When leaders fight, it’s the people who get hurt

OPINION: Fifty years ago, Idi Amin staged a coup in Uganda. My family escaped the country — but fear and loss remain constant companions
By Nam Kiwanuka - Published on Feb 18, 2021
Idi Amin, shown here in July 1975, led a military coup in Uganda in 1971. (Mirrorpix/Courtesy Everett Collection)

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I was born in a country where talking about politics could get you killed. But it’s not lost on me that, had Uganda not been in a civil war, I would not have the life I have now in Canada.

Fifty years ago, Idi Amin staged a military coup that would lead to years of violence and oppression. My family escaped the country before Uganda’s current leader, Yoweri Museveni, became president in 1986. While Museveni brought stability, he has changed the constitution twice in order to hold onto power.

This past January, another election took place, against the backdrop of a pandemic and a government crackdown that limited political organizing. The government said the restrictions were intended to curb the spread of COVID-19, yet it went as far as shutting down the internet for a month. The impact of this for businesses and for children who were learning from home because of the pandemic has yet to be addressed. Uganda’s election took place eight days after the capitol riots in Washington, D.C. While the world was fixated on the aftermath of the storming of America’s heart of democracy, youth in Uganda were fighting for the right to vote.

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Political instability is sadly not new in Uganda. There hasn’t been a peaceful transfer of power since the country gained independence in 1962.

As I’ve watched the events in Uganda unfold over the past few weeks, I’ve felt the familiar terror. When I hosted a panel on The Agenda to talk about the election, I tasted fear in my mouth while speaking to Gerald Bareebe, who was on the ground in Kampala. He spoke with conviction, honesty, and bravery. He didn’t speak with resignation. If fear was present, it was quiet.

Many who have managed to live a life largely free from fear or loss have been forced to reckon with both during this pandemic year. In times of uncertainty, they are persistent companions.

Fear and loss were my first friends and have been constants in my life. I don’t say that to elicit sympathy. For people who live in war zones, it is a matter of fact. It is surreal to think that the man responsible for my family’s displacement took power 50 years ago.

Idi Amin was immortalized by Hollywood in The Last King of Scotland. People often ask me if it really was that bad, and I respond, “It was worse.”

I was a child, so what I remember pales in comparison to the horrors my father experienced during the eras of Amin and the other “big man” who ravaged Uganda, Milton Obote.

There’s a saying that’s thought to be a Kenyan proverb: “When elephants fight, the grass gets hurt.” When the likes of Amin, Obote, and now Museveni fight, it’s the people who get hurt. A disclosure: some of my family and friends are ardent supporters of Museveni, while some are so fearful of returning to the age of Amin that they stay quiet. Even now, my family isn’t really a family. We survived physically, yes, but the bonds that make family a unit have been broken by trauma.

Lately, we’ve been having conversations about generational and intergenerational trauma. But what about how people are affected when they live in a state of conflict after conflict after conflict? Right before the election, Catherine Byaruhanga, Africa Correspondent for the BBC, spoke to people as they cast their votes.

“We need this election in peace, as we Ugandans,” said one voter. “We need this election to be in peace.”

Another voter echoed those sentiments. “We want peace first of all … [for] elections to just go smooth and nice.”

When have you ever heard voters in Canada ask for peace at the ballot box?

Listening to those voters, it struck me that their worries were justified: they’ve survived hell and know there is something worse than that.

There’s a video that’s been shared many times on social media. It’s of a 75-year-old mother. Her name is Regina Namukasa, and she pleads with the president to share the whereabouts of her three sons, who, she says, “were picked up by people suspected to be security operatives on” January.”

She says that family and friends have been to the jails and can’t find them. She pleads with the president: “Don’t you have a heart? Do you not feel pain? Especially since you’re a parent, too.”

Her desperation is perhaps all too familiar for those families who lost loved ones during Amin’s time.

In Ontario, there’s been pushback against lockdowns and mask wearing, against what some say is a violation of their charter rights. It seems as if, every weekend, there’s a “freedom march” or a “freedom rally.” As we ride the second wave of the pandemic, politicians have had to weigh the rights of individuals against policies that protect the public.

Nothing is gained when we create a hierarchy of suffering or pain: the reality we’re experiencing here in Ontario is as valid as the one people are experiencing in Uganda.

What they have in common, I suppose, are my old companions, fear and loss. Even decades later. The fear of losing a loved one returns over and over again. Even when you’re told that you’re in a safe country. They are always there, fear and loss — uninvited guests who know where you live.

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