Born: c. 1925
Koboko, West Nile Province, Uganda
As president of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, Idi Amin (c. 1925–) became well known for his terrible violations of human rights, for causing the collapse of the country's economy, and for causing social disorganization. Amin is remembered best as the tyrant of Uganda who was responsible for a reign filled with mass killings and disorder.
Idi Amin Dada was born sometime between 1925 and 1927 in Koboko, West Nile Province, in Uganda. His father was a Kakwa, a tribe that exists in Uganda, Zaire (now Congo), and Sudan. As a boy, Amin spent much time tending goats and working in the fields. He embraced Islam and attained a fourth-grade education. He was brought up by his mother, who abandoned his father to move to Lugazi, Uganda.
As Amin grew he matched the qualifications for military service desired by the British at that time. He was tall and strong. He spoke the Kiswahili language. He also lacked a good education, which implied that he would take orders well. Joining 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 rule in Kenya. Despite his cruel record during the uprisings, he was promoted to sergeant in 1951, lance corporal in 1953, and sergeant-major and platoon commander in 1958. By 1961 Amin had become one of the first two Ugandan officers with the rank of lieutenant.
In 1962 Amin helped stop cattle rustling, or stealing, between neighboring ethnic groups in Karamoja, Uganda, and Turkana, Kenya. Because of the brutal acts he committed during these operations, British officials recommended to Apolo Milton Obote (1924–), Uganda's prime minister, that he be brought to trial as a criminal. Obote instead publicly criticized him, deciding it would have been politically unwise to put on trial one of the two African officers just before Uganda was to gain independence from Britain on October 9, 1962. Thereafter Amin was promoted to captain in 1962 and major in 1963. He was selected to participate in the commanding officers' course at Wiltshire school of infantry in Britain in 1963. In 1964 he was made a colonel.
Amin's close association with Obote apparently began in 1965. Obote sympathized with the followers of the murdered prime minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba (1925–1961). 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 wanted an investigation into the illegal entry of gold and ivory into Uganda. Obote appointed a committee to look into the issue. He promoted Amin to chief of staff in 1966, and to brigadier and major-general in 1967.
By 1968 the relationship between Obote and Amin had gone sour. An attempted assassination of Obote in 1969, and Amin's suspicious behavior thereafter, further widened the gap between the two men. It is unclear why Obote promoted Amin in 1970 to become chief of general staff, a position that 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 larger-than-life figure and yet simple enough to shake hands with common people and participate in their traditional dances. He was charming, informal, and flexible. Amin was thought to be a nationalist (a person who supports his or her country above all else). His popularity increased when he got rid of Obote's secret police, freed political prisoners, and told Ugandans that he would hand power back to the people.
During this period, Amin's other personality began to emerge: that of a merciless, unpredictable, cunning liar. His "killer squads" murdered Obote's supporters and two Americans who were investigating massacres (large-scale killings). It was becoming clear that Amin's seeming friendliness and clowning were only a mask to hide his brutality.
In 1972 he savagely attacked the Israelis and the British, with whom he had been friendly. He did not like that these countries would not sell him weapons. Once Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi (1942–) of Libya agreed to help, Amin immediately threw Israelis and fifty thousand Asians out of Uganda. Uganda's economy was wrecked because Asian traders were suddenly forced to leave. The action also earned Amin a poor international image.
Between 1972 and 1979 Amin's policy was to stay in power at any cost. Though he seemed brave, Amin was a coward. He was, for example, terrified in 1978 when a story circulated that a "talking tortoise" had predicted
Amin used violence and terror to eliminate his real and imaginary enemies. The human cost of Amin's rule was huge—not only in terms of the loss of thousands of Ugandans, but also because of its dehumanizing (making people feel less than human) effects. Human life had become less important than wealth.
Most government funds were devoted to the armed forces and to Amin's safety. Health, transport, production of food and cash crops (easily marketable crops), industrial and manufacturing sectors, and foreign investments were neglected. Despite his growing poor reputation, Amin was elected chairman of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), an organization of African nations, on July 28, 1975. In 1977 African countries blocked a United Nations resolution that would have condemned Amin for his gross violation of human rights.
By the late 1970s Amin's luck was running out. The economy was getting worse. Arabs were concerned about Amin's failure to show how Uganda was becoming an Islamic nation but also concerned about his killing of fellow Muslims. It was becoming difficult for Amin to import luxury goods for his army. To distract attention from the country's internal crises, Amin ordered an invasion of Tanzania in October 1978, supposedly because the latter planned to overthrow his government. Amin's army was forced back. 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, but he later moved to Jidda, Saudi Arabia. There he spends his time reciting the Koran (the holy book of Islam), reading books, playing an accordion, swimming, fishing, and watching television—especially sports programs and news channels. He follows events in his homeland closely.
Grahame, Iain. Amin and Uganda: A Personal Memoir. London: Granada, 1980.
Gwyn, David. Idi Amin: Deathlight of Africa. Boston: Little, Brown, 1977.
Kyemba, Henry. A State of Blood: The Inside Story of Idi Amin. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1977.