Full name Idi Amin Dada Oumee. AKA ‘Big Daddy’, AKA ‘Butcher of Africa’, AKA ‘Conqueror of the British Empire’, AKA ‘Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea’.
Kill tally: 100,000-500,000 (most sources say 300,000).
Background: The British Government declares Uganda its protectorate in 1894. Surrounding kingdoms are incorporated, with the borders becoming fixed in 1914. Independence is achieved peacefully on 9 October 1962 but rising tensions between the country’s different ethnic groups see Prime Minister Milton Obote impose a new republican constitution establishing himself as president and abolishing all the country’s kingdoms. Ethnic tensions continue to rise. Idi Amin seizes power in a coup in January 1971.
Mini biography: Born between 1923 and 1925 into the Kakwa tribe in Koboko, near Arua in the northwest corner of Uganda, close to the borders with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan. His father is a farmer and a follower of Islam. His mother is a member of the Lugbara tribe and is said to practice sorcery.
(Amin’s younger brother, Amule, claims that Amin was in fact born in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, and that their father was working as a policeman there at the time.)
Amin’s parents separate soon after his birth. Amin is raised by his mother, who becomes a camp follower of the King’s African Rifles, a regiment of the British colonial army. She will have more children from other relationships, with Amin becoming the third of eight siblings.
Amin receives only a rudimentary education but excels at sports and reportedly converts to Islam at an early age.
1946 – He joins the King’s African Rifles as an assistant cook. In 1948 he is promoted to corporal. By 1958 he is sergeant-major and platoon commander.
1951 – Amin becomes the heavyweight boxing champion of Uganda, holding the title until 1960.
1952 – He serves in the British action against the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya (1952-56) and is described by officials as “a splendid type and a good (rugby) player, but virtually bone from the neck up, and needs things explained in words of one letter.”
One former commander remembers Amin “as a splendid and reliable soldier and a cheerful and energetic man.” Another former commander describes Amin as “an incredible person who certainly isn’t mad – very shrewd, very cunning and a born leader.”
1959 – He is made a warrant officer with the rank of ‘effendi’, a position specially created by the colonial army for noncommissioned Africans with leadership potential.
1961 – He rises to the rank of lieutenant, becoming one of only two native Ugandans to be commissioned during British rule.
1962 – Troops under Amin’s command commit the ‘Turkana Massacre’ while conducting an operation to suppress cattle stealing by tribesmen spilling into the north of Uganda from the neighbouring Turkana region of Kenya. Investigations by the British authorities in Kenya reveal that the victims of the massacre had been tortured, beaten to death and, in some cases, buried alive. However, with Uganda’s independence only months away, the authorities decide against court-martialling Amin for his “overzealous” methods.
Uganda achieves independence from Britain on 9 October. The king of the Baganda tribe, Sir Edward Mutesa, becomes the new nation’s first president. The government is led by Prime Minister Milton Obote, who Amin supports.
Overlooking the charges of torture, Obote promotes Amin to major in 1963 and to colonel and deputy commander of the army and air force in 1964, the same year that Amin helps put down an army mutiny at Jinja, Uganda’s second city.
Shortly after independence Amin is sent to Israel on a paratrooper training course. He will become a favourite of the Israelis when he acts as a conduit for the supply of arms and ammunition to Israeli-backed rebels fighting a war in southern Sudan.
1966 – Following a financial scandal implicating Obote and Amin in gold smuggling, and on the back of growing opposition from King Mutesa, Obote suspends the constitution, arrests half his cabinet, and installs himself as president for life. King Mutesa is driven from his palace in a military operation led by Amin and forced into exile. A new constitution abolishes all the country’s kingdoms.
Amin is subsequently promoted to major-general and appointed chief of the army and air force. He begins to build a support base in the army by recruiting from his own Kakwa tribe. However, his relations with Obote start to sour.
