The Last King of Scotland: a 1973 article by J. M. Wober

With the permission of the author, Mallory Wober, I am posting his article, published in The Listener in 1973. The piece was based on the script of a talk he gave on Radio 3. Mallory thought it would be of interest to those seeing the new blockbuster film, ‘The Last King of Scotland’, and I’m sure he is right. I have not edited it and Mallory typed it from a tattered version he found. Apologies in advance for any errors.An Attempt on the Mind of Idi Amin
Radio 3
The Listener
Thursday 6 Sept 1973
Volume 90 No 2319 pp297-299

Monday 25 January, 1971 started out as a tense day in Kampala, the beautiful capital city of Uganda. President Obote was away at a conference in Singapore, agitating against British arms sales to South Africa. In Uganda, inquiries over the death of an army brigadier were coming to a head, and the oppressive atmosphere had erupted into firing in Kampala through Sunday night. On Monday, we knew that a coup was in progress, with the radio playing the martial music that seems to be inevitable on such occasions. At tea time, a corporal read out a manifesto justifying a military take-over. There followed the sugary strains of the ‘Missouri Waltz’ an old-time American minstrel song with the refrain:

The sandman is calling
And shadows are falling
So sweet and low ….

There was immediate joyous shouting heard throughout the city, and dancing in the streets. General Idi Amin’s regime had begun.

At first, the outward keynote of the regime was, perhaps, sweet and low. Amin made friendly gestures towards the British. Domestically, his first major step was designed to placate the majority group, the Baganda, who live around Kampala. Their Kabaka, or titular head, the famous King Freddie, had died in exile in London. Now his body was to be brought back to rest, in the proper royal burial-place – a spiritual move of much greater importance to most Ugandans than it may seem to us. At the same time, not everybody was at ease. Some of my colleagues at Makerere University, in Kampala, pointed out that Amin lacked the sophisticated abilities required to hold his army together, and to run a modern state, one which had been born with its full share of built-in strains and tensions.

We all try to make sense of events and of the people who affect us in life. As I am a social psychologist, the way in which I observed, and tried to make sense of, the actions and character of Amin, from close attention to local news and events, was deeply influenced by theories in my field. Two of these theories, on which I shall comment briefly later, are well-known in Western experience. The third theory is perhaps more unfamiliar and more interesting. It was developed by a French psychiatrist, Octave Mannoni, who worked in Madagascar. Mannoni tells us that the concept of dependence is the key to understanding much of the behaviour of colonised people. The dependency complex in such cultures is the counterpart of the inferiority complex in Western peoples. Mannoni says of the colonised person that he ‘transfers to his coloniser feelings of dependence, the prototype of which is to be found in the affective bond between father and son’. Such an individual, Mannoni writes, ‘is held together by his collective shell, his social mask, much more than by his “moral skeleton”’. In other words, the source of strength for the typical colonised person, if one can think of such a being, is external rather than internal. Mannoni regards the process of colonisation as having been relatively easy: ‘When he has succeeded in forming such relations with his superiors, his inferiority no longer troubles him. When his feeling of insecurity is not assuaged, he suffers a crisis’. But decolonisation is psychologically more difficult. Mannoni comments on this transition: ‘If the collapse of dependency merely breaks the bonds without putting anything in their place, clearly the man who finds himself suddenly independent in this way will then fall prey to Pascalian despair, existential anguish, dereliction’.

It should be clear that Mannoni’s ideas offer useful pointers to an exploration of the mind of Uganda’s President. But I want to start with a theory that meshes psychological explanation with an account of the formative situation at the beginning of Amin’s regime. This is called Cognitive Dissonance Theory. it holds that people cannot easily entertain two ideas at once, if these ideas are basically at odds with each other. One way out of such a dilemma, should it arise circumstantially, is to come down heavily on one side. With rationalisations, counter-arguments and, if possible, outside support, the other side of the dilemma is routed.

At the start of his regime, Amin probably faced such a dilemma. He, or, as some say, his supporters, had wrested power from Obote. The new order could not easily survive if Obote’s supporters in high places, and those in the Armed Services, remained. They had to go, completely, and many of them were killed. So, on the one hand, we have the picture, luridly developed by important foreign news media, of Amin as a blood-letting villain. On the other hand, the Baganda at that time thought of Amin as a hero and saviour, who had ousted their oppressor, Obote. This second idea was obviously the one Amin wanted, even though it embodied the facts of the first. Amin was also not a pure factionalist. He had been an all-Uganda boxing champion, and seems to think of himself, as De Gaulle did in his case, as a paternal embodiment of the national identity. He would have needed, then, to expunge awareness of himself as responsible for eliminating many of his new subjects: indeed, many of his own army, to whom he had been psychologically quite close. To settle his mind, he had to develop the idea that his Presidency was a natural and necessary step in Uganda’s political evolution, And to support this notion, he had to get foreign recognition.

