Friday, March 09, 2007

The Last King of Scotland

The recent release of humorously-titled movie "The Last King of Scotland" reminds me of a true story that has haunted my dreams for years.

The film in part purports to tell the tale of Idi Amin, the murderous dictator who ruled Uganda between 1971 and 1979. In the West Amin was considered something of a buffoon. His self-styled title "His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshall Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular", probably didn't help. In his own country he was regarded with abject terror by all his subjects.

Amnesty International reckons he was responsible for the death of 500,000 of his people. He waged campaigns of sectarian violence mainly against the Acholi and Lango tribes. He is best known in this country for his persecution of Ugandan Asians, mainly Christians, Hindus and Muslims, many of whom subsequently came to Britain where they played a significant role in our cultural and commercial development.

The story I remember depicts a particularly evil massacre that took place under Amin's rule. Readers of a nervous disposition might want to look away now. You can safely pick up this post again in its final paragraph.

Several hundred prisoners are marched into a football stadium by a large number of Amin's troops. There is a carnival atmosphere. The soldiers are in a good mood, joking and making bets. The prisoners are made to stand in line. The prisoner second from the end is handed a club. He is instructed to kill the person on his left with the club and pass it to the person next to him who will repeat the procedure. Anyone who refuses will meet with a painful death. No-one refuses.

I picture myself in the line, standing round about the middle. The sun is beating down. I hear the first blow, like an egg cracking. I have only a few minutes to live. I consider the fine theological conundrum as to whether or not when I kill the man standing next to me my soul will be in a state of mortal sin. If so I am condemning myself to a lifetime in hell. Piss and shit start to trickle down my shaking legs. I am sweating in the sweltering stadium but I am cold. I look at the man on my left, trying to gauge the thickness of his skull and where exactly I will hit him to ensure a merciful death. The man on my right looks weak, he is crying, his spirit is broken. I curse my luck.

The soldiers all around are laughing and cheering. There is no blood on their hands, they are innocent of any crime. They admire and evaluate each downward sweep of the club, the spectacular eruption of brains. They are as knowledgeable and appreciative and as boistrous as spectators at a baseball match.

The man beside me hands me the club. It is sticky and slippery with blood. I take a deep breath. It is hard to breathe. I can hear the soldiers jeering far away. I remember how I used to hold a cricket bat at school. I look my companion in the eyes as I raise the club above my head. It is too late to think of my family, the world I am about to leave behind. I concentrate on the job in hand.

The film stars Forest Whitaker and is directed by Kevin Macdonald from a novel by Giles Foden. It glosses over Amin's atrocities and concentrates on a fictional love story. It has not been a critical or commercial success. But I guess things move on, and that the relative failure of the film is now the real tragedy of this story.


  1. An example of truly creative evil.

  2. I tried, briefly, to think myself into the same position and failed miserably. Only humans could think up something so utterly horrible to do to each other.

  3. And let's not forget about Idi Amin's dinner parties, particularly the ones where the lid was removed from a serving platter, only to reveal a human head.

    H. L. Menchen (I think): "It is a sin to believe in evil of others, but it is seldom a mistake."

    Lynne AKA The WW of P

  4. S'why y'all need to watch The Empire in Africa too. Since that I've read plenty about it, Amin's regime included.

    Also why I'd *like* to go and do some foreign aid work next year.

    Told you it changed me.

  5. Having said that, The Last King... didn't gloss over his atrocities in any sense. It highlighted what a charismatic and volatile man Amin was but on an inter-personal level. The 'love story' ended brutally. It was subtle enough to win out, frankly. Didn't need anymore exposition than was in place, and it *certainly* showed the dictator at his worst.

    Was a thriller through and through.

    Have you seen it Bill? Or am I being flippant to assume that perhaps you haven't?

  6. Bill, thank you. Thank you so much.

    When I get it together, I promise I'll leave something much, much wittier and happy in your comments.

    :-) A

  7. The atrocities of Amin are more than well known on the African continent - the tragedy is that atrocities of one sort or another continue to occur - including in Uganda with Joseph Kony's The Lord's Resistance Army which kidnaps children for as its soldiers.

  8. Hard to believe that things happen all over the world...all the time....we're much better off than we realise..........

  9. Remember that Meryl Streep movie? Sophie's Choice? Another of those horrible, horrible choices. I just blogged on impossible choices, and Bernita sent me here. :-)

    I'm glad she did. Africa breaks my heart. I want to see this movie, definitely. I did just see a biography on him. Ugh.