Big Dada – the rise and fall of Idi Amin

17. 18. 19/05 > 20:30
Eng > subtitles: FR/NL

Imagine a black Père Ubu. Imagine him as the hero - in spite of himself - of a music hall show. Big Dada tells of the rise and fall of Ugandan general Idi Amin Dada, the charismatic buffoon who ravaged his country and instilled corruption at all levels of society. This explosive production stages - and puts into perspective - a dangerously naïve political discourse, reflecting the white man's exotic vision of the black man. Brett Bailey, the South African playwright and director, intends to show the unique and paradoxical experience that is Africa: between tradition and modernity, between theatre and ceremony, and between caricature and denunciation.

Text, Design and Direction:

Brett Bailey


Seputla Sebogodi as Idi Amin, Odidi Mfenyana, Bongi Mantsai, Mxolisi Bosvark, Xola Mda, Lefa Letsika, Lulama Masimini, Bongani Manok, Ace Bonde, Abey Xakwe and Terence Nojila

Technical Manager:

Guy Nelson

Company & production Manager:

Barbara Mathers

Assistant stage manager:

Xola Mda


Third World Bunfight (Cape Town)

Supported by:

Pro Helvetia


Théâtre 140, KunstenFESTIVALdesArts

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White boy looking for Big Dada

I had been thinking to do a play about dictators in Africa for some time. Zimbabwe, just to the north of South Africa is in the grips of one of these men, as are several other African states. Tyranny is not an unusual phenomenon in post-colonial Africa.

Idi Amin, who snatched the Ugandan throne in 1971, was quite an obvious despotic choice: the arch-dictator, a stereotype from hell. Idi was a truly great showman; a banana republic tyrant who did genocide with a certain je ne sais quoi, who wrecked a country with theatrical flair.

During the 1970’s Capitalists and Communists played war games on the fields of Africa. The British and Israelis helped Amin to take power, and he ruled Uganda with the fists that had secured him the national heavy weight boxing title for 9 years. He expelled thousands of settlers, murdered 350 000 Ugandan citizens and dressed to kill in Saville Row suits and flashy medals. Across Africa he was hailed as a hero of the anti-colonial struggle. In 1979 he invaded Tanzania to distract his mutinous troops, but was driven from Uganda by a Tanzanian counter-offensive. He died peacefully in exile in Saudi Arabia in 2003.

In 2000 I set off for Uganda to investigate the legacy of the man. I expected the capital, Kampala, to be bullet-riddled, bedraggled - banana trees pushing up through the pavements, bone-fragments in the corners. It is none of these. The centre is truly Westernised; the surrounding hills are covered with leafy residential sprawl.

Wounds heal quickly in Central Africa. I search for telltale signs of brutality, I listen for the spectral chorus of his victims. Nothing. The jungle has grown back.

Amin destroyed the Ugandan economy, channeling all money to pay the mainly Sudanese mercenaries he trucked in to run the country by the bullet and the blade. For several years soap, matches, cooking oil and sugar were but memories, as they are in Zimbabwe today. People vanished by the truckload.

Weapons are a common sight in the city; men with antiquated shotguns and assault rifles abound. Security guards in a stunning array of costumes lean in doorways and against poles. The United States embassy is a fortress since its counterparts were blown up in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

In Amin's day tanks growled down the high street; in the colourful bars his 40 000-strong army took time out from massacring people; the big man himself hurtled from residence to residence in his chopper across this sky.

To get access to the Radio Uganda archives for recordings of Amin's endless, idiosyncratic speeches and for the numerous groovy pop songs about him, I run from radio commissioner to high commission, office to office, commissioning letters, collecting rubber stamps, all to verify that the material will not be put to any use "that will bring the government of Uganda into disrepute", so help me God.

I chat to Robert Ondoga. As a young man in 1978, he met Amin at a function he had organised at the president's favourite club. There he was waiting in a queue for the toilet and suddenly darkness fell. He turned and Amin was standing behind him, his huge bulk blocking the light.

- Did you allow him to go before you? I ask.

- Of course. We said: 'Please, come sir.' But he said: 'No. Please. You were here first.' Then he asked us where we came from, whether we thought the service at the club was good. Very affable, very friendly. I was mesmerised for those minutes, mesmerised. And his huge hand - he shakes your hand, but your hand simply vanishes into his.

- I bet you couldn't pee.

- No, of course not, no matter how long you stand there. How can anyone pee with Idi Amin standing behind you?

Amin hailed from the marginalised Kakwa people, whose blood rites fostered his taste for human organs. Inferiority complex, syphilis, hypomania, brute stupidity… various theories are offered to account for his violent and erratic behaviour.

"He had the most powerful presence of evil," shudders Dennis Kylie, British correspondent for The Guardian in the Seventies, over a whiskey. "A scoutmaster promoted to ultimate power - terrifying."

MP Henry Kyemba has me to tea in the bright white restaurant of the Houses of Parliament. Amin's sophisticated right hand man for several years, he fled in 1977 as his peers were being cut down all around him. His book State of Blood is one of the most intimate accounts of “The Terror”.