Recognition was readily given by Britain and others. But by Amin’s neighbour, President Nyerere, widely respected as one of Africa’s most important leaders, recognition was withheld. This denial of recognition, only recently beginning to thaw, must have fuelled Amin’s mental dissonance. It could be part of the reason why Amin had to strive, in various ways, to assert himself as a true champion of African independence: truer perhaps, he hoped, than his tantalising Tanzanian neighbour.

Amin’s drive for psychological recognition was clear in his first years of power. Obote had left a giant Conference Hall building in Kampala, in which the Organisation of African Unity was due to meet, that year. Now it was Amin who pressed on with the expensive building, hoping that the OAU would come to what was now his capital, and, by so doing, recognise his legitimacy. Obote clearly recognised Amin’s motive. He successfully marshalled support through Nyerere and other friendly leaders, like Siad Barre of Somalia, and they saw to it that, in the event, the OAU avoided Kampala.

Amin missed a great opportunity here to have emerged as a true statesman of African independence, and to have stood a good chance of ousting Obote in Nyerere’s esteem. For had Amin cancelled the building, he could have devoted public money to a host of more useful projects, and invited the OAU to share the dignity of Ugandan hospitality without the expensive, foreign-built staging. Nyerere would have been more likely to respect this kind of approach on Amin’s part. After this diplomatic defeat, Amin had to turn elsewhere to develop his sense of purpose and prove himself.

The second concept probably very relevant to understanding Amin is that of the Authoritarian Personality. This structure was first researched thoroughly in America by refugees from Nazi Germany. They sought to establish whether there is something we can truly call authoritarian personality, and if so, what it consists of and how it comes about. Among the causes are strict childhood discipline and an absence of companionable though firm guidance from parents. Now what can we discover about Amin’s family background? Not much. His father was probably a Nubi, a descendant of migrants from the Sudan who had settled in Kakwa territory in Northern Uganda. Child-raising practices in such societies tend more to resemble those which develop authoritarianism than others which produce more flexible, tolerant types of personality.

Among the characteristics of authoritarian personality are an unwillingness to acknowledge one’s anti-social impulses, a tendency to try to get rid of them by projecting them on to others, and a tendency to think in rather rigid categories and stereotypes. Amin the authoritarian began to show his hand in December 1971. Uganda’s Asians had always been culturally apart from the black African, and various stereotyped accusations against them were common. President Amin now called a meeting of all the 18 Asian communities, in his empty Conference Centre. In this, he harangued them as a bloc, for several hours, cataloguing their supposedly universal misdeeds. They were warned against what Amin called ‘milking the cow’ of Aganda’s economy, but not feeding it. And against looking down upon Africans.

The Asians’ fate was now crystallising. min had already begun diplomatic contacts with Muslim leaders. Using the private jet which the Israelis had given him, he visited Cairo and soon met with Colonel Gaddafi. Gaddafi had not long since expelled the whole community of Italian settlers in Libya, virtually overnight. This idea would surely have appealed to Amin’s mind, and it would see that it merely waited there for a catalyst to transform it into action.

The first week in August 1972 saw prominent daily news reports of Asians who were trying to ‘queue-jump’ into Britain being shuttled from airport to unwelcoming airport around the world. It seemed as though ultimately it was Britain’s responsibility to care for these people, though some might feel that for the moment East African countries should espouse them. Like others who react in terms of Britain’s old Imperial responsibilities, Amin felt strongly for the fist solution. He now dreamt that he must expel his country’s Asians. Triggered off by this dream, he started the exodus period ticking. His rhetoric was full of railing against Britain, of sending the Asians, who were the symbols of his resentment, to Britain, which he called their country of origin. He also wanted, as he put it, to teach Britain a lesson.

Publicly, Amin justified this by accusing Asians of disloyalty and of sending their Ugandan money abroad. But this is something which we are told that Amin had himself been guilty of doing. So we can see his scapegoating of the Asians as partly a projection of his own guilt onto others, thus trying to export feelings he could not comfortably contain. It was also an attempt to justify himself as a popular and independent African leader.

