As president of Uganda (1971-1979) Idi Amin Dada (born c. 1925) became notorious for massive violations of human rights, economic decline, and social disintegration.
Born between 1925 and 1927 in Koboko, West Nile Province, Idi Amin's father was a Kakwa. The Kakwa tribe exists in Uganda, Zaire (now Congo), and Sudan; some members of the tribe are associated with the Nubi, an uprooted population which emerged as a result of 19th century political upheavals. The Nubi (Nubians) are urbanized and individualistic, have a reputation for homicide and military careers, and are Muslims. Amin embraced Islam and attained a fourth grade education.
Amin was brought up by his mother, who abandoned his father to move to Lugazi. The death of his stepfather soon after separation from his mother led to speculation that he must have been either poisoned or "bewitched" by her.
Amin accompanied his mother and apparently acquired the militaristic qualifications prized by the British at that time: he was tall and strong, spoke the Kiswahili language, and lacked a good education, ensuring subservience. Enlisting in the army as a private in 1946, Amin impressed his superiors by being a good swimmer, rugby player, and boxer. He won the Uganda heavyweight boxing championship in 1951, a title he held for nine years. He was promoted to corporal in 1949.
During the 1950s Amin fought against the Mau Mau African freedom fighters, who were opposed to British colonialism in Kenya. Despite his ruthless record during the uprisings, he was promoted to sergeant in 1951, lance corporal in 1953, and sergeant-major and platoon commander in 1958. In 1959 he attended a course in Nakuru (Kenya) where he performed so well that he was awarded the sword of honor and promoted to effendi, a rank invented for outstanding African non-commissioned officers (NCOs). By 1961 Amin and Shaban Opolot became the first two Ugandan commissioned officers with the rank of lieutenant.
In 1962 Amin participated in stopping cattle rustling between neighboring ethnic groups in Karamoja (Uganda) and Turkana (Kenya). Because of atrocities he committed during these operations, British officials recommended to Apolo Milton Obote (Uganda's prime minister) that he be prosecuted. Obote instead reprimanded him, since it would have been unpolitical to prosecute one of the two African commissioned officers just before Uganda was to gain her independence from Britain on October 9, 1962. Thereafter Amin was promoted to captain in 1962 and major in 1963 and was selected to participate in the commanding officers' course at Wiltshire school of infantry in Britain in 1963.
The need for pay increases and the removal of British officers led to an army mutiny in 1964. Amin was called upon to calm the soldiers. The resulting settlement from this crisis led to Amin's promotion to colonel and commanding officer of the First Battalion Uganda Rifles. The 1964 events catapulted the army into political prominence, something Amin fully understood, and he used the political process to gain favors from his superiors.
Amin's close association with Obote apparently began in 1965 when, in sympathy for the followers of Patrice Lumumba (the murdered prime minister of Congo), Obote asked Amin for help in establishing military training camps. Amin also brought coffee, ivory, and gold into Uganda from the Congo so that the rebels there could have money to pay for arms. The opponents of Obote, such as the Kabaka (king) of Buganda (one of Uganda's ancient precolonial kingdoms), wanted an investigation of the illegal entry of gold and ivory into Uganda. Obote appointed a face-saving commission of inquiry and promoted Amin to chief of staff in 1966 and to brigadier and major-general in 1967. An attack on the Kabaka's palace forced the king to flee to Britain, where he died in exile in 1969.
By 1968 the relationship between Obote and Amin went sour as the latter showed an interest in the young educated army officers and in creating paramilitary units. An attempted assassination on Obote in 1969 and Amin's suspicious behavior thereafter further widened the gap between the two men. These divisions became even more evident when Amin gave unauthorized assistance to the rebels fighting against the Sudanese government. It is unclear in light of these conflicts why Obote promoted Amin in 1970 to become chief of general staff, a position which gave him access to every aspect of the armed forces. Amin overthrew Obote's government on January 25, 1971.
Ugandans joyfully welcomed Amin. He was a towering charismatic figure and yet simple enough to shake hands with common people and participate in their traditional dances; he was charming, informal, and flexible: and because he married women from different ethnic groups, he was perceived as a nationalist. His popularity increased when he allowed the return of Kabaka's body for a royal burial, appointed a cabinet of technocrats, disbanded Obote's secret police, granted amnesty to political prisoners, and assured Ugandans that he would hand power back to the civilians.
