Idi Amin (1925 - 2003) was a Ugandan politician and military officer who acted as President of Uganda from 1971 to 1979. He is widely regarded as one of the most cruel and evil world leaders in history, earning the nickname "The Butcher of Uganda".
While initially popular in the West, his regime shifted towards alignment with other authoritarian leaders like Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi and neighboring Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. Uganda eventually broke relations with the UK, leading Amin to grant himself numerous frivolous titles such as "Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa".
Unrest against his regime increased in the 1970s due to heavy ethnic persecution and abysmal international relations. His final major act as President would be to declare war on Tanzania in an attempt to annex the Kagera Region, which backfired and ended with the capture of Kampala by Tanzanian forces. Amin was forced into exile, switching locations until finally settling in Saudi Arabia for the remainder of his life.
His rule was rampant with human rights abuses, ethnic cleansing, nepotism, and complete economic failure. Most international groups agree that between 100 - 500 thousand people were killed during his tenure.
Table of Contents
No official accounts of Amin's early life exist, and there are many conflicting claims about his date of birth. Most biographies place him as being born in 1925, although some place it as early as 1923 and one of his sons places is birth in 1928.
It is also unknown exactly where he was born, with most accounts agreeing he was born in either Koboko or Kampala. His father was Andreas Nyabire, a Kakwa, converted to Islam in 1910 and named his son after his adopted name; Amin Dada. His mother was a Lugbara named Assa Aatte, who was an herbalist who treated Bugandan royalty. He grew up in a small farming village with his mother, as his father abandoned him when he was very young.
He enrolled in an Islamic school in Bombo in 1941, leaving after a few years with only a fourth-grade education. He was eventually recruited to the British Army in 1946.
Amin became a member of the King's African Rifles (KAR) in 1946, initially as an assistant cook. He would be transferred as a private for infantry service in Kenya, going on to fight Somali rebels in the Shifta War in 1949. His unit would also fight in the Mau Mau Uprising of 1952, and in the following year he would quickly be promoted to corporal and sergeant.
He would reach the rank of afande in 1959, which was the highest possible rank for an African officer in the British Army at the time. In 1961, he would become one of the first Ugandans to be a commissioned officer when he was promoted to lieutenant.
Amin became a part of the Uganda Army upon Ugandan independence in 1962, climbing the ranks rapidly until becoming Commander of the Armed Forces in 1970.
He was noted for his athleticism throughout his military career, standing at an imposing 6' 4" (1.93 m). He would become the lightweight boxing champion of Uganda from 1951 - 1960, along with possessing talent in swimming and rugby, going on to play in Nile RFC.
In 1965, Amin, along with Prime Minister Obote, were alleged to be participating in a plot to smuggle mass amounts of ivory and gold from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The allegations stated that Obote intended to supply anti-government rebels in the Congo with arms from Amin in return for the smuggled ivory and gold. In response, Obote scrapped the constitution and removed the honorary presidency of Bugandan King Mutesa II, declaring himself president and making Amin army commander. Amin would then lead an attack on the king's palace, forcing him into exile within the United Kingdom.
Amin eventually fell out with Obote over various factors, including Amin's growing power from mass recruitment and his forces assisting rebel groups in South Sudan. Obote would go on to take personal control of the armed forces, demoting Amin back to Commander of the Uganda Army.
In 1971, Amin would learn that Obote intended to have him imprisoned for misusing army funds. Amin seized the presidency, using the fact that Obote was out of the country in Singapore while attending a Commonwealth meeting. His armies occupied Kampala, surrounding Obote's home and shutting down the airport.
Amin declared that his government would only be a transitional government while democracy was implemented in Uganda. He also pledged to release all political prisoners, and his government held a state funeral for King Mutesa II, who had recently died in exile.
Amin officially declared himself President and Commander-in-chief (along with various other top command positions) a week after the coup. He suspended the constitution and established a council comprised of various military officers as his advisors, and gave military tribunals greater status than civil courts. He would fill his cabinet mostly with military officers, and informed all civil officers that they would adhere to military discipline. Lastly, Amin was granted the right to rule by decree.
With his new powers, he changed the name of the presidential palace to "The Command Post", and established multiple agencies to serve as military and secret police, most prominently being the State Research Bureau (SRB). The SRB would become well known for orchestrating the torture and execution of political prisoners at its headquarters in Kampala. Obote would go on to live in exile in Tanzania, bringing 20,000 Ugandan refugees with him. These 20,000 attempted to overthrow Amin in 1972, but failed.
Amin would persecute many groups throughout his time in office, beginning in the early 1970s as he purged the Uganda Army of Obote supporters. In 1971, he ordered the slaughter of Lango and Acholi soldiers in their barracks, with an estimated 5,000 soldiers and potentially twice as many civilians having disappeared by 1972. His regime would go on to slaughter journalists, bureaucrats, students lawyers and suspected criminals on either minimal criminal charges or completely at random.