1969 – In December an unsuccessful attempt is made to assassinate Obote. Brigadier Pierino Okoya, the deputy chief of the army and Amin’s sole rival among senior army officers, tells Obote and Amin that the net is closing in on the perpetrators and that all will be revealed at a second meeting scheduled for 26 January 1970.
1970 – On 25 January Okoya and his wife are shot dead at their home. Relations between Obote and Amin deteriorate further following the murder. In November Obote removes Amin from his command positions and places him in an administrative role.
1971 – Amin discovers that Obote intends to arrest him on charges of misappropriating millions of dollars of military funds. On 25 January, while Obote is out of the country attending the Commonwealth Conference in Singapore, Amin stages a coup that is later reported to have been backed by Israel and welcomed by the British.
Amin’s military government accuses Obote and his regime of corruption, economic mismanagement, suppressing democracy, and failing to maintain law and order. Obote later calls Amin “the greatest brute an African mother has ever brought to life.”
The coup is initially supported by Ugandans, with Amin promising to abolish Obote’s secret police, free all political prisoners, introduce economic reforms, and quickly return the country to civilian rule. However, elections will never be held during Amin’s reign.
“I am not an ambitious man, personally,” Amin says after taking power, “I am just a soldier with a concern for my country and its people.”
Amin is declared president and chief of the armed forces. Almost immediately he initiates mass executions of officers and troops he believes to be loyal to Obote. Thirty-two army officers die when dynamite blows up the cell in which they are being held at the Makindye Prison in Kampala. Overall, as many as two-thirds of the army’s 9,000 soldiers are executed during Amin’s first year in power.
In foreign affairs, Amin is initially pro-West and inclined towards Britain and Israel. His first overseas trip as president is a state visit to Israel. This is followed a separate state visit to London that includes a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II.
However, his position changes after he returns from a trip to Libya around the end of 1971.
1972 – Now determined to make Uganda “a black man’s country”, Amin expels the country’s 40,000-80,000 Indians andPakistanis in the closing months of the year, reportedly after receiving a message from God during a dream.
“I am going to ask Britain to take responsibility for all Asians in Uganda who are holding British passports, because they are sabotaging the economy of the country,” Amin declares at the start of August.
The Asians, most of who are third-generation descendants of workers brought to Uganda by the British colonial administration, are given 90 days to leave the country and are only allowed to take what they can carry. “If they do not leave they will find themselves sitting on the fire,” Amin warns. The businesses, homes and possessions they leave behind are distributed without compensation to Amin’s military favourites.
With the true nature of Amin’s regime becoming apparent, the British and Israeli governments begin to back-pedal on their support, refusing to sell him more arms.
Amin then looks to Libya for aid, promising Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi that he will turn Uganda into an Islamic state. The Soviet Union also provides aid and arms for a time.
Amin now challenges Britain and the United States, breaks relations with Israel, and throws his support behind the Palestinian liberation movement. British property in Uganda is appropriated, business relations between the two countries are restricted, and those Britons remaining in Uganda are threatened with expulsion.
To secure his regime Amin launches a campaign of persecution against rival tribes and Obote supporters, murdering between 100,000 and 500,000 (most sources say 300,000).
Among those to die are ordinary citizens, former and serving Cabinet ministers, the chief justice, Supreme Court judges, diplomats, academics, educators, prominent Roman Catholic and Anglican clergy, senior bureaucrats, medical practitioners, bankers, tribal leaders, business executives, journalists and a number of foreigners.
In some cases entire villages are wiped out. So many corpses are thrown into the Nile that workers at one location have to continuously fish them out to stop the intake ducts at a nearby dam from becoming clogged.
The size of the army is increased, and much of the country’s budget is diverted from civilian to military spending. Military tribunals are placed above the civil courts, soldiers are appointed to top government posts, parliament is dissolved and civilian Cabinet ministers are informed that they will be subject to military discipline.
