US President Donald Trump’s norm-breaking campaign and early reign has been compared to several other divisive historical figures, especially previous American presidents.
But when it comes to the style in which he communicates, there’s an uncanny resemblance to a notorious African dictator from the 1970s. For those who lived during Idi Amin’s vicious reign in Uganda between 1971 and 1979, there are clear echoes four decades later in Trump’s speeches and media briefings or when he fires off his notorious tweets.
Let me say upfront that Trump, who was democratically elected, can in no way be compared to Amin when it comes to how the so-called "Butcher of Uganda" came to power or the brutal way he dealt with dissent during his eight-year regime. One of the most barbaric military dictators in post-independence Africa, the death toll of his own citizens under his rule is put at 500000.
The comparison I am looking at is the similarity of styles and tone of communication. Even though Trump and Amin are from completely different eras with different modes of communication, there are clear parallels between the two telegenic men.
Decrees with flourish
Amin’s numerous decrees were announced on radio and television and published in newspapers with a flourish. One such decree was the expulsion of the Asian/Indian community from Uganda.
In front of international television cameras and newspaper journalists, Amin accused the Indians of being “smugglers who carried five passports”. He blamed Britain for bringing them to Uganda during the colonial rule. Amin claimed that the expulsion decision was taken in the national economic interests of Uganda: “I took this decision for the economy of Uganda and I must make sure that every Ugandan gets the fruit of independence. I want to see the whole Kampala street is not full of Indians.”
Fast-forward 44 years. At a campaign rally, Trump promised to deport illegal immigrants from Mexico, some of whom he called “rapists”. Trump also announced that he was going to build a wall barring them from entry into the US, which Mexico was going to pay for.
“Mark my words,” he said. Afterwards he proclaimed that he “loved Hispanics”.
In similar style, Amin said: “It’s not my responsibility to offer them (expelled British Asians) transit camps! The British high commissioner is here and it is his responsibility." He remarked afterwards that the British “are my great friends”.
For Amin’s Uganda it was a devastating decision. The expelled Asians/Indians were the entrepreneurs, bankers and professional class who had formed the country’s middle class since colonial times. Six months after their departure, the country’s hitherto promising African economy spiralled into recession.
Trump’s America may not suffer the expulsion of unwanted foreigners, but its regional entrepreneurs such as potato and vegetable growers will suffer from the absence of cheap available labour from across the border in Mexico.
Impulsive use of technology
The two presidents have similarities in their impulsive use of quick-communication technology. Trump is a compulsive tweeter, while Amin loved dispatching telegrams.
Amin telegraphed disgraced American president Richard Nixon, wishing him a “quick recovery from Watergate”, and to then Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, his erstwhile foe, a peculiar message in lieu of peace talks at the height of a war between the two countries: “If you were a woman I would have married you although your head is full of grey hairs.”
There were even more bizarre ones to the queen of England, saying he expected her to send him “her 25-year-old knickers” in celebration of the silver anniversary of her coronation. There was an offer of assistance to Edward Heath, the then British prime minister, to save the British economy, “if you would let me know the exact position of the mess".
A Trump tweet to Iowa voters who voted against him in the primaries had similar condescending tones: "Too much Monsanto in the corn creates issues in the brain?"
It was later deleted.
There was another tweet about James Comey, the FBI director he fired from Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump: "FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds! The phony"
Then there’s this tweet about a topic that has often occupied his mind, namely his predecessor Barack Obama’s legacy. From Donald J. Trump @realDonald- Trump: "The first 90 days of my presidency has exposed the total failure of the last eight years of foreign policy!” So true. @foxandfriends
Being fired on television
Amin loved firing his officials on radio and television. A minister of culture, Yekosofat Engur, attended a public function as guest of honour not knowing that his junior had just been appointed in his place on Uganda’s broadcast media.
Former FBI chief Comey learnt of his fate in a similar fashion. He learnt of his firing while addressing agents at a field office in Los Angeles - breaking news flashes on television of Trump sacking him was the first Comey heard of it.
There are also parallels in their sabre rattling. Amin threatened to invade Israel, not holding back: “If am to prepare the war against Israel completely, I don’t want very many Army, Air force and Navy, just very few and strike inside”
“I love war,” Trump declared during a campaign speech in Iowa in 2015. He added: "I’m good at war. I’ve had a lot of wars of my own. I’m really good at war. I love war in a certain way, but only when we win.”
The two presidents both have a low opinion of women and are not shy to express such views. Amin once remarked that he was a “good marksman” (with women) while showing off his numerous children. He had four wives and more than 30 children.
Trump has had a litany of sexist comments, such as this one: “You know, it doesn’t really matter what (the media) write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass”
What the two share most is their sense of self-importance.
In 1977, after Britain broke diplomatic relations with his regime, Amin declared he had beaten the British. He titled himself “Conqueror of the British Empire”, short for “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Alhaji Dr Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE”. He said he would be happy to accept the Scots' “secret wish” to have him as their monarch, hence the Hollywood movie title The Last King of Scotland.
Amin also wrenched a doctorate of law from Uganda’s Makerere University and henceforth considered himself in the same league as medical doctors.
As Salon wrote, the only two words former reality show host Trump has uttered more frequently than “you’re fired” are “I’m smart”. He said about Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania’s business school: “Look, I went to the best school I was a good student and all of this stuff. I mean, I’m a smart person.”
They both share a passion for control and love to be loved. Jeff Shesol of The New Yorker reckons that Trump’s chief complaint about his own yes-men seems to be that they don’t say yes energetically enough.
It’s easier when you’re a dictator. Amin was clear: as minister, governor, high-ranking people and the people of the country, they must love their leader.
Respected East African commentator Charles Onyango Obbo believes that the genius of Trump is that he understands what adept guerrilla leaders figured out ages ago - do that which the opponent thinks is impossible or so unthinkable that they have not planned on how to defend it.
The same went for Amin, who for a long time was considered a comic buffoon while he terrorised a whole country and fanned international terrorism.
Some may think it’s alarmist, but Onyango Obbo has warned that with all the similarities, Trump - or indeed any leader in an “advanced” democracy - can turn into an Idi Amin.
* Geoffrey Ssenoga is a lecturer of mass communications at Uganda Christian University
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.