These massacres persisted throughout the entirety of his time in office, with the exact number of those killed remaining unknown. The International Commission of Jurists places the minimum death toll at 80,000 although their estimates go up to as much as 300,000. A coalition of human rights groups with the assistance of Amnesty International placed their estimated figure at 500,000.
Amin maintained personal safety by recruiting the vast majority of the generals and cabinet ministers from his own Kakwa ethnic group or from his own religion, Islam. The army would still be primarily made up of mercenaries, however.
In 1972, Amin would put forward new policies directed towards Europeans and Asians living in the country, directly expropriating all of their properties as part of a so-called "economic war".
His distaste for the Asian population would eventually lead to a decree which expelled all 50,000 Asians who held British passports from the country, with their properties being expropriated and freely handed to his supporters. The mismanagement of these businesses lead to catastrophic damage to the Ugandan economy, with entire industries collapsing.
Amin initially received broad support from the West, including countries like Israel and the UK, although this changed after he implemented some farther left policies. Amin remained connected with the UK early on, holding a reputation as very loyal to Britain due to his services with the KAR, with the UK and its allies plotting Obote's replacement with him beginning in 1969.
Following the expulsion of Ugandan Asians in 1972, however, India cut all ties with Uganda and Uganda severed its relations with the UK and nationalized all British-owned businesses in Uganda.
That same year, Amin expelled all Israeli military advisers and fiercely aligned himself with Muammar Gaddafi's Libya and the Soviet Union, despite Israeli military assistance. The USSR became Amin's primary weapons supplier, and East Germany collaborated with Ugandan secret police to assist in the persecution of political dissent.
US relations also withered away at the suggestion of Ambassador Thomas Patrick Melady, describing the regime as "racist, erratic and unpredictable, brutal, inept, bellicose, irrational, ridiculous, and militaristic".
One of the most famous events of Amin's rule would occur 1976, when he allowed a flight hijacked en route to Tel Aviv by Palestinian rebels and German guerillas to land at Entebbe Airport in Kampala. 156 non-Jewish passengers would be released to safety, while the remaining 83 Jews and 20 that refused to hand over their Israeli passports were held as hostages. Israel would launch a rescue operation, named Operation Thunderbolt (widely remembered as Operation Entebbe), which was a general success and resulted in almost every hostage being freed. The casualties of the operation would consist of 3 hostages, 7 hijackers, 45 Ugandan soldiers and one Israeli solider (the commander of the operation). Subsequently, one hostage who had been transferred to a hospital was murdered by the military. Amin would also order the massacre of hundreds of Kenyans within the country, as Kenya assisted in the operation as well. This incident would cause overwhelming damage to Uganda's international relations.
Relations with Kenya began deteriorated in 1975, when Uganda began building up a large military force on Kenya's border. The same year, Kenyan officials discovered and confiscated a mass amount of Soviet arms in Mombasa on a ship headed for Uganda. In 1976, Amin announced he would research if parts of South Sudan and Western/Central Kenya were historically Ugandan, leading the Kenyan government to release a statement that they would not give up any land. Amin backed down from his investigation after significant military forces were deployed by Kenya along the Kenya-Uganda border.
Fall from power
A rift would begin in the Ugandan military between supporters of Vice-President Mustafa Adrisi and those of Amin. Adrisi wished to expel all foreign soldiers from the Ugandan military and he continued to gain power in the government. Amin's group of supporters began to start shrinking by 1978, mostly due to broad dissent from the civilian populous as Ugandan business and infrastructure collapsed. A few of Amin's ministers would flee the country following the execution of 3 church leaders. Adrisi would be seriously injured in a car accident in 1978, forcing him to fly to Cairo to seek advanced treatment. While there, Amin would strip him of some cabinet positions, denouncing him and starting a purge in the cabinet. This angered Adrisi's supporters immensely, and it was widely rumored the car accident was an attempted assassination.
In late 1978, military forces loyal to Adrisi mutinied against Amin's regime. Amin sent troops to fight the mutineers and followed them into Tanzanian territory, leading to a full invasion of Tanzanian territory to be declared by the Uganda Army under dubious circumstances. Experts still debate why this invasion was launched, with the two primary theories being he either lost control of the army and the invasion was started without his orders or he used the invasion to distract the Ugandan people from domestic failure. Whatever the cause, he proclaimed the annexation of the Kagera Territory after very brief success.