Ruling by decree, Amin also creates his own security apparatus to identify and eliminate opponents. At its height, the security force will consist of about 18,000 men serving in three squads – the Public Safety Unit, the State Research Bureau and the military police. Amin’s Presidential Guard also doubles as a death squad, as well as protecting the dictator from the many assassination attempts made against him.
As terror reigns Uganda’s economy begins to collapse, partially through mismanagement and partially as a result of the expulsion of the Indians and Pakistanis, who had formed the country’s economic backbone.
1975 – Amin promotes himself to field marshal and awards himself the Victoria Cross. The following year he declares himself president for life.
During 1975 he stages a publicity stunt for the world media, forcing white residents of Kampala to carry him on a throne then kneel before him and recite an oath of loyalty.
In the summer, Denis Hills, a Uganda-based British subject, is sentenced to death by the regime for describing Amin as a “village tyrant.” The sentence is dropped only after the British foreign secretary travels to Kampala to plead for Hills’ life.
Hills, who is eventually freed, later warns against viewing Amin as a buffoon or murderer, explaining that Amin’s “aggressive black national leadership” had won him many admirers in Africa.
“(Amin) has the successful tribal chief’s compensatory qualities for his lack of formal education: cunning, a talent for survival, personal strength and courage, an ability to measure his opponents weaknesses and his subject’s wishes,” Hills says.
“It is not enough to dismiss Amin as a buffoon or murderer. … He is an African reality. He has realised an African dream. The creation of a truly black state. He has called into being a new crude, but vigorous, middle class of technicians and businessmen.”
Meanwhile, Amin takes up the rotating position of head of the Organisation for African Unity, but is largely seen as an embarrassment. During the same period, Uganda is appointed to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
1976 – Amin becomes personally involved in hostage negotiations with Israel when pro-Palestinian guerrillas hijack an Air France passenger jet carrying 105 Israelis and Jews on 27 June and order it fly to Entebbe in Uganda. However, he is deeply humiliated when Israeli commandos stage a successful raid and rescue the passengers on 4 July.
Only two of the hostages are killed during the 58-minute operation and only one is left behind; Dora Bloch, a British-Israeli grandmother who had been released by the hijackers for medical treatment.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin later accuses Amin of “collaborating with the terrorists while using deceit and false pretences” during the hostage negotiations. Amin is also accused of allowing reinforcements to join the original four hijackers.
In the wake of the Entebbe raid a furious Amin has Dora Bloch and more than 200 senior officers and government officials executed. He also expels foreigners from Uganda and unleashes a new round of violence, ordering the execution of anyone suspected of opposing him.
At the end of July Britain breaks off diplomatic relations with Amin’s regime. Amin declares that he has beaten the British and confers upon himself the title of ‘Conqueror of the British Empire’.
1977 – In January Amin accuses the Anglican archbishop of Uganda of conspiring in an invasion plot. The next day the archbishop and two Cabinet ministers are murdered.
The US, meanwhile, cuts off aid to Uganda, with President Jimmy Carter saying that Amin’s policies “disgusted the entire civilised world.”
1978 – The price of coffee, Uganda’s main export, begins to fall, further damaging the already staggering Ugandan economy. Armed rebellions break out in the southwest, coup attempts become an ever-present threat, and the Libyans begin to cut aid.
In an attempt to divert attention from the country’s internal problems, Amin launches an attack on Tanzania, a neighbouring country to the south, at the end of October. Tanzanian troops, assisted by armed Ugandan exiles, quickly put Amin’s army to flight and counter-invade.
1979 – Beating back the Ugandan’s heavy resistance, the invading Tanzanian forces take Kampala on 11 April. Amin flees to Libya, taking his four wives, several of his 30 mistresses and about 20 of his children.
After being asked to leave Libya he lives for a time in Iraq before finally settling in the port city of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, where he is allowed to stay provided he keeps out of politics. The Saudis provide him with a monthly stipend of about US$1,400, domestic servants, cooks, drivers and cars. He leads a comfortable life with his four wives in a modest house.
