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Death of the king
Idi amin dada

Rarely have so few mourned the death of a man.

On 16 August Idi Amin Dada, one of the most notorious and brutal dictators in modern history, passed away quietly, in peaceful and luxurious exile far from his native Uganda.

Idi Amin seized power from Milton Obote in a 1971 coup. He arrived on the world scene with the blessing of the British Government, the former colonial power in Uganda. He had served his time in the
British army, playing rugby with British officers, before going on to become one of the first Ugandans to receive the prestigious Queen’s commission. Upon his ascension to the presidency, a British intelligence report described him as ‘benevolent but tough’ and ‘well-disposed to Britain’.

A year later, Amin expelled 40,000 Ugandan Asians. Mostly Indians and Pakistanis, their families had been resident in Uganda for generations since their grandfathers had been put to work on British government construction projects. Those exiled were the backbone of the Ugandan economy and most sought refuge in Britain. The British government of Harold Wilson began to hatch secret (but never implemented) plans to assassinate Amin.

Abandoned by his father as a child and now by Britain, Amin unleashed the reign of terror for which he will be most remembered. Under Amin’s rule, from 1971 until his overthrow in 1979, more than 300,000 people were killed in this country of 12 million. His years in power were marked by widespread torture, ‘disappearances’ and extrajudicial killing. But what brought him to the attention of an international media hungry for macabre figures of African barbarism were the unconfirmed reports of cannibalism, his practice of keeping the heads of his victims in a refrigerator, dropping opponents from planes high over Lake Victoria and singling out entire tribes for ritual humiliation and slaughter. Through it all, Amin forced white residents of Uganda to carry him around on a throne.

Amin will also be remembered for the high farce which accompanied the brutality.

Amin once described President Nyerere of neighbouring Tanzania as a coward, an old woman and a prostitute. Soon after he told the world’s press that he ‘would have married [Nyerere] if he had been a woman’. On the 25th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, Amin let it be known that he expected the British monarch to send him ‘her 25-year-old knickers’ as part of the festivities. He even declared himself the King of Scotland and offered to lead the Scottish people in their struggle for
self-determination.

Perhaps it is because of these twin personas—Idi Amin as the face of evil and the tragi-comic buffoon—that the world dismissed him as a madman. Amin was, however, a complex personality. A compelling speaker with a commanding, charismatic presence, he spoke to the newly independent citizens of Africa in the language of African nationalism and won plaudits for his brazen willingness to confront the former colonial power. Denis Hills, a Briton sentenced to death in Uganda for criticising Amin and rescued only after a frantic visit to Kampala by the British Foreign Secretary James Callaghan, refused to accept the stereotype of Amin as a madman. Instead, he acknowledged that Amin ‘personified aggressive black national leadership’ and had:

the successful tribal chief’s compensatory qualities for his lack of formal education: cunning, a talent for survival, personal strength and courage, an ability to measure his opponents’ weaknesses and his subjects’ wishes. It is not enough to dismiss Amin as a buffoon or murderer ... He has realised an African dream: the creation of a truly black state.

The novelist Giles Foden captured the multifaceted Amin in The Last King of Scotland, portraying a magnetic, larger-than-life figure from whom his personal doctor, a Scot, could not tear himself away, as fascinated as he was repulsed. The world’s attitude towards Amin’s rule was similar: we were unable to look and we were unable to look away.

From his expulsion until his death, Amin lived a life of comfortable exile in Jeddah as a guest of the Saudi Arabian Government. He was sometimes seen shopping in the supermarkets of Jeddah, and even tried to set himself up as a taxi-driver. Throughout, according to confidantes, he never ceased to dream of a return to Uganda where he would be welcomed as a hero by the Ugandan people.

In an uncharacteristic gesture, members of the African press overcame their usual reluctance to criticise political leaders, at news of Amin’s death. Kenya’s Sunday Nation newspaper declared that ‘one would not be faulted for shouting “good riddance” from the rooftops’, calling Amin ‘one of the worst accidents of leadership on our
continent’.