During this euphoric period, Amin's other personality began to emerge: ruthless, capricious, cunning, shrewd, and a consummate liar. His "killer squads" systematically eliminated Obote's supporters and murdered two Americans (Nicholas Stroh and Robert Siedle) who were investigating massacres that had occurred at Mbarara barracks in Western Uganda. It was becoming clear that Amin's apparent friendliness, buffoonery, and clowning were but a mask to hide a terrible brutality.
In 1972 he savagely attacked the Israelis and the British who previously had been his close foreign allies. The bone of contention was his inability to procure arms from these countries. Once Muammar Qaddafi of Libya agreed to help, Amin immediately expelled the Israelis and 50,000 Asians holding British passports. The sudden expulsion of Asian traders not only wrecked Uganda's once prosperous economy, it also earned Amin a negative international image.
Between 1972 and 1979 Amin's overriding policy was to stay in power at any cost. Though outwardly looking brave, Amin was a coward. He was, for example, terrified in 1978 when a story circulated that a "talking tortoise" had predicted his downfall. He constantly changed body guards, travelling schedules and vehicles, and sleeping places. His promiscuous life style enabled him to have several possible sleeping places. At one time he was married to four wives and had over 30 mistresses. He controlled the army through frequent reorganization. The powerful position of chief of defense staff was abolished and replaced by army, air, and paratroop commanders. Similarly, when he was out of the country he entrusted power to a defense council made up of several people, making it hard for opponents to plot against him. He also appeased his forces by lavishing on them free whisky, tape recorders, expensive cars, rapid promotions, and lucrative businesses previously owned by Asian traders.
Amin used institutionalized violence or terror to eliminate his real and imaginary enemies. His success in using terror was partly due to divisions among Ugandans who on different occasions became his willing spies. The human cost of Amin's rule was devastating not only in terms of the loss of thousands of Ugandans, but also because of its dehumanizing effects. Human life became less important than wealth. The ritualistic and sadistic methods used in the various murders led to conclusions by reputable doctors that Amin's "mental ill-health" must account for what transpired.
With most national funds devoted to the armed forces and to Amin's personal security, education, health, transport, food and cash-crop production, industrial and manufacturing sectors, and foreign investments were neglected. Despite his growing infamy, Amin was elected chairman of the prestigious Organization of African Unity (OAU) on July 28, 1975. Indeed, 1975 must have been a rewarding year for Amin, as his senior officers promoted him to field marshal. African countries also blocked in 1977 a United Nations resolution which would have condemned Amin for his gross violation of human rights. Through individuals and private companies in the West, Amin received torture equipment for his "killer squads," had his planes serviced and pilots trained, procured hard liquor for the army, and had his coffee sold.
By the late 1970s Amin's luck was running out. Coffee prices had plummeted from a high of $3.18 a pound to $1.28; the United States' stoppage of the purchase of Ugandan coffee in 1978 exacerbated the situation, and Arabs, who had generously donated funds, were concerned about Amin's failure to show how Uganda was being Islamized and why he was killing fellow Muslims. The deteriorating state of the economy made it difficult to import luxury consumer goods for the army. To divert attention from this internal crisis, Amin ordered an invasion of Tanzania in October 1978, allegedly because the latter planned to overthrow his government. The invaders were repelled. Tanzanians and exiled Ugandan soldiers then invaded Uganda and continued their pursuit of Amin until his government was overthrown on April 11, 1979. Amin fled to Libya, which had assisted throughout the years and during the war, but he later moved to Jidda, Saudi Arabia. Amin remained in Saudia Arabia until he was expelled in the early 1990s, when he relocated to Bahrain.
A continuing instability in Uganda attested to the enormous drain which Amin's policies had upon the political, economic, social, and cultural life of that country. Amin has been remembered best as the tyrant of Uganda who was responsible for a reign which was overwrought with mass killings and disarray.
Amin's fortune may be followed in: lain Grahame, Amin and Uganda: A Personal Memoir (London, 1980); David Gwyn, Idi Amin: Deathlight of Africa (1977); Henry Kyemba, State of Blood: The Inside Story of Idi Amin (1977); Judith Listowel, Amin (1973); David Martin, General Amin (London, 1974); Ali A. Mazrui, Soldiers and Kinsmen in Uganda (1975); and Thomas Medlady and Margaret Medlady, Idi Amin Dada: Hitler in Africa (1977).