The Academy Award-nominated movie The Last King of Scotland had its official premiere in Uganda this weekend, complete with red carpet, paparazzi, the star Forrest Whittaker and the presidents of Uganda and Tanzania.
It was an unusual confluence of fact and fiction, as real Ugandans watched a movie that is based on a novel rooted in the story of a man who left his mark on their country. Idi Amin was a dictator and a murderer. But many Ugandans point out that he was also a patriot.
In fact, in some quarters, there is a debate over how many people Amin killed. The accepted number in the history books is about 300,000. But many in Uganda say that there were far fewer killings — perhaps less than 20,000.
Perhaps the most difficult reality for foreigners to accept about Idi Amin is that he could be indisputably decent. Amin was among the first to speak out against apartheid in South Africa. As president, he reportedly didn't steal from the coffers, as did so many of his contemporaries in neighboring countries. And he loved his children fiercely --- all 62 that are known, and perhaps more.
"I don't believe the way he loved his country that he would kill everyone just like that," says Hahjira Amin, the ruler's daughter, who was born in 1971. "If he kills you, either you're a spy or a robber. I think so. But just to kill people as a madman, I don't think so."
Speaking of the man he portrayed, Whitaker says, "People forget how important, in this contemporary patriarchal society — when he says he's the father of this nation, it's a very big deal."
Whitaker says Amin was not only a founding father of modern Uganda, but also wanted to be known as a father figure to all of Africa.
"He was one of the few African leaders who have ever just told Westerners to get out of the country and would — on the international playing field — make fun of them," Whitaker says. "And as a result, many of the Pan-Africans look at him with real admiration."
Amin was toppled by Tanzanian forces in 1979. His successor was Milton Obote — the man he had deposed eight years before. Both leaders died peacefully in exile — Amin in Saudi Arabia in 2003.