From longtime African affairs journalist Rice, a provocative story of war, death and the quest for justice in the wake of Idi Amin’s ruinous reign in Uganda.
Amin, writes the author, was beloved there, at least for a time. In British service, he was “a skilled tracker and an excellent shot, though he was a bit trigger-happy.” As a ruler, having engineered a coup against his left-leaning predecessor and passed muster as a Cold War ally of the Western powers, he was seen as someone who could be reasoned with. Not so. Amin’s lieutenants busily eliminated servants of the former administration and others suspected of being disloyal to the regime, which would become internationally infamous for its role in the hijacking of an Israeli airliner. One victim of the bloodletting was a county chief named Eliphaz Laki, who disappeared in 1972. In 1979, Amin’s army, a haphazard lot of brigands, disintegrated after an ill-advised invasion of neighboring Tanzania. Amin fled into Saudi Arabian exile, after which many Ugandans took the view that it might be just as well to forget the past. Yet in 1986 a new leader came to power, Yoweri Museveni, and one of his first official acts was to establish a commission of inquiry about the crimes of the Amin regime, telling Ugandans that “they could begin to mend their nation just by speaking the truth.” Helped by Laki’s son, investigators determined that the murderers included Amin’s chief of staff, as well as two soldiers, all of whom were brought to trial. Rice observes that, whereas most murder trials in Uganda’s legal system took only a week or so to be settled, that of the senior official took more than a year, complicated by both the quality of the evidence and, it seems, a persistent refusal to fully engage the past.
Reconciliation is an increasingly important process in nations once torn by fratricide. Rice’s important book serves as an urgent case study, complete with a surprising outcome.