Born c. 1925, in Koboko, Uganda; died from multiple organ failure, August 16, 2003, in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. Dictator. Idi Amin ruled Uganda for eight years through terror and mayhem. He drove the once–prosperous nation over the brink of financial ruin and initiated a level of chaos from which Uganda has struggled to escape. A global pariah, Amin was sanctioned by countless nations and condemned by human rights organizations. His place in history was guaranteed by a combination of unfortunate timing and charismatic bullying.
Born Idi Amin Dada in northern Uganda, near Sudan and Congo, his father was a member of the Kakwa tribe while his mother came from the Lugbara tribe. Amin lived with his mother after his parents separated. She is said to have worked as a cane cutter and lived with several different military men. In the cities in which they lived, they stayed within the Nubian settlements—tribes with which he eventually became closely linked during his rule.
Amin had very little formal education; reports vary on the actual grade level that he reached. In his early 20s, between 1944 and 1946, he joined the King's African Rifles, the British colonial regiment of East Africa. One report states that he joined as a cook, another that he was a private. Because he had not been well educated, Amin found it difficult to advance within the ranks. This obstacle was eventually overcome and he was made corporal in 1949.
In the 1950s he reportedly fought against the Mau Mau guerrillas in Kenya. By the end of the 1960s, as Uganda was facing the end of British colonial rule, Amin was promoted several more times. In 1957 or 1959 he was promoted to sergeant major. The British military considered Amin a possible candidate for a leadership role and gave him the rank of "effendi"—reserved exclusively for noncommissioned officers native to Uganda. From 1951 to 1960, Amin used his 6' 4" frame to hold the title of Ugandan heavyweight boxing champion, a title that earned him some amount of fame and respect in his country.
In 1963, Uganda gained independence from Britain and its first prime minister took control of the country. With Prime Minister Milton Obote's approval, Amin was promoted to major and sent to both Britain and Israel for further training. During this time he earned his paratrooper wings. Obote found a helpful ally in Amin and in 1964 promoted him to colonel. Amin was also given command over the army and air force.
In February of 1966, members of Parliament brought charges of misappropriation of funds against Amin. He was accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gold and ivory from guerrillas in the Congo whom he was supposed to be arming. In reaction to the charges, Prime Minister Obote suspended the Constitution and Amin arrested the ministers who had originally brought the charges. Amin was now in complete control of the military and the police. By April of that year, Amin and Obote had forced the King of Baganda, with whom the prime minister had a power–sharing agreement, into exile and consolidated power under Obote. Obote promoted Amin to brigadier general and then major general.
Amin and Obote worked closely together for several years but eventually Obote began to harbor suspicions regarding Amin's intentions. The prime minister initiated an inquiry into the whereabouts of millions of dollars missing from the military budget. In January of 1971, while Obote was away at a conference in Singapore, Amin took control of Uganda. The power grab was initially looked upon favorably by other African nations as well as some in Britain and Israel who had lucrative business contracts with Uganda. Eventually this pleasure would turn to horror as Amin's death squads took their toll on the country's population and his bizarre public behavior dissolved international opinion, leading some to call him a buffoon, sociopath, and murderer.
In 1972, only a year after taking power, he began to exhibit the behavior that eventually earned him scorn and condemnation. He asked Israel for monetary and military aid. When they refused he expelled as many as 500 Israelis from Uganda, launching invectives against Zionism and the Jewish people. That same year he deported more than 40,000 Ugandan born Indians and Pakistanis. Since they comprised the majority of the business and merchant class in Uganda, the economy was severely disabled.
As his rule continued, his behavior became more erratic and bizarre. He presented himself with so many awards and medals that at times his uniform ripped from the weight. He publicly humiliated a group of British businessmen by forcing them to carry him on a throne. Others he forced to bow before him and swear allegiance. He offered to become king of Scotland. All the while he also hurled insults at world leaders.
Beneath the show of buffoonery Amin showed himself to be a calculating and frightening dictator. Those who opposed him or were from rival tribes were often the focus of death squads. Hundreds of thousands of people were murdered, executed, or disappeared during his rule. He campaigned against the Anglican Church, arresting and murdering its leaders and deporting many of the clergy. The number of Ugandans killed during his tenure is estimated to range anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000.
His confidence was severely shaken in 1976 when Israeli commandoes successfully rescued 102 hostages from a hijacked plane that had landed in Uganda. The commandoes had subverted Ugandan forces and destroyed war planes owned by the Ugandan Air Force. In retaliation he killed a 73–year–old woman who had been a hostage and was recovering in a Ugandan hospital.
As his tenure continued he faced mounting internal pressure. Several unsuccessful takeovers were put down. His army had become restless and ready for rebellion. In 1978 he decided to invade Tanzania, to keep his army occupied and focused. Tanzanian troops, along with the help of Ugandan exiles, were able to stop the invasion and mounted a counter–invasion that led to the takeover of the Ugandan city of Kampala on April 12, 1979. Amin was forced to flee. In exile, Amin was granted asylum in Saudi Arabia under the condition that he refrain from politics.
Amin remained in Saudi Arabia until his death, living in the city of Riyadh. He spent his exile reading from the Koran, watching television, and playing the accordion. Amin is reported to have had at least four wives and more than 30 children. David Lamb of the Los Angeles Times described Amin as follows, "More a tribal chief than a president, he was a master showman who loved center stage and knew how to use the international media." He died on August 16, 2003, without ever facing charges for the crimes he committed in Uganda.
Chicago Tribune, August 17, 2003, sec. 1, p. 3; Los Angeles Times, August 16, 2003, p. A1, p. A5; New York Times, August 17, 2003, p. A22; Times (London), August 18, 2003, p. 25; Washington Post, August 17, 2003, p. C11.
— Eve M. B. Hermann