Meet Jaffar Amin. He does voiceover work, likes MC Hammer, and posts family histories on Facebook. Oh, and his dad was Africa’s most notorious dictator.
On April 11, 1979, His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, CBE, 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, was overthrown by a rebel insurgency.
To most people, Amin’s eight-year reign is best remembered for its violence. Nine thousand “disloyal” soldiers — a full two-thirds of the Ugandan Army — were executed during Amin's first year of power. Supposed threats within the civilian population — Janani Luwum, the archbishop of the Church of Uganda, for one — were not only summarily executed, but often forced to do the work themselves and club one another to death. Throughout his life, rumors of cannibalism followed Amin, who was reported to have kept the severed heads of his rivals in a freezer. An obituary in the Guardian after his death in 2003 described the Ugandan leader as “one of the most brutal military dictators to wield power in post-independence Africa.” The exact number of killings for which he can be blamed is hard to pin down definitively, but the BBC has pegged the figure at around 400,000.
Some say there’s more to the man than the numbers. One of his most vocal boosters is none other than Jaffar Amin, the 10th of the late dictator’s 40 officially recognized offspring, by seven officially recognized wives. Jaffar insists that the world truly misunderstands his dad.
Jaffar, now 48, lives in Kampala with his wife and six kids. A prolific Facebooker, he regularly posts pictures of his family, including his father, along with anecdotes, reminiscences, and the odd complaint about the current state of Uganda.
I’ve always been interested in the private lives of dictators, and a couple of years ago, after a quick search, I landed on Jaffar’s profile. I sent him a friend request, along with a note asking if he’d be willing to share his story with me for an article. I expected a polite “No thanks.” But Jaffar responded right away, agreeing to forward along “generic” answers to questions he has either been asked over the years, or ones he assumed he would be asked.
What he sent was anything but generic. One afternoon in August 2013, I looked at my inbox to find dozens and dozens of pages littered with almost stream-of-consciousness reminiscences about life with his father. It took a while to make sense of it all — some of it seemed to be notes for a future book, some of it taken from a talk Jaffar had given, and some of it consisted of large, disjointed blocks of text pasted directly into the email.
Jaffar doesn’t come off as some sort of evil dictator’s demon spawn, but rather as an everyday guy living in the suburbs. He spent 11 years working as a manager for DHL. These days, he picks up commercial voiceover gigs when he can — his dulcet tones have urged people to visit the Kampala showroom of a South Korean furniture company called Hwansung, to tune in to 88.2 FM, and to fly Qatar Airways.
Though I wouldn’t describe the two of us as “friends,” Jaffar and I have spoken on the phone a handful of times to discuss our possible collaboration. After about a year, Jaffar’s emails started coming with signoffs like, “God bless you and your family.” He recently wrote to me, “I owe you a wealth of thanks for bringing out the human side of my parent.”
At the same time, Jaffar has also obviously grown somewhat weary of discussing the past. Early on, when I asked one too many follow-up questions, Jaffar replied, “You could be a run-of-the-mill blogger for all I [know], for I have always only given Interviews to the Established Media Houses so consider this my last correspondence with you[,] take the gift or simply trash it or bin it as we Anglophones are fond of expressing.”
It was far from our last exchange. The silence ended a month or so later, after I told Jaffar I had gotten the official go-ahead from my editors at Foreign Policy. I can only assume that Jaffar, who later told me he was looking for partners to work with him on a somewhat nebulous documentary film project that he said he hoped would show “the other side of Idi Amin Dada,” didn’t want to pass up the publicity.
To most of the world, the name Idi Amin carries dark connotations. The annals of history place the late Ugandan leader alongside Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and Slobodan Milosevic in the pantheon of vicious madmen. For his part, Jaffar says he doesn’t view his father “through rose-tinted glasses,” though he argues that “more die from hunger and misadventures into Sudan and the Congo than have been accused of this man I call father.” Idi Amin’s overarching aim, according to Jaffar, was “to break the colonialist chains and unshackle the colonialist yoke from around our necks.” To many, Idi Amin, a man the last U.S. ambassador to Uganda referred to as “Hitler in Africa,” was simply a murderous tyrant. To Jaffar, he was “great as a father.”
