The Last King of Scotland

by Giles Foden

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Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 637

The Rule of Idi Amin
Idi Amin was the ruler of Uganda in East Africa from 1971 to 1979. He had a reputation as an unpredictable and violent man, and his policies led directly to the brutal murder of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen.

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The facts of Amin’s early years are disputed, but during the 1950s he was the heavyweight boxing champion of Uganda, and in the 1960s he rose rapidly through the ranks of the Ugandan army. As a reward for his help during a critical battle, President Apollo Obote named Amin the commander of the country’s armed forces. Their relationship deteriorated, and in 1971 Amin overthrew Obote in an armed coup. Garrigan arrives in Kampala, the nation’s capital, on the day of the coup.

In his first year as president, Amin ordered the massacre of troops he suspected of being loyal to Obote. In 1972, Britain and Israel rejected Amin’s demands for large increases in military aid; Amin sought and received assistance from Libya and Soviet Russia. He became the first black African leader to denounce Israel in favor of the Palestinian cause. In addition, Amin made a number of anti- Semitic remarks and publicly praised Adolf Hitler for killing Jews. This is about the time in the novel when Sara and her Israeli colleagues, some British diplomats, and all Indians and Asians are expelled from Uganda. Because Indians and Asians owned and ran most of the businesses in Uganda, the country’s economy collapsed.

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After a failed 1972 coup attempt by Tanzaniansupported Obote forces, Amin became even more repressive and brutal. Amin’s regime is reported to have murdered anywhere between three hundred thousand and five hundred thousand civilians before he was ousted in 1979 by Tanzanian troops who, after recapturing land that Amin had invaded in 1978, continued marching to the capital, Kampala. Amin fled first to Libya but eventually accepted asylum in Saudi Arabia.

The Israeli Raid on Entebbe
In 1976, a group of Palestinian and West German terrorists (the latter group also known as the Baader Meinhof Gang) hijacked an Air France airplane filled with more than one hundred Israelis and forced it to land at Entebbe Airport near Kampala. In the novel, Garrigan assists with medical care for the hostages.

Some believe that Idi Amin, Uganda’s president at that time, was involved in supporting the terrorists and allowed them to land the plane and use Entebbe as a base for their operations. His dislike for Israel was well known, and he may have been seeking a way to embarrass his adversary. A successful Israeli commando raid freed nearly all of the hostages; as revenge, Amin had hostage Dora Bloch murdered.

Scottish Independence Movement of the 1970s
Scotland has been an administrative division of Great Britain since the early 1700s. Scottish nationalism once again became a significant political issue in the twentieth century, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Oil was discovered during this period in the North Sea, giving Scots more confidence in their ability to maintain a strong economy independent of Britain. Calls for independence were heard in the mid-1970s general elections, and in 1974 the Scottish Nationalist Party won eleven of Scotland’s seventy-two seats in Parliament.

In the novel, Idi Amin claims to be the “last rightful king of Scotland” and says that he is “the first man to ask the British government to end their oppression of Scotland.” He sees himself as the liberator of Scotland, just as he feels that he has liberated Uganda from British rule. Amin’s obsession with all things Scottish can be traced to his training with Scottish soldiers. In the novel, Garrigan also mentions that “an eccentric Scottish officer” during Amin’s years as a young soldier dressed some of the members of the King’s African Rifles corps in khaki kilts.

Literary Style

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 664

The Antihero
Garrigan is the protagonist of Foden’s novel but not its hero. This antihero has none of the personal qualities that define a traditional hero in literature: courage, physical strength, exceptional intellect, emotional stamina, and the ability to recognize and fight against evil. Garrigan, as the novel’s antihero, feels helpless against what he perceives as great odds. He runs from possible pain, is fearful of death, and does not help those in need—except when the need can be met by his role as a medical doctor. Garrigan relishes his role as the underdog; when he arrives in Kampala for the first time, he is frightened and searches for someone to tell him what to do next. When he does take a stand, it is usually without many repercussions, such as when he and Sara temporarily bring Gugu into their home. Garrigan admits later that the arrangement was a sham and that he and Sara were “using Gugu to live out some kind of fantasy family life” as a hedge against the craziness happening around them.

Foden has written this book as if the writer is actually the protagonist Nicholas Garrigan pulling together his memoirs of when he was Idi Amin’s physician. The narrative is in the first person, and Garrigan often interjects what he is thinking as he writes the memoir from his cottage in Scotland. Because of this, Foden (through Garrigan’s character) often inserts a present-day comment that provides a hint about what is to come in the narrative.

For example, while Garrigan and Sara are watching one of Amin’s political rallies, he notices that she is taking notes. When he asks her about it, she gives him a vague answer, and he remarks as an aside, “How could I have been so thickheaded, I wonder now,” indicating that something was amiss with Sara, though at the time he does not share with the reader what that something could be. Garrigan later notices a shortwave radio in Sara’s room, similar to the ones everyone else owns at the medical compound except that hers can also transmit. In this way, Foden offers small pieces of a mystery that is not completely solved until later. Later in the story, Sara calls Garrigan. It is apparent from her conversation that she was not only a physician but also a spy.