The depth of the enduring pain caused by Amin was captured by Uganda’s Sunday Vision newspaper. On the day after Amin’s death, the paper turned to an epic and bloody Old Testament vision, as if nothing else could capture the moment. Quoting Isaiah, they wrote:

You used to be honoured with the music of harps, but now you are in the world of the dead. You lie on a bed of maggots and are covered with a blanket of worms.

In life, Idi Amin was never made to pay for his crimes. Ugandans hope that he will do so in death.

Anthony Ham

Little argument
ACTU conference

The gap between the pragmatism of the ACTU leadership and the instincts of many of the 900 delegates at its congress in Melbourne was revealed in the response to three speakers.

Under the watchful gaze of ACTU secretary Greg Combet, there was a restrained reception for Qantas chair Margaret Jackson, who spoke on ‘the future of work’. As she did so, members of the Transport Workers Union were striking at Melbourne Airport over the airline’s introduction of labour-hire baggage handlers.

But Kevin Quill, a member of the plumbers’ and electricians’ CEPU, received a standing ovation from most of the hall for his account of the attempt to rebuild unionism at a former movement stronghold, Rio Tinto’s Hamersley Iron operations in Paraburdoo, Western Australia.

Similarly, there was a warm reception for Henry Li, a member of the miscellaneous workers’ LHMU union, who spoke about a campaign by Australian and US unions to force Westfield boss Frank Lowy to increase pay for shopping centre cleaners, who earn $12.80 an hour. ‘We know the union is the only way we have power in our job,’ said Li. ‘We will not be an invisible workforce.’

The tension between ‘realism’ and resistance surfaced in different ways. On the opening day, the police band played in uniform on the stage, while on the final day virtually the entire Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) contingent abandoned congress to get back to the real business of unionism at a delegates meeting.

Delegates sat patiently through video presentations and academic panel discussions, and then joined rallies outside by the CFMEU and the National Tertiary Education Union. With so little genuine contest on the conference floor, and so much of the event given over to the placing of stories at key points in the media cycle, this was one of the few ways that activists could show where their sympathies lay.

There was one exception to the rule, with a sharp argument surfacing over
attitudes to reform of anti-union laws.


Initially, this led to two days of heated debate within the left caucus. The majority of left delegates argued for a total rejection of non-union collective agreements. Others, spearheaded by Australian Manufacturing Workers Union national secretary Doug Cameron, argued for the ALP’s ‘realism’—that unions had to live with such agreements.

The matter finally spilled on to the conference floor, providing a rare contested debate. The left’s amendment went down with a respectable minority in support.

The issue was part of a broader tension within congress—how the union movement strikes a balance between backing its own positions while supporting Labor. So there were speeches from the platform from Simon Crean and his deputy leader, Jenny Macklin, and video presentations by Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. Combet urged delegates to get behind Labor’s election campaign.

But the union leadership cannot simply ignore widespread workers’ dissatisfaction with what is seen as Labor’s weak, pro-market agenda.

Although the ACTU leadership of Combet and Sharan Burrow still formally defends the years of the ALP-ACTU Accord—1982 to the mid-1990s—as a plus for the union movement, many union
officials and most activists now recognise that period as a disaster which laid the basis for a sharp decline in union membership.

That mood was reflected in the ACTU adopting policy on questions like tax,
tariffs, free trade agreements and public-private partnerships which put it at odds with ALP positions.

The real test for rebuilding unionism, however, is whether union members at companies such as Qantas can win their fight for safe jobs and decent wages.
David Glanz

Words to end winter
The melbourne writers’ festival

On the first Saturday morning the photographers had a field day. There was the Rt Hon Malcolm Fraser deep in conversation with Tariq Ali, out on the gritty sand that links the Melbourne Writers’ Festival Malthouse home to the rusted façade of the Contemporary Art Museum. And if the ironies and odd bedfellows of 21st-century politics didn’t grip the journalists, they could roll the cameras across the bonnets of the four vintage FJ Holdens parked there as visual complement to Don Loffler’s passion for Australia’s iconic auto.

At lunchtime Pat Dodson turned up, the famous hat set firmly over the famous bearded face. A photojournalist with an eye to history could have got the lot.