Jaffar attributes some of the lingering ill will toward his father to basic breakdowns in communication. While the world was convinced that Amin had a taste for human flesh, it wasn’t so, says Jaffar. What of Jaffar’s brother, Moses, who was allegedly killed and eaten by his father in 1974? He’s actually “alive and well in France,” according to Jaffar.
And Jaffar says he’s not the only one who believes Moses is alive. “A few years ago when I was in the United States, the editor in chief of Chicago Suntimes [sic] newspaper told me how he would forgive Amin of all atrocities committed but never the one of sacrificing his son,” an acquaintance wrote to Jaffar in a letter, which he then posted to Facebook in 2009. “I tried but couldn't convince him that Moses Amin actually was still alive. According to him, many reliable Ugandans had told him of Moses's sad fate.”
The rest of the Amin family does not find it necessary to change anyone’s perceptions. They are happy, according to Jaffar, to “let sleeping dogs lie.” But, as he said in his “generic” answers, “I'm the type who feels that I am going to spend the rest of my life trying to explain my father's legacy. And I've set that as my own personal goal or agenda, so to speak.”
Jaffar’s turns of phrase often sound like they’re coming from an English gentleman. He says he was exposed to Anglo-Saxon culture through Uganda’s British colonial history and what he describes as his father’s obsession with everything British, “while hating their exclusivity.” But if Idi Amin hated upper-crust snobbery, he certainly didn’t mind the finer things in life.
In the 1970s, Amin expropriated a property on the shore of Lake Victoria to create, in Jaffar’s words, his own “version of Balmoral or Camp David.” He called it “Cape Town View.” Amin also helped himself to Mukusu Island, a 23-acre piece of land in the lake not far from Kampala. He dubbed that one “Paradise Island.”
Not everyone found the area so idyllic. Amin reportedly threw “several” of his own ministers to the crocodiles that lived in the lake, with one local fisherman telling the Telegraph in 2002, “When I was fishing, I would see many bodies, sometimes just parts of bodies, in the lake. They were enemies of Amin and so he killed them. Then the crocodiles would eat them.”
Tales abound of Amin’s casual sadism, carried out during a reign that has come to be synonymous with brutality. “R,” a former political prisoner, remembers watching “a lot of bad things, a lot of castration. They cut people up and all kinds of stuff. Those still alive — your job was to clean it up.” A university lecturer who displeased Amin was later found beheaded by the side of a road. Henry Kyemba, one of Amin’s former ministers, claimed in 1978 that Amin admitted to him two separate times that he had eaten human flesh, calling it “saltier than leopard meat.”
Jaffar doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on the details of the grisly accusations leveled at his father. In his reminiscences, Jaffar humanized his dad, explaining that Amin was “fond of gadgets.” His father's collection included an aluminum Polaroid camera wrapped in maroon leather, and Betamax machines flown in from Dubai. (Meanwhile, Jaffar recently asked if I’d download an HD version of a Hungarian film onto a flash drive and FedEx it to him in Kampala. “I have never had a chance to watch this film properly,” he said, explaining that power outages were also making it hard for him to access his email.) And according to Jaffar, his father also liked to drive his Maserati around the country and turn up at parties, funerals, village gatherings, and so forth, unannounced, delighting his surprised subjects.
Conversely, those on Amin’s bad side who didn’t find themselves dead could instead face public humiliations. In July 1975, Amin had a group of British businessmen, working in Uganda as guests of the regime, carry him to a diplomatic reception atop a sedan chair. One of them was a Kampala car dealer named Robert Scanlon.
“What a spectacle it was!” Jaffar wrote on his Facebook page last March. “Caucasian men, carrying a Black African! A hilariously true inversion of roles!”
