checked me out with “his people” in Kampala to establish that I was not a Ugandan state agent: “They say they know you, the place you stay and when you get home.” We made arrangements to meet at the Shahen Hotel in the centre of Jeddah where staff say he is a regular.
Amin’s notorious figure is still easily recognisable. His dress style might have changed — he’s decked out in Muslim skullcap and snow-white tunic, with large maroon boots — but otherwise he is still the same tall, well-built and dark-skinned general of the 1970s. Although he has no uniformed escorts or a pistol on his hip these days, he still walks energetically, with the swagger of a bouncer. But now his left leg limps slightly, and there are wrinkles above his bulging cheeks. He looks well fed.
He extends a firm hand grip with its wide, former boxer’s palm, and we go off to talk, hidden in a corner on the second floor of the building. In a move typical of his heyday, Amin tells me strictly not to ask about his wife, children and family.
To punish the Ugandan media for running false stories that he eats dozens of oranges a day, he refuses to have his photograph taken. He talks endlessly, sipping orange juice and smiling as I ask about his love of sport, Islam and the accordion he used to enjoy playing. But he hardly gives me the chance to interject. He speaks the old-fashioned army-style Swahili of Uganda in the Seventies, gesturing a lot and shifting in his seat while illustrating a point. He points a great deal with his right hand and, when he mentions God’s name, turns his face upwards.
The former president likes talking about food. He says he prefers Ugandan-grown food. He reveals that he gets most of his supplies from Uganda, particularly cassava and millet flour (his favourite dish these days is goat meat with millet bread). His contacts in Uganda send him the flour from his home town of Koboko. His latest wife, who has just had a baby, also has matooke (green banana) sent from Masaka. The food parcels from Uganda are ferried through Nairobi or London. Sources say he is always on hand at King Abdulazizi International airport to receive them personally.
Amin has now moved from his former house near Jeddah city centre to a more exclusive area. His new residence, in an area mainly occupied by powerful oil sheikhs, is about 8km from the Jeddah city centre. Amin says that during his leisure time, which is most of the time, he recites the Qur’an, reads books, plays his old accordion. He likes playing a World War II song: “Neyagalira ono omutono wange eyava mulutalo, neyagalira ono omutono wange eyava mulu talo [I love the slender one from the war ...].” To show he still has a seductive voice, he sings it for me.
He also goes swimming and fishing in the Red Sea shores near the Saudi/Yemen border and watches TV. With his hefty monthly stipend from the Saudi government, the ex-field marshal proudly talks about the five satellite dishes installed at his new house.
A new hobby is fishing, which he has just taken up “because of the delicious fish species in the Red Sea waters”. The one-time heavyweight boxing champion of Uganda still likes football, boxing and tennis. He spends his free time glued to TV sports channels. He also spends a great deal of time watching news programmes. His favourite stations are CNN, BBC, Saudi TV Channel One, and Lebanese and French TV stations. He boasts that he now speaks a number of languages fluently, including Arabic, English, French and Lingala, the Congolese language.
Nowadays, Amin usually drives a white Cadillac, although sources say he has several cars. During the Seventies, he liked to drive in rallies in his Maserati with Sarah, then the youngest of his wives. He dislikes motor rallies now, he says, because “they cause death through accidents”.
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Asked about his favourite car today, he says the issue of cars is not important. Pointing out of the window at a fleet of mainly United States-made cars, he says: “These days there are so many models. I can drive any type of car if I wanted.”
Amin separated from Sarah more than 10 years ago. She now lives in London where she runs a café. He still has fond memories of Kampala, and misses his favourite “night grounds” where he used to go without the public knowing, to meet only those he knows.
But further talk about Uganda makes him wear a grim face. His former boxing team-mate Tom Kawere and ex-national soccer star Kalibbala are among those he misses. He tells me to send his regards to Kawere, saying that Amin misses him. He is grief-stricken when we talk about some of his former officers, now dead from violence or old age.
Amin is reluctant to disclose his age, saying only that he was born on “Eid Day” in the month of January, but declining to give the year: “Let those who think they know my age better say whatever they wish. They can say I am 60, 70 or 100 years old. Shauri yao. Mi si fikiri [It’s up to them. I am not bothered].”
The former Conqueror of the British Empire still brags about the number of friends he has worldwide, especially in Arab countries. But now, he says, he avoids his old US friends like Louis Farrakhan, who leads the Nation of Islam, because of his movement’s anti-US government policies. And, again unlike in his olden days, Amin avoids making negative comments about the US and Britain — he does not want to “mess with a superpower”.
He sounds well informed about world events and seems to be keenly following what is happening in Uganda, the Great Lakes region and other places. He dwells a lot on political issues, like the war in Congo and the activities of rebels in northern Uganda.
He pours scorn on the current Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni — saying he is bitter that the new government had taken or destroyed five of his houses. “By now those houses would have earned me monthly rent which would have helped my relatives in Uganda.”
He cautions Museveni against constantly insulting him, warning that he will offer special prayers which will bring misfortune on him. And he attacks corruption, insisting that “unlike some African heads of state, I never fled Uganda with any money and nor did I have any business outside”. He castigates Ugandan Muslim leaders who embezzled millions of dollars meant for the construction of the mosques in Uganda. When the late king Faisal bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia visited Uganda in November 1972 (when Amin was the darling of the Arab world), he donated funds for their construction.
Amin says he does not want to recall the 1979 liberation war which toppled his government, referring to it as “history”. He does not blame anyone for his defeat. Instead he hails his army, mainly the air force, for putting up a gallant fight against the Tanzanian invaders. Although his soldiers had the potential to raze Kampala to the ground before fleeing, he claims he discouraged them. “I ordered the Uganda army to withdraw because a big number of people would have died in the fighting. I did not want Africans to kill fellow Africans.”
-- The Mail & Guardian, February 19, 1999.
Reprinted by kind permission of The New Vision, Uganda’s leading newspaper