- In Idi Amin’s Shadow: Women, Gender, and Militarism in Uganda by Alicia C. Decker
There is a photo in Alicia Decker’s new book that wordlessly captures the nightmarish quality of life under military rule. It was taken in 1975 in Kampala, Uganda. In it, a slim, dark woman in a floor-grazing white gown, with a veil on her head and flowers in one hand, stands on a podium next to a tall stout man in formal military dress. He stands stiffly, as if at attention, his eyes shadowed beneath the visor of his officer’s cap, his mouth turned down at the corners. The bride looks sideways at their audience, with something like wariness behind her eyes. Her lips are pressed into the most tightly drawn straight line. She does not smile. She cannot. Her name was Sarah Kyolaba and his name was Idi Amin Dada. Idi Amin weds Sarah — another, newer, much younger Sarah than the last. She was nineteen years old to his forty-six. She was a small time singer and he was the military head of state when she had the misfortune of catching his eye. She had had a fiancée who protested Amin’s attentions toward her. Her fiancée was promptly disappeared like so many in Amin’s Uganda — erased out of sight and thence presumed to be out of mind — and young Sarah found herself on a stage in a white dress, being married under threat of violence, to her lover’s killer.
The photo perfectly captures the claustrophobic intimacy of life under militarism and the ways in which gender ideology, gendered symbolisms, and gender violence were central to the workings of state power in Idi Amin’s Uganda. From 1971 when he overthrew the autocratic regime of Milton Obote, to 1979 following the Uganda-Tanzania War, Amin created a nation in which deadly violence threatened at every turn, and where it became a normalized tool for eliminating political, economic, or even romantic competitors. Seemingly all disputes, particularly all disputes involving Amin’s soldiers were settled by gun, blade, or one of the many macabre torture devices that were housed in the ominously named State Research Center, a place where the regime’s competitors, real and imagined, were routinely, publicly, and unceremoniously disappeared to. And of course, there was the relentless use of rape against the citizens of Uganda. Under Amin, rape was used by uniformed men for terrorism, humiliation, murder, and as the example of the presidential groom shows, for lust. Like Sarah Kyolaba, the Sarah who preceded her, and all of Amin’s other wives, the nation was married to its ruler from the end of a gun barrel.
In eight engaging chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion, Alicia Decker traces the complex relationship between Amin’s regime and Uganda’s women, from the early years when women hailed Amin as a liberator to the darkest period when they hoped and prayed for a Tanzanian [End Page 631] army invasion. In between those phases, Amin adopted feminist discourses in global arenas even as his regime entrenched the subordination of women in Uganda. He appointed Ugandan women to high political offices but also mutilated them if they refused his sexual advances. The book shows that while Amin may have seemed useful to women and the nation for a short while, he made complex use of women politically, symbolically, and physically, for the entirety of his time in power.
Decker uses a range of sources for this book including one hundred life histories with Ugandan women and the transcripts of a 1971 inquiry into disappearances in Uganda. The 800-page results of the inquiry, which was commissioned by Amin as an act of political theater, were unavailable until 2009. Decker makes systematic and creative use of the dozens of testimonials by women that were recorded in the inquiry to show how women as mothers, daughters, and wives most especially, experienced and survived militarism.