In 1979, President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania mobilized Tanzanian forces against Uganda, assisted by Ugandan refugees comprising the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA). Amin's armies put up very little flight, and he was inevitably forced to flee to Libya via helicopter as Tanzanian forces captured Kampala. He remained in Libya until 1980, moving and settling to Saudi Arabia. He was personally given sanctuary by the Saudi royal family and paid generously for remaining out of politics. He would live for many years at the top floor of the Novotel hotel, where he continued to fund the small remnants of forces loyal to him in the Ugandan Bush war. He would remain influential in Uganda for years to come, with some advocating for his return to Uganda and even potentially re-accession to the presidency. Groups would also fight under his name in the Ugandan Bush War for decades.
Amin, when interviewed in exile, still believed his actions were justified and showed no remorse for his orders.
Amin was reported to be in a severe coma and near death on 19 July, 2003 by his fourth wife as a result of kidney failure. She attempted to appeal President Yoweri Museveni to allow him to return to Uganda, but these attempts were ultimately futile as Museveni states he would "answer for his sins the moment he was brought back". His family turned off his life support, leading to his death on 16 August 2003 in Jeddah. He was buried in Ruwais Cemetery in a plain grave without a large funeral. It was revealed shortly after his death that former British Foreign Secretary David Owen proposed Amin be assassinated in 1979, a proposal he does not regret.
Amin was a polygamist, marrying a total of at least six wives during his life, three of whom he would divorce. He married first and second wives Malyamu and Kay in 1966. The next year, he married third wife Nora. In 1972, he married fourth wife Nalongo Madina. In 1974, it was announced on Ugandan radio he had divorced his first three wives. Malyamu was later arrested after being accused of smuggling fabric into Kenya, Kay died in unknown circumstances and was later found dismembered, and Nora fled to Zaire and has not been seen since.
In 1975, Amin married 19-year-old Sarah Kyolaba in a massive 2 million euro pound wedding. The wedding occured at an Organization of African Unity summit, with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat acting as Amin's best man. Sarah's previous boyfriend was Jesse Gitta, who disappeared under suspicious circumstances with general consensus being he was either beheaded or detained while attempting to flee to Kenya. Amin and Sarah went on to have four children together. Sarah died in 2015 in Tottenham. In 1993, Amin was reported to be living with one wife, Mama a Chumaru (mother of his four youngest children) and nine of his children. His last known child was daughter Iman, born in 1992. A few months before his death, some outlets reported he had married again.
Amin fathered between 43 and 54 children in his lifetime. His oldest son, Taban Amin, was leader of a rebel group in Uganda until 2003, the West Nile Bank Front (WNBF). He was granted amnesty by President Museveni in 2005. Another son, Haji Ali Amin, ran for Mayor of Njeru in 2002, but lost. His son Jaffar reportedly spoke out in 2007 against the film The Last King of Scotland, stating his intentions to write a book that would heal his father's reputation. His son Faisal Wangita was convicted as part of a murder case in London.
Odd behavior and appearance in media
One of the most famous aspects of Amin was his tendency towards strange and unpredictable behavior. Following the severance of relations with the UK, Amin declared himself Conqueror of the British Empire (CBE). He would continually add titles to himself, culminating in his full title becoming
His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, Victorious Cross (VC), Distinguished Service Order (DSO), Military Cross (MC), Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire (CBE) in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular
Along with this title, he officially claimed to be the uncrowned King of Scotland. He was never recipient of the DSO or MC, and he created the so-called "Victorious Cross" as an alternative to the Victoria Cross. He conferred a doctorate of law from Makerere University upon himself as well.
Amin was at the center of many rumors throughout his rule, one of the most well-known being the rumour that he was a cannibal. Amin is on record boasting about keeping his enemies' heads in his freezer, although he has stated that human flesh is generally "too salty" for his taste. Some rumors were spread widely through the films The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin and The Last King of Scotland.
Amin was portrayed by foreign media during his tenure as a comical figure, with a 1977 description by Time magazine calling him "killer and clown, a big-hearted buffoon and strutting martinet". His likeness would be parodied in four sketches by Saturday Night Live, along with being portrayed in a skit by comedian Benny Hill.
Western media was often criticized by Ugandan refugees for its comical view of Amin, choosing to highlight his strange eccentricities as opposed to his brutal and torturous acts. Some foreign observers have even proposed Amin purposefully cultivated a silly image of himself to international press to distract from his crimes against humanity.
The legacy of Idi Amin, as described by historian Alicia Decker, is most enduring in the deep militarism that runs in Ugandan culture today. His reputation in Uganda remains controversial, with particular parts of the country remaining supportive of his actions and regime, specifically the decision to expel Asians from the country. He specifically remains popular in Northwest Uganda. His son Jaffar has fought against the negative perception of Amin in the world and has campaigned for a commission to assess the veracity of his crimes.