Besides a huge death toll, Amin has left Uganda with an annual inflation rate of 200%, a national debt of US$320 million, an agricultural sector in tatters, closed factories and ruined businesses.
1980 – Milton Obote returns to power in Uganda following a general election. Obote’s second administration is said to be at least as violent as Amin’s, with security forces mercilessly combating an insurgency movement. According to the current government of Uganda, more than 500,000 civilians die as a result of the conflict. Obote is once again ousted in July 1985.
1989 – Amin attempts to return to Uganda to reclaim power but is identified at Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and forced to return to Saudi Arabia.
1999 – Amin gives an interview to an Ugandan newspaper, saying he likes to play the accordion, fish, swim, recite from the Koran and read. He expresses no remorse for the abuses of his regime and is reported to say, “I’m very happy now, much happier now then when I was president.”
2001 – It is reported that Amin wishes to return to Uganda. He continues to be popular in his home province and begins to fund the rebuilding of family properties destroyed by the Tanzanian troops who expelled him in 1979.
The Ugandan Government says that Amin is free to return but would have to “answer for his sins” and would be dealt with according to the law. Amin’s relatives are able to travel to and from Uganda, and several of his children live and work there.
2002 – Uganda officially celebrates Amin’s downfall for the first time.
2003 – In July Amin is reported to be in a coma and on life support in the intensive care unit of the King Faisal specialist hospital in Jeddah, where he has been receiving treatment for hypertension and general fatigue for three months. He had been admitted to the hospital with high blood pressure on 18 July. It is also reported that he is suffering from kidney failure but has refused treatment for the condition.
The current president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, says he will arrest Amin if he returns to the country alive but if he dies abroad his body could be brought back for burial.
“If Amin comes back breathing or conscious I will arrest him because he committed crimes here,” Museveni says, adding that if his body is brought back for burial “we shall not give him state honours. He will be buried like any other ordinary Ugandan.”
Amin dies in hospital of complications due to multiple organ failure at 8:20 a.m. on 16 August. He is buried in Jeddah’s Ruwais cemetery during a small funeral ceremony just hours after his death.
Comment: By most accounts an illiterate and gluttonous buffoon, Amin has become the subject of many bizarre rumours and myths. There are stories of cannibalism, of feeding the corpses of his victims to crocodiles, of keeping severed heads in a freezer at his home and bringing them out on occasions for “talks” – most or all of which are unsubstantiated, but not necessarily untrue. He is known to have admired the German dictator Adolf Hitler and is quoted as saying that Hitler “was right to burn six million Jews.” It is also said that he planned to have a statue of Hitler constructed in Kampala.
During his rule, Amin was a subject of ridicule in the West. His many outlandish statements were generally seen as somewhat eccentric if not a complete joke. The satirical British magazine ‘Punch’ at one time ran a weekly column supposedly written by Amin. There was even an irreverent pop song about him that did well in the charts. And Idi Amin would be a joke if his legacy was not so cruel.
But perhaps it’s not just Amin’s cruelty to which we should look when seeking answers for the havoc he wrought in Uganda. While there’s a lot of history to all the countries of Africa, and while the continent was far from peaceful before the arrival of Europeans, it’s too often the case that wherever there was a colonial administration there is now a can of worms.
We’ll never know how Africa would have developed if it hadn’t been colonised, but the outcome could hardly have been worse.
An obituary for Amin published in ‘The Telegraph’ on 17 August 2003 eloquently summarises the predicament. “Amin’s tragedy, like that of so many Africans, was to have admired a civilisation whose external trappings he strongly desired, but of whose internal workings he had no idea, while at the same time he was partly enclosed in the mental world of a primitive tribalist,” the obituary concludes.
“He was a product of multiculturalism, African-style, and able to use relatively advanced methods to achieve brutal, primitive ends. Like every African dictator, he was confusion’s masterpiece.”