Tom Stacey

The all-purpose bogeyman

Idi Amin was up to his elbows in blood, says Tom Stacey, but the appalling truth is that he had some admirable qualities

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One has to be careful of saying anything nice about people like Idi Amin, even when they are dead and gone. It is easy to get a reputation for being deliberately provocative, or for seeking compassion kudos like the late Lord Longford, who befriended convicts for the sheer magnitude of their infamy.

For many years, Idi Amin was the civilised world's stock example of 'pure evil'. Nearly a quarter of a century after the end of his outrageous tyranny, everybody still knows about him. Not so long ago, after spending a long weekend in Idi's company in seaside Jeddah, I was collecting a roll of developed film from Happy Snaps in Notting Hill Gate. When the man behind the counter awoke to the subject of my happy snaps, he was agog with a tremulous awe. Imagine if the face staring out at you from the developing-tray – evidently that of your customer's companion on a hiking holiday in the Hindu Kush – were that of Osama bin Laden.

But while it is true that Idi Amin did terrible things, it is also true that he had admirable qualities, which the collective human need for an all-purpose bogeyman does not allow for. Every era has to have an arch-villain. Early 17th-century England settled on Guido ('Guy') Fawkes; my grandmother told me that her grandmother was warned as a child that if she didn't behave Boney would come and get her. Idi took on the same role.

Certainly, Idi had blood up to his elbows. I said that firmly at the start of an altercation on BBC Radio Four's Today programme the other day with the columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. She had been a student at Makerere University in Kampala soon after Amin took power in Uganda in 1971, when his barely tamed 'Nubian' soldiery from the far north's West Nile had been rampaging around suppressing the student instinct for democratic freedoms while unbuttoning their own instinct for rape and rapine. Yasmin was utterly shocked, she said, that I could bring myself to admit that the Idi I knew was genial company and charismatic to his troops.

I first met Idi in 1963. Less than a year into independence, Uganda was faced with a tribal rebellion in the Ruwenzori mountains, aka the Mountains of the Moon, whose glaciered peaks straddle the Congo