In another instance, Garrigan lets slip at the story’s start that his adventure to Uganda does not turn out as he might have imagined. In describing what he expected his work to entail in Uganda, Garrigan gloomily says “had I known, on arrival, the breadth of activity that his later should involve, I would have gotten straight back on the plane.”

Use of Historical Characters and Events
Some critics have referred to The Last King of Scotland as a roman à clef, a work in which historical figures appear as fictional characters. While Garrigan and others in the novel are purely fictional characters, Foden has woven them into events and characters that are very much a part of history.

In addition to Idi Amin, Foden includes other historical figures such as Margaret Thatcher, an English political leader; Queen Elizabeth of England; the Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini; U.S. president Richard Nixon; and hijacking victim Dora Bloch. Foden uses most of these figures simply to add texture and a sense of realism to his novel; Amin is the primary historical figure for whom he has created day-to-day actions and a developed personality.

Foden also includes actual historical events in the novel, such as Idi Amin’s overthrow of President Apollo Obote in 1971, the hijacking and subsequent raid of an airplane from Tel Aviv, the struggle for Scottish independence, and the overthrow of Amin by Tanzanian armed forces. Like the historical figures, actual events give the book a realistic atmosphere. The feeling of realism is further enhanced by Foden’s use of fictional journal entries and news clippings.

Compare and Contrast

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1970s: Idi Amin asks Garrigan to investigate a fatal “new disease” among his soldiers. Although Garrigan finds nothing out of the ordinary, he wonders later, with the advent of HIV/AIDS, whether he was treating some of the earliest cases.

Today: The HIV/AIDS infection rate for adults in Uganda is 8.3 percent, and about 820,000 people are suspected to be living with HIV/AIDS.

1970s: Idi Amin seizes power from President Apollo Obote in 1971 and promulgates a reign of terror for the next eight years. Today: After seizing power in 1986, President Yoweri Museveni is elected Ugandan chief of state in the March 2001 popular elections.

1970s: Idi Amin expels from Uganda all Indians and Asians, who own and run a majority of the businesses in the country. As a result, Uganda’s economy collapses and shortages of basic goods are widespread.

Today: In the last decade, the Ugandan economy has performed solidly, thanks to continued investment in the rehabilitation of the country’s infrastructure, reduced inflation, and the return of many previously exiled Indian-Ugandan business people. Unfortunately, Ugandan involvement with the ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo could cause many of these economic advances to slip.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Abish, Walter, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?,” in Los Angeles Times, January 10, 1999, p. 8.

Flanagan, Margaret, “The Last King of Scotland,” in Booklist, Vol. 95, No. 8, p. 726.

Gilling, Tom, “Buffoon Defies Reality,” in Australian, July 24, 1998, p. 11.

Haynes, David, “Quirkily Written First Novel Traces the Rise and Fall of Idi Amin as Uganda’s Dictator,” in Minneapolis Star Tribune, January 24, 1999, p. 16F.

Hess, Christopher, “The Last King of Scotland: A Novel,” in Austin Chronicle, March 29, 1999. “An Interview with Giles Foden,” in Boldtype, http:// ml (last accessed February, 2002).

King, Chris, “Into Africa,” in Newsday, November 8, 1998, p. B12.

Rathbone, Richard, “The Last King of Scotland,” in History Today, Vol. 48, No. 7, July 1998, p. 60–62.

Review of The Last King of Scotland, in Kirkus Reviews, September 1999.

Review of The Last King of Scotland, in Publishers Weekly, October 19, 1998.

Rubin, Merle, “Charisma Overwhelms a Good Man’s Revulsion,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 91, No. 16, p. 20.

Upchurch, Michael, “President for Life,” in New York Times Book Review, November 15, 1998.

Wolfe, Peter, “Novelist Refuses to Sell Idi Amin Short,” in St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 22, 1998, p. D5.

Further Reading
Hanson, Thor, The Impenetrable Forest,, 2000. In this photograph-filled book, Hanson tells how he lived in Uganda’s Impenetrable Forest, working with local guides and trackers to develop a tourism program in the new national park.

Isegawa, Moses, Abyssinian Chronicles, Knopf, 2000. In this Ugandan epic set during the 1960s and 1970s, Isegawa tells the story of an extended family and a divided country. Mugezi, the book’s narrator, remembers how he survived life in Idi Amin’s Uganda.

Maier, Karl, Into the House of the Ancestors: Inside the New Africa, John Wiley and Sons, 1997. Maier draws on his ten years traveling throughout Africa to bring the news of Africans reviving and expanding upon their cultures’ rich traditions. The book is based on hundreds of interviews and combines history with contemporary reporting.

Mutibwa, Phares, Uganda since Independence: A Story of Unfulfilled Hopes, Africa World Press, Inc., 1992. Mutibwa has written an analysis of the country under President Yoweri Museveni—calmer than the preceding twenty years but not without its problems.

Ofcansky, Thomas, Uganda: Tarnished Pearl of Africa, Westview Press, 1996. In this book, Ofcansky, an analyst for the United States Department of Defense, first gives a brief history of Uganda before its 1962 independence from Britain. He concentrates on the period between 1962 and 1994, examining Uganda’s politics, culture, economy, and foreign policy.

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