Two nights before, at the Town Hall, festival patron, the Hon John Button, kept Tariq Ali entertained and interrogated backstage while the Age Book of the Year winners were announced. ‘Very interesting man’, remarked Ali as he walked on to deliver an hour-plus history of the international situation pre- and post-Iraq. Not a note, and not a moment’s hesitation. If the 1000-plus crowd had come to hear the Marxist rant predicted by some columnists, they would have been disappointed. Tariq Ali crafted his address for a sceptical Australian audience, and was as careful to include an American perspective (‘I go there very often these days’) as he was to provide a cause-and-effect history of Middle East politics from the beginning of the 20th century.

By Saturday, word of mouth had ensured that Tariq Ali’s conversation with David Marr was booked out. Marr played the journalist-devil’s advocate, asking questions that might have been devised by the Prime Minister’s staff—how could one possibly regret the overthrow of Saddam’s appalling regime, etc. Ali’s answers, if predictable, were hard to contest. Whatever the audience came away thinking about the politics, they’d heard more informed history than is customary in Australia’s managed politics. The pity was that Tariq Ali was not debating with Australia’s current power brokers.

Peter Carey, by contrast, did not want to be confined or confirmed by history. Yes, he used the Ern Malley hoax as a springboard for his new novel, My Life as a Fake, but he was more interested in the anarchic life of creatures that the imagination contrives than in any fictional replication of the lives of Max Harris, James McAuley or Harold Stewart. Carey read, unusually but informatively, from an earlier, rejected draft of his new novel.

It was a shrewd and entertaining way of deflecting the more prosaic questions that the new novel has prompted because it lit up the more mysterious corners of the plot. And if I tell you any more I’ll be giving away secrets. Read the novel.

Keith Windschuttle and Robert Manne did seem confined by history. Their debate over Aboriginal deaths in Tasmania, scrupulously and civilly chaired by La Trobe historian John Hirst, was a frustrating and impacted affair—as much for the participants as their listeners. The two men seemed unable to find—or grant—enough common ground, either about historical methodology or about rules of engagement, to yield much to an audience keen to learn what happened in Tasmania, and what is happening in history generally.

More satisfying, because less fraught, were some of the many other sessions that could loosely be labelled ‘history’ or ‘political’. Iain McCalman, Rebe Taylor and Stuart Macintyre, chaired by Marilyn Lake, made abundant sense of the question ‘Can we change the past?’ Rebe Taylor’s personal experience of black/white family interrelations on Kangaroo Island showed how difficult it can be to find out ‘exactly what happened’, but also demonstrated how much can be learned by careful sifting and even more careful interviewing of the people involved. She provided a useful counterfoil to Windschuttle’s insistence on ‘dispassionate’ history. Michael Pusey, Judith Brett and Mark Peel looked at the state of the nation through the prism of their recent research into the Australian middle class, the Liberal Party, and the poor in Australia. They didn’t always agree but the audience came away smiling and arguing volubly as they made their way downstairs to buy the books.

At the Celtic Club, class storytellers Gerard Windsor, Anthony O’Neill and Andrew O’Hagan were genially corralled by Michael McKernan. All three novelists read, wonderfully, though ‘read’ isn’t quite adequate for O’Hagan’s performance. In rapid Glaswegian, he did New Year’s Eve in a Scottish nursing home. Heartbreaking, black and utterly hilarious.

There were more than 200 writers at the festival and 34,000 people came, so I can give only a sliver of what went on over 11 days. The festival was intensely political, ‘and that’s wonderful,’ remarked the decidedly unpolitical Annie Proulx. ‘It’s wonderful that people should come together to talk rationally about such things.’

And from Annie Proulx came the quote of the festival. How one might react to repeated rejection by publishers? ‘Write better’, said the woman who works her words as hard as anyone writing today.
—Morag Fraser

This month’s contributors: Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent; David Glanz is a Melbourne-based writer; Morag Fraser is an adjunct professor at La Trobe University, and former editor of Eureka Street.

 

 

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