Jaffar claimed the men were in on the gag, insisting, “The Caucasians in this jestful event were also laughing because they were not forced to carry dad. They did it willingly.” Scanlon disappeared in 1977. That year the Observer, citing an anonymous Ugandan official, reported that he was arrested and then sledgehammered to death by Amin’s henchmen.
His body has never been found. Since Scanlon isn’t around to give his side of the story, I got in touch with his daughter Chérie, now 51. She is a registered nurse who runs a mobile dermatology clinic in Blackpool, England. Chérie was 14 years old at the time her father went missing. Unlike Jaffar, she doesn’t look back on the episode with a great deal of mirth.
“My aunt told me my father was under great duress to do it,” she told me in an email. “There was a threat to the lives and safety of other expats if my father did not cooperate. The other men worked on contract with/for my father. I am in contact with one of them. I understand that the chair was brought from the Masonic lodge. My father was a Freemason.”
Less than two years after Scanlon’s disappearance, dissent within Uganda and Amin's ill-fated attempt to annex the Kagera province of Tanzania led to a war. The following April, Amin was ousted by Tanzanian troops and Ugandan opposition fighters.
Amin went into exile with Jaffar, who was 12 years old at the time, along with an entourage of some 80-odd government ministers, military officers, and family members. The group moved to Libya as guests of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, who had been a loyal Amin ally.
But about a year into their stay, Amin became offended when the politically ambitious Qaddafi began allying himself with Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, the man behind Amin’s fall. Amin viewed this as nothing less than a betrayal. In 1980, he relocated to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Jaffar, along with a small handful of siblings and associates of his father’s, went with him. (The others wound up scattered between Paris, Kinshasa, and Britain.)
As longtime BBC Africa correspondent Brian Barron explained in 2003, “The Saudis had been staunch allies because Idi was a Muslim convert who ordered mosques built across Uganda when he was in power.” The deal the Saudis made with Amin in return for safe haven was clear: Our door is open, but stay out of politics and keep your mouth shut.
Upon the arrival of Amin and his entourage, the House of Saud provided Amin with sanctuary as well as a stipend. (Jaffar says it was more than $26,000 a month.) Insisting he could trust no one but his own children, Amin eventually ordered the bulk of his hangers-on to leave. Jaffar soon found himself serving as the “proverbial errand boy, cook, housekeeper, banker, driver, bodyguard, and etcetera.”
Idi Amin’s life in exile sounds less like that of a bloodthirsty madman waiting to die than one of a retiree trying to stay busy in West Palm Beach. Jaffar describes days spent shopping, with the supermarket being one of his father’s favorite destinations. “In Saudi Arabia, Dad loved to shop,” Jaffar explained in one of the reminiscences he sent. “So we made a lot of trips to the mall, especially the Safeway.”
Amin often took his lunch at a local Pakistani restaurant, which seems a curious choice for a man who stripped Uganda’s prosperous 80,000-odd South Asian residents of their businesses and property during 1972’s race-based “economic war” before expelling them from the country. (“He left the controversy to Allah, but he always felt he needed the world to know that he compensated the British Asians,” recalled Jaffar.)
After lunch, it was off to the Corniche for Amin’s regular dip in the Red Sea. The day would close with a return home with “bags full of groceries for the sagging freezer and the frost-free fridge for the delicate stuff,” followed by seven o’clock prayers and dinner.
Jaffar recently sent me some new memories of life in exile with his dad, describing a serendipitous meeting with the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan at the Jeddah airport, in 1989. Jaffar’s kid brother Moses was heading back to school in Paris, and the family had gone to see him off. While his father killed time at a nearby soda fountain, Jaffar spotted Farrakhan with his entourage and walked over to say hello. According to Jaffar, it “tickled” Leonard Muhammad, Farrakhan’s son-in-law and chief of staff, that he was listening to MC Hammer.
“I said, ‘I am a discerning dancer and to my mind he is the only one who could beat me in a dance competition.’”
