Amin's Regime Was Not a State of Blood -Historian

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Professor Derek K Peterson of Michigan University instead says that Idi Amin’s regime was, in many places, a state that worked.
03 Sep 2021 11:36
Field Marshal Idi Amin Dad Oumee, Uganda's third President. Finally forgoten pages about his positive side are emerging in scholary works
A historian from Michigan University in the United States has punched holes in the commonly held narrative about the government of General Idi Amin Dada.

The general narrative about Idi Amin’s eight-year rule, from January 1971 to April 1979, has been that it was a 'state of blood'. This is, in fact, a title of a 1977 book written by Henry Kyemba who served in Amin's government as presidential private secretary, Minister for Culture and Minister of Health before running into exile. Several other writers nicknamed  Amin “the butcher of Uganda”, “murderous erratic ruler” and one of the most brutal despots.

But Derek K Peterson, a professor of African history at Michigan University looks at it from another perspective. In his 2021 article, "Government work in Idi Amin's Uganda", Peterson argues that many of the scholars who have assessed Amin's rule sought to 'identify faults in the historical composition of Uganda. He says new writers have looked at the 'enduring professionalism of experts, government officials and others working in the public trust' amidst challenges.

While scholars such as Mahmood Mamdani and Semakula Kiwanuka have for half a century focused on Amin's atrocities and misrule, emerging ones are picking up some of the positive aspects of Uganda’s third President. Peterson seems to side with the latter according to his article published in August by the Cambridge University Press.

Peterson argues that Idi Amin’s regime was, in many places, a state that worked.

He details how President Amin managed to run the government largely supported by what he calls “commoners” and a professional civil service.

“I share with these scholars an admiration for the professionals – like Henry Kyemba – who, at a time of great danger, worked for the common good. At the same time, I think it is important to acknowledge that professionals’ authority was dramatically diminished” he says.

Peterson however observes that from 1973 onward, price inflation crippled the Ugandan economy and that the infrastructures that enabled and facilitated civic life were radically constrained. 

“Everywhere there were shortfalls that compromised government bureaucracy: shortages of paper made it difficult to collect taxes or keep records; shortages of petroleum made it impossible to inspect schools or conduct land surveys; shortages of cement and corrugated iron made it hard to construct new buildings. These material and infrastructural austerities made it difficult for professionals to exercise supervisory, administrative power."  

Peterson says that the diminution of bureaucrats’ capacity opened up spaces where people outside government could shape public life.

“That was the consequence of the austerities of the 1970s: a rapid de-professionalization of civil administration,” Peterson writes.

The article demonstrates how ordinary people, or “commoners”, whom he describes as people who were not invested with the titles, credentials or expertise that professionals possessed, took on administration roles at a time when professionals could not work amidst a shortage of essentials like paper among others. 

“Commoners found themselves indiscriminately dragooned into service, as the urgent demands of public life drew an unlikely assortment of unqualified people to lay down their lives. That is how people came to see themselves as proprietors of public institutions,” reads part the article.

Peterson, also the co-author of The Unseen Archive of Idi Amin: photographs from the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation, says the rapid rate of inflation during Amin’s reign made wage employment unprofitable.    

“As supply chains withered, shops closed and the basic accoutrements of life grew hard to find, local government officers were increasingly encumbered with the obligation to make up shortfalls. Over the course of the 1970s, the government became a do-it-yourself operation, as officials and citizens struggled to meet the responsibilities imposed upon them.”  

According to Peterson, infrastructure projects were similarly financed and built through local energies, efforts and talents. 

“Self-help projects could be remarkably ambitious. In the south, local people completed work on fifty-five roads covering 371 miles over the space of one year. The standard was not particularly high. Volunteer work crews lacked tools. There were no lorries to carry the crushed stone. There were no pipes for culverts, and drainage must have been a problem. Even so, local officials could rightly boast that local people had ‘[scored] spectacular achievements’ through their communal labour.”

Peterson concludes that the Amin regime 'was not, in fact, a state of blood. It was self-sacrifice that made the Amin regime work. The essential things that made the bureaucracy function were in short supply; the infrastructure of the economy was in disorder.”