- Amin was a very pleasant person, one of the most pleasant people I've met, when he was not in his rage - he had the rage of a wounded buffalo.

- What drove him to such extremes?

- Survival ... survival.

The Israeli "Zionists" and 50 000 Asians were chased out within two years of Amin's ascension. Most whites followed them. Africa for Africans.

Outside, hosts of hideous carrion-eating marabou storks gather on the parapets of the parliament building, swing slow circles through the sky. They were not native to Kampala until the great flesh banquets of the Seventies. The environmental impact of humanity.

I spend hours and hours in the bleak library of Makerere University, with bound volumes of the daily newspaper, Voice of Uganda, and my Dictaphone, filling cassettes with the sagas of Amin's regime: boasts, accusations, fabrications, relentless columns of His Excellency's words.

Over a few years, as journalists were exiled or murdered, the paper regressed from a vibrant 12-page people's rag to a dull four-page military government gazette spangled with photographs of stylish Amin in Stetson and cravat, Amin in Saudi robes, military fatigues; Amin the doctor of political science in academic robes, Amin the field marshal decorated like a Christmas tree, Amin in a swimsuit.

Amin taking 1 000 salutes, laying the foundation stones of 1 000 never-to-be-built institutions, shaking the hands of hundreds of visiting diplomats, dignitaries and pragmatic businessmen from around the world.

Amin having a chat with Anglican Archbishop Janan Luwum and his wife at State House on February 15 1977. Next day the archbishop is tragically mashed in a car crash following charges of arms hoarding - photos of the mangled cars.

Voila! The stage management of Idi Amin in the Theatre of Dada!

In reality the archbishop has been shot to pieces for being too popular, along with a couple of inconvenient MPs, at the headquarters of Amin's infamous State Research Bureau. The Chief Justice, to name but one, had gone the same way five years before. The world shouts and screams, the United Nations Commission for Human Rights looks the other way.

My guide Jack and I trek across Kampala, up to the summit of Nakasero Hill to the Ugandan TV (UTV) buildings. Across the fence is State Research headquarters - responsible for most of the interrogations and torturing back then. Beyond that stands the residence of the President.

I am after archival TV material. Along with the newspaper, the regime took control of the broadcaster in 1972; by all accounts every public footstep taken by Amin was beamed to the nation. There must be kilometres and kilometres of footage.

- Oh, that was all shot on 16mm, says the man in charge of such things, the engineer.

- Yes, is it possible to access it?

- No it does not exist - we do not have it.

- It does not exist? I am alarmed "What has happened to all those reels?"

- They were destroyed.

- You know, after [former president Milton] Obote was chased out, adds Jack, if anyone was found with his picture, or any film or anything, they would be beaten or even killed. So when Amin fell people were afraid.

The engineer agrees:

- Everything was burned.

But he looks shifty.

- All that history. Your history!

I see flames devouring streamers of whirling film; words and faces burning red.

But what does it matter, really?

On our way out Jack says "They sold it, most of it. I didn't want to say anything there. The big networks, international universities - people pay a lot of dollars for it. There was a big pile of it there," he points to a stretch of open ground, "It lay there in the rain for years, but the State Research Bureau is just here. Nobody would touch it."

The State Research Bureau. I wonder to what lengths the UTV sound engineers had to go to keep the screams of captive men from their viewers: beaten men, ripped men, men with gouged-out eyes and splintered teeth, men flung into cellars clutching the stump of a hacked off limb, men forced to beat the brains out of the man in front with a hammer and then pass the hammer to the one behind you and take your turn. Thwock thwock!

When Kampala was liberated they found the cells packed with the dead and dying, people who'd been stowed with corpses for weeks.

It's been raining hard, an afternoon downpour and the ground is steaming. I'm walking on Nakasero Hill, a shortcut track from Makerere University to town through a red-earth wasteland of puddles and weeds. Here and there, in the mud, snaking out of the pools, grey gleaming ribbons of discarded videotape, strands of twisted brittle film, like the dried viscera of long dead animals, more and more the further I walk.

I pick up a dirt-encrusted strip, hold it up to the sky: scratched images of tiny marching men, fancy uniforms, tassels and plumes, jolly brass military music. Another shows five men in white suits smiling into the camera, a packed grandstand in the background - 10 frames. A display of massed police formations, three frames; cut to close-up of a smiling woman in the crowd, five frames.

Then a 12-frame strip: a man in a cream suit and another in army garb, below them the black, yellow, red of the Ugandan flag; a low-angle shot, a white railing crosses out their faces. The cream-suited man looks at his companion and as I watch through cracks and scratches the army guy turns to the camera - could it be?

I scan the sequence again, rinse the strip in a warm red pool, hold it up to the clouds: Life President Idi Amin Dada gazes back at me, here, where I stand in the national film archives of his second Republic of Uganda.

The jungle has grown back.

Brett Bailey

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