An adviser to the Ugandan president tells the story behind the making of The Last King of Scotland—and has a surprising conversation with Forest Whitakerby John Nagenda / January 14, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
Some time in January 2005, somebody introduced me to Cowboy Films. The company’s owners wanted me to act as conduit to the President of Uganda, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. They wanted to meet him to express their deep wish to film Giles Foden’s novel about Idi Amin, The Last King of Scotland, in Uganda.
Two and a half decades earlier, Museveni had helped to exile Amin—as capricious a figure as ever ruled a country. How often have I sat in a taxi around the world—in India, China, the US and Europe (especially in London)—and, upon saying I was from Uganda, heard the rejoinder: Amin! It used to infuriate me, until I learnt to live with it (it became easier when the monster died four years ago). In any case, we had finally slung him out by force of arms back in 1979. Despite its title, The Last King of Scotland is about Amin, self-styled “life president” of Uganda. How strange can you get? His life presidency lasted nine years.
Idi Amin Dada, field marshal, Conqueror of the British Empire (CBE) – he had several other similar honours, all bestowed by himself—was a considerable figure by many measurements, including girth. He had a huge bellyful of a laugh which rolled through him, seemingly denoting bonhomie and geniality, but which could pass into deadliness with the speed of cloud shadows scampering across the ground. (The film has a wonderful example of this within minutes of its start.) In the nine years he bestrode Uganda, he laid waste to its peoples: killing, pillaging, raping, torturing, imprisoning, kidnapping, robbing.
Ugandans have always been an easy, friendly people. But under Amin they lost their smiles. They were permanently scared, not knowing who would be forced to report on whom. Some of us lucky enough to be outside the country would return, on some errand or other, and it would be as if we walked among the living dead. Fear had put a veil between us and the people we knew. We were resented, or felt resented, because we had been lucky enough to get out, and could come and go We felt guilty about having that privilege. No matter how loudly we laughed with our friends (for laughing is easier than smiling), it was as if we were slinking about until our return flights. Oh God, the luxury of relaxing back in your seat as the plane roared down the tarmac at Entebbe!