We return now to my third theme: that of the dependent personality. Mannoni, who is the principal promoter of this theory, pinned his ideas on what he had observed in an extreme form in Madagascar, the so-called ‘cult of the dead’. this not only entailed a tremendous respect for the departed; it also involved the idea that the dead still oversee the progress of the living. Their wishes are sometimes communicated through dreams. Many peoples in Uganda believe strongly that dreams are a channel of communication with the spiritual world, where the ancestors have gone. Hence many Ugandans, including probably Amin himself, would have seen his dream as a valid source of guidance.

Everyone depends to some extent on external sources of psychological support. But Mannoni thought this was a substantially stronger phenomenon among colonised peoples. The Nubi and the Kakwa, among whom Amin lived, clearly perceived hierarchical divisions in society. The Muslims among them, of whom Amin is one, have a firm tradition of fundamental belief in, and even dependence on, a defined external authority. Amin’s biographer tells us that the young Idi left home early to go to the city. This was an early indication of a bid for psychological independence, but not a completely successful bid. For Amin eventually joined the King’s African Rifles, a thoroughly authoritarian institution, and one which, by all accounts, he served loyally. We can see, then, how Amin’s dependency feelings have found comfort for many formative years within British institutions.

Mannoni’s ideas have been modified by the British psychologist, Gustav Jahoda. Jahoda holds that formal, Western-type education is an experience in which people are brought to develop a critically external view of themselves. This effectively enables the individual to step outside the shell of dependency structures, and with further education people can acquire a high degree of psychological autonomy, or independence. This has undoubtedly come about, for many people, and partly explains the drive for political independence across Africa.

President Amin, however, is not a highly educated man. In him, we are likely to see the struggle for independence as still unresolved. For psychological and political reasons, he strives to assert his own and his people’s independence. He expels Israelis in favour of a relationship with Arab leaders, whose patronage offered him the key to the door of acceptance in the ranks of the OAU. But he still has his photographs of the Queen, refers to his service under her father, and would highly value formal recognition by British Royalty or the Commonwealth leadership. Hence he angled for an invitation to Princess Anne’s wedding, and prized his invitation to the Prime Ministers’ Conference in Ottawa last month.

Before coming to the debit side of Amin’s regime, and trying to connect this with his psychological characteristics, it is fair to point out that there is a credit side, too. His declared goals for his people, of achieving economic, and more importantly psychological independence and self-respect, can hardly be criticised by us. Further, he has played a significant part in bringing peace to two areas in Africa, for years torn by civil wars: the Southern Sudan and Chad. To promote peace, he has used his good offices with black African leaders, as well as his Muslim fellowship with the Northern protagonists in these two areas of strife. Thus Amin has helped to save lives.

At home, though, his sensationalist rhetoric and erratic administration have not disciplined his army, but have unleashed them as despoilers. Many people have been killed. The intelligentsia have spoken of a ‘list’ of those whom they expect the Army to kill. And even though there may or may not be a real list, the fear of it is certainly real. This drives some to exile, and prevents others from working freely and well. Instead, then, of Uganda being able increasingly to generate the skills, services and competence upon which an independent state survives, the opposite effects occur. There is a reduced ability to do for itself those things that other competent states do for themselves. And where such a run-down occurs in the context of a mismanaged bid to generate independence throughout a society, there is a danger that self-respect will be impaired.

Many Africans may find Mannoni’s theories distasteful and possibly lacking in foundation. But their distaste may clothe a nagging doubt that there is a kernel of truth in this case. And Mannoni’s ideas are the best ones available as a context in which to understand Amin’s two apparently opposed strands of behaviour towards the British: on the one hand his dislike of the British Asians, or British economic influence, of British relations with Israel; but against this, his affection for British institutions such as the Army and Royalty, and his continued use of certain British professional services. Amin’s personal struggle for independence, and his authoritarian personality, have become a source of tragedy for his country. He has led Uganda into economic and political difficulties and her morale and performance are jeopardised. Friendship with Libya has not brought Uganda much economic or technical aid.

Amin will probably continue to assert himself in the way he knows best: as a soldier. This means pampering the Army, at a considerable financial and social cost. Scares concerning saboteurs and spies have to be provoked, or invented, to appear to justify all the internal military activity that goes on. One possible avenue for promoting a peaceful relaxation, and for allowing Ugandans to regain their morale and balance, has been suggested by a Nigerian journalist, Peter Enahoro. This is that some close African leader should attempt to gain Amin’s trust. They might then generate collective policies which could make some sense of all the military organisation whose seed is now being sown. It is not very likely, however, that this will come about.

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