Amin, Idi c. 1925–2003
Idi Amin c. 1925–2003
Idi Amin Dada (pronounced EE-dee ah-MEEN) was a career soldier who took power in Uganda through a 1971 military coup. His eight-year rule was a bloody one, as Amin met opposition with brute force. It is estimated that over 300,000 people were killed during his regime. Ousted in 1979, Amin died in exile in 2003.
Amin was born between 1925 and 1927 in Koboko, in the West Nile province of Uganda. His father, Dada—Amin took his father’s name in 1968—was a poor farmer and a member of the Kakwa tribe. Uganda is composed of numerous ethnic groups, and the Kakwa are one of the smallest groups in the country. Amin’s mother left his father, taking Amin, who was still a baby, with her, moving to Lagazi. Later she moved near the camp of the King’s African Rifles (a British regiment consisting of African soldiers) near Buikwe and began a relationship with an army corporal. It is said that Amin’s mother practiced witchcraft and was known for her ability to heal.
Amin, who attained only a fourth grade education, joined the army as a private in 1946. Although the British administered the country for nearly 70 years (1890 to 1962), the African nationalist movement was gaining momentum in the 1950s and the British began preparing for Ugandan independence. The British army started looking for Africans who could be promoted to officers. Amin—who impressed his superiors with his imposing stature, physical prowess, and willingness to obey orders—stood out, and he quickly rose through the army ranks. By 1949 he had reached the position of corporal, and saw three more promotions during the 1950s alone.
Also during the 1950s Amin fought in Kenya against freedom fighters who opposed British rule there, ruthlessly working to put down the uprising. In 1962 he served in the Karamoja, northeast Uganda, and in Turkana, Kenya, to stop cattle thievery among neighboring ethnic groups. Due to charges of brutality and excessive force after these incidents, the British urged Prime Minister Apolo Milton Obote to prosecute him, but Obote chose instead to merely reprimand Amin.
On October 9, 1963, Uganda became a fully independent nation. The newly elected prime minister, Obote, sent the British officers home and sought training for
At a Glance…
Born c. 1925, m Koboko, West Nile, Uganda; died on August 16, 2003, in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia; multiple wives; children: about 50.
Career: Ugandan army, private, 1946-49, corporal, 1949-51, sergeant, 1951-53, lance corporal, 1953-58, sergeant major and platoon commander, 1958-61, lieutenant, 1961-62, captain, 1962-63, major, 1963-66, chief of staff, 1966-67, brigadier and major general, 1967-70, chief of general staff, 1970-71; Ugandan government, president, 1971-79; lived in exile in Saudi Arabia, 1979-2003.
Awards: Uganda heavyweight boxing champion, 1951.
his army from Israeli troops. He also moved toward government ownership of the 85 mostly foreign-owned companies. The government also assumed 60 percent ownership of the major Ugandan businesses.
During this time Amin assisted Obote in the creation of army training camps. Obote then promoted Amin to brigadier general and then to major general. Amin began to build his own personal base of support by enlisting and promoting the Kakwa, and the Nubians, also from his region of the country.
By 1969 public support for Obote’s changes had wanned. And, after a failed assassination attempt in December of 1969, Obote’s relationship with Amin was strained. When Amin heard the news of the attempt, he fled from his home. This move sparked speculations that Amin himself had been involved in the death plot. Yet Obote still promoted Amin to chief of general staff in 1970, a position which afforded him access to every arm of the Ugandan military.
As disagreements arose between the two men over foreign policy issues, Obote eventually decided to reduce Amin’s authority and possibly arrest him. Amin took action, and on January 25, 1971, he assumed control of the government while Obote was attending a conference in Singapore. Obote, who learned of the coup as he was returning home, sought refuge instead in Kenya.
Amin was an immediately popular figure. A towering and charismatic man, Amin was still friendly and approachable, happy to shake hands with common people. “If he saw people doing local dances,” Major-General Isaac Lumago told The Economist, “he would join in.” He also made several popular decisions as his regime began. He granted amnesty to political prisoners, disbanded Obote’s secret police, and expelled all the Indian traders in Uganda—the Indians had gained a nearly complete monopoly in the trading sector. In addition, he kept his army content by providing them with whiskey, cars, and other luxury items, as well as ensuring rapid promotions.