When he was 18, Jaffar left Jeddah and his father’s life in exile to matriculate at Irwin College, a 300-student, sixth-form school in Leicester, England. In what came as a surprise to the new student, the town was the primary destination for Ugandan Indians his father had kicked out of their homes a decade and a half earlier. Given this, it isn’t surprising that Jaffar made an effort to mask his identity while there. In fact, so determined was Jaffar to fly under the radar, that his father signed all correspondence to him with a pseudonym, “Abu Faisal Wangita.”
When he completed his studies at Irwin in 1989, Jaffar returned to Saudi Arabia. But the next year, when he was 24, fear of the impending Persian Gulf War gave Jaffar the motivation he needed to return home to Uganda. He didn’t foresee a problem. More than a decade had passed since his father was ousted from power. Though Jaffar does not believe Amin would express remorse or regret for anything he had done, he felt Uganda had had enough time to “turn the corner.”
I was curious to know if this truly was the case. Idi Amin was warned by the government that replaced him that if he ever returned to Uganda, he would face charges for war crimes. He never stepped foot in the country again before his death in 2003. But at least three of his sons have returned to live in Uganda, one of whom was convicted of murder for beating and stabbing a man to death in a London gang fight. Whatever family money once existed is apparently gone, and now, nearly 36 years later, the remaining Amins have settled into fairly routine existences. So, have they been welcomed, or are they viewed with scorn? Are they hated? Tolerated? Something in between?
Rebecca Severe, from Uganda’s Karamoja region, saw most of her family wiped out by government troops in a 1971 massacre shortly after Amin seized power. She was 8 years old at the time and she has never spoken about what she saw until now.
After a Ugandan Army soldier came out on the losing end of a dispute with a local person in Karamoja’s Moroto district, Severe remembers soldiers descending on the town, where they “did their work.” Savere was handed a saucepan for protection by her aunt and sent to hide in the house.
Indelible as the murders carried out by Idi Amin’s men were, Severe, now 52, didn’t flinch when she met Jaffar at a marathon in Kampala a few years back. “We Ugandans don’t see the children as the problem,” said Severe, who now splits her time between California and Uganda, and was introduced to me by a mutual acquaintance. “We view the parent as the problem.”
Gawaya Tegulle, a columnist and political commentator in Kampala, also saw his share of brutality and killings carried out by Amin’s forces. For him, the memories have been a bit harder to shake.
“Those of us who actually witnessed the atrocities of Mr. Amin do have a bit of trouble relating with them,” Tegulle told me from his office in Kampala. “I have fathers of my childhood friends that were killed by Amin. We watched some of them being carted off to their death, beaten all the while. We have kids who screamed in terror as their fathers were being tortured, while being taken away. I lived in fear of my own dad never coming back home.”
“Every time I see one of them Amin kids, or even hear about them, I'll be frank with you — I freak out,” he continued. “A cold shiver goes down my spine. It's so hard. And I have nothing against them. But we tend to see them in the light and context of their father before them. And I know many of my peers who share even deeper sentiments than mine.”
In 2006, Jaffar’s brother, Taban Amin, was appointed to a senior position in Uganda’s state security services by President Yoweri Museveni (something Tegulle said he still finds hard to stomach). Another brother, Hussein, has publicly announced his intention to run for a seat in the Ugandan parliament in 2016. Though he hasn’t yet acted on it, Jaffar told me that he has entertained the idea of running for office.
It’s not outside the realm of possibility that an Amin will once again lead Uganda. The country’s population is the world’s youngest — about 78 percent of Ugandans are under 30 — and thus have no firsthand memories of the Amin years. And if it’s not Hussein or Jaffar, there is also the somewhat surreal possibility that Uganda could one day again find itself with a leader by the name of Idi Amin.
Said Jaffar, “I will be my second son Idi Amin’s No. 1 cheerleader when he stands for high office 40 years from now, inshallah.”
In the meantime, he still has lots to say. When I told Jaffar this article would finally be running, I got an email back saying, “You forgot about our book commission already!”