Last weekend, I saw the "The Last King of Scotland." It reminds me of the old joke that "The Prince of Tides" was neither about princes nor tides. Well this movie was neither about kings nor Scotland. It was about Idi Amin, the brutal former president of Uganda--brilliantly performed by Forest Whitaker (who just got an Oscar for the role)--and his relationship with a young Scottish doctor, who becomes his personal physician and political adviser. (By the way, in the picture, that's Idi Amin on the left, and Whitaker on the right.)
(20th Century Fox/AP)
If you haven't seen the film, you really should. I don't want to give away the plot--if you're super-sensitive about people not telling you anything, you should probably stop reading now, go see the movie, and then race back home to read the rest of this blog--but I did leave the theater with some questions about how much of story is actually true.
My first question: Was there really a Dr. Nicholas Garrigan, played in the movie by James McEvoy?
As it turns out, no, there wasn't. "The Last King of Scotland" is only loosely based on a book of the same name, which itself is only loosely based on the truth. If Garrigan is based on anyone, he's based (again, very loosely) on Bob Astles, a white former British soldier who became one of Amin's closest advisers. Like Gerrigan, Astles left Britain for Africa seeking adventure. Unlike Gerrigan, he actively sought to get involved in local politics. And ultimately he became--as Giles Foden, author of the book version, describes him--"part of Amin's apparatus of repression" that killed at least 300,000 people. When Amin's regime collapsed in 1979, Astles faced criminal charges for his role in the Amin government. He served six and a half years in prison, and moved back to London in 1985, where he lives today. Astles continues to deny any wrongdoing.
My second question: How did Idi Amin come to power?
Amin was abandoned by his father, grew up with his mother, and was recruited to the British colonial army. He served for eight years, and then--feeling abandoned again, this time by the British--joined independent Ugandan politics through the military. He was promoted to commander of the Ugandan army by President Milton Obote--and when Amin heard Obote was planning to arrest him for the way he spent military money, Amin launched a military coup while Obote was on a foreign trip. Initially, Amin encouraged Western countries by freeing political prisoners and disbanding Obote's secret police.
My third question: How was Amin finally removed from power?
Amin's paranoia led him, at first, to hunt down and kill all of Obote's supporters--and then to exile or imprison or murder, as the movie shows, an ever wider circle of people, all of whom he felt were threatening him. Many of these moves not only hurt his own popularity but also the local economy: for example, the Indians he expelled owned many big businesses. A series of events weakened Amin's grip on power: when Amin allowed the PLO's hijacked Air France flight to land in Uganda, when the former health minister defected to England and revealed the extent of the violence in Amin's regime, and finally when Amin launched a devastating war on Tanzania--at which point Tanzanians and Ugandan exiles took the capital city.
And my last question: What become of Amin after he left Uganda?
Amin--who gave himself dozens of grandiose titles including "president for life," "king of Scotland," and "conqueror of the British empire"--fled his country like a refugee. It was only because of Amin's conversion to Islam, and his friendship with Saudi King Faisal, that he was allowed to live in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on a Saudi government stipend, with the condition that he stay out of politics. He died there in August 2003.
If you'd like to know a little more about Uganda today, check out the BBC's country profile right here.