However, Amin’s ruthlessness soon revealed itself. His coup had been popular among some elements in the military, but not all. To eliminate any possibility of opposition, Amin ordered the execution of 600 soldiers who had served under Obote. He formed extermination squads that purged entire ethnic groups within the garrisons, which especially targeted Langi and Acholi officers (who had supported Obote).
Amin personally took over the running of the government, consolidating his power. Three security groups—the military police, the Public Safety Unit, and the State Research Center—enforced his decisions. The Public Safety Unit (PSU) took over the role of the civilian police. PSU members were armed with submachine guns and were granted extensive powers to arrest citizens and to search and seize properties. Later, they were given the right to detain citizens indefinitely. PSU headquarters were located on a main road, and executions were conducted in full view of the public. The State Research Center also conducted public executions in its headquarters in the center of the capital.
The country, however, suffered from economic mismanagement. It wasn’t long before the economy collapsed due to the expulsion of Indian traders and the chaos that followed. In addition, Amin spent excessive amounts of money on the military, neglecting such areas as health, industry, and education. Instead, Amin increased the military’s share of the Ugandan budget from 20 percent to 60 percent in his first year of rule alone. In this declining economy, Uganda could not repay its debts or finance new purchases.
Amin needed funding, so he sought to align himself with Libya. He ordered the Israelis out of Uganda and in February of 1972 announced plans to make Uganda a Muslim nation. Libya then sent money and military support, as well as funds to support Muslim mosques and the spread of Islam.
But Libya’s aid was not enough to restore the country. Several groups began to place pressure on Amin. In December of 1976 a group of church officials asked Amin to end the suffering in Uganda. A military delegation also requested that Amin restore order. In response, Amin launched massacres on a massive scale. Bodies were often dumped into the Nile river.
Outside pressures also increased. Criticisms came from Zambia, Tanzania, and the British, and this fueled internal divisions. Various troop divisions began to rebel, and Amin attempted to divert attention with a false report of a Tanzanian invasion. Ugandan troops retaliated against the innocent Tanazania, devastating the area, robbing and pillaging, burning and looting. The Tanzanians pushed the Ugandans back across the border and pursued them into Ugandan territory. When the capital of Kampala fell on April 10, 1979, Amin, along with his wives, numerous mistresses, and children, had already boarded a plane to Libya. He then sought refuge in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis granted him sanctuary, under the condition that he refrain from political activity or commentary, and Amin spent the last 24 years of his life in Saudi Arabia. He was paid a monthly stipend that allowed his large family to live comfortably in a Jiddah villa. He reportedly spent his time swimming, fishing in the Red Sea, and watching satellite television.
A ruthless and cruel man, Amin could also be a ridiculous figure. He volunteered himself as king of Scotland so that the Scots could be free of British rule and sent telegrams to the Queen of England, taunting her. He also once challenged the president of Tanzania to a boxing match.
In July of 2003 Amin was admitted to the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. He was in a coma when admitted. After suffering kidney failure, he was placed on life support. As his condition deteriorated, his family requested that he be granted amnesty so that he could die in his home country. Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, however, said that Amin would be arrested and tried for the atrocities committed during his eight-year rule. The Human Rights Watch, based in New York City, called Amin, according to the Africa News Service, “one of the bloodiest tyrants in a bloody country” and expressed regret that Amin would die without facing justice. Several death threats were anonymously telephoned to the hospital, so guards were posted at Amin’s room.
Two people volunteered to act as kidney donors for Amin, but both potential donors were incompatible with Amin. A month after being admitted to the hospital, Amin had to undergo kidney dialysis every hour. Amin died on August 16, 2003. A Muslim, he was buried in Mecca.
African Biography, UXL, 1999.
Decalo, Samuel, Psychoses of Power: African Personal Dictatorships, Westview Press.
Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., Gale, 1998.
Omara-Otunnu, Amii, Politics and the Military in Uganda: 1890-1985, St. Martin’s, 1987.
Smith, George Ivan, Ghosts of Kampala: The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin, St. Martin’s, 1980.
World of Criminal Justice, Gale, 2002.
Africa News Service, July 28, 2003; August 2, 2003; August 12, 2003; August 14, 2003; September 22, 2003.
Economist, August 23, 2003.
Jet, September 1, 2003.
Newsweek, August 25, 2003.
New York Times, August 17, 2003.
Time, December 11, 2000.
—Jennifer M. York
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