Death of a despot, buffoon and killer

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HE WAS one of the most brutal dictators the world has ever known, responsible for the deaths of up to half a million people.

But while Idi Amin escaped justice for his crimes against humanity, death finally caught up with him yesterday.

After 20 years of luxurious exile in Saudi Arabia, the former Ugandan leader died of multiple organ failure, ridden with syphilis. He was buried in the city of Jeddah within hours of his death.

While Amin was undeniably a homicidal despot, who ordered the slaughter of 500,000 people during his reign of terror, he was also a buffoon. He once declared himself the King of Scotland and wore a kilt to the funeral of a Saudi Royal.

Amin took control of Uganda in a military coup in 1971. He ruled the country of 24 million with an iron fist, ordering the slaughter of real and imagined enemies. In 1979, Amin was forced from power by Tanzanian troops and Ugandan exiles after one of the bloodiest rules in African history.

Last night it emerged that Lord Owen, a Foreign Office minister and then Foreign Secretary from 1976 to 1979, when the then Labour government tried to distance itself from Amin, had floated the idea of assassinating the dictator. Owen said: "I actually at one stage did raise the issue of assassination and it was not just frowned on but looked on as an outrageous suggestion.

"I’m not ashamed of considering it, because his regime goes down in the scale of Pol Pot as one of the worst of all."

During his dictatorship, Amin expelled 40,000 Asian Ugandans - many of whom came to Britain - saying God had told him to transform Uganda into "a black man’s country". It was a policy that played to racist attitudes in Uganda towards Asians who had moved there during the British Empire and become wealthy businesspeople.

And it is an attitude that finds Amin some support in Uganda today. Mary Kimeme, 80, of the Ugandan capital Kampala, said yesterday: "I have been praying that he would come back one day and become president again. I miss him."

However, many of his fellow countrymen detested him with just as much passion. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s office said Amin’s death was "good". "His death and burial will signal the end of our bad past," said his spokesman.

Reverend Alfred Ocur, an Anglican priest in the central Ugandan town of Lira, added: "He should have lived longer to repent... he’s going to face eternal judgment."

Amin, a former boxing champion, expressed admiration for Hitler. At the height of the murder campaign, bodies of his enemies had to be fed to the crocodiles in the Nile River because graves could not be dug fast enough. So many corpses were thrown into the water that the remains would occasionally clog the intake ducts at Uganda’s main hydroelectric plant at Jinja.

Amin was reported to have had one of his wives dismembered and some said he practised cannibalism.

In 1976, Amin apparently colluded with a Palestinian group which hijacked an Air France jet and held its Israeli passengers hostage at Entebbe Airport.

Henry Kyemba, Amin’s long-time friend and a former health minister, who defected to Britain in 1977, commented: "Even Amin does not know how many people he has ordered to be executed. The country is littered with bodies."

Amin escaped justice for his crimes when Saudi Arabia gave him sanctuary in the name of Islamic charity.

A Muslim, Amin lived quietly in exile in Jeddah on a government stipend with four wives. He had been in a coma at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in the Red Sea port city since July 18.

Until the full horror of his rule became apparent, Amin, who insisted to visiting world leaders he was not mad, was a figure of fun to many in the West. The dictator’s own letters and comments sometimes played up his image as a joker.

He wrote to US President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal and said he would "ask almighty God to solve your problems".

And after Lord Snowdon separated from Princess Margaret, Amin told him: "Your experience will be a lesson to all of us men to be careful not to marry ladies in high positions."

Many in Britain welcomed Amin when he seized power from another dictator, Milton Obote, in 1971 while the then president was abroad. "Benevolent but tough," was the assessment from British intelligence.

Humorist Alan Coren famously lampooned him in a Punch magazine column written in pidgin English, entitled Bulletins from Idi Amin. But he now doubts the wisdom of finding humour in impersonating the despot and making light of the misery inflicted by African dictators.

Coren said: "After it was published about his monstrousness, I stopped writing about him. I did it when he was a buffoon. As more and more of his crimes became known, I chucked it in. I wonder myself if I ever found any of it funny, but it was rather different then. It was an optimistic time for Africa. The countries had got independence and were all doing fairly well."

Amin had a particular fondness for Scotland dating back to his rise through the ranks of the King’s African Rifles.

His mother, reputedly a sorceress, became a camp follower of the British colonial regiment and the young Amin used to sell doughnuts by the roadside.

After enlisting in the army, he swiftly gained promotion thanks to the support of several Scottish officers. They drank beer with him and played in the same rugby team. According to reports, they also used to hit him on the head with a hammer before matches to get him fired up.

Despite his evident success, he was seen as a rather dim character by the British authorities. An official wrote: "Idi Amin is a splendid type and a good [rugby] player, but virtually bone from the neck up, and needs things explained in words of one letter."

In 1997, the author Giles Foden wrote a book about Amin, The Last King of Scotland, based on a fictional doctor’s friendship with the dictator. A few years later, Foden received a telephone call from a Scottish businessman who worked for the Saudi royal family.

The mysterious caller said he had a message from Amin, who had been read a Swahili transcript of the novel and had some views. "Too much of it is fiction. And the cover, it makes me look like an overfed monkey," was Amin’s verdict.

Broadcaster Sandy Gall, who covered the expulsion of the Ugandan Asians in 1972 for ITN News, had a far more chilling experience of Amin’s judgment. He and a group of journalists were staying in the main hotel in the capital Kampala when there were reports of an attempted invasion by Tanzania. Gall recalled: "Amin panicked. He had all sorts of people arrested, including about a dozen foreign journalists. We were picked up in the one big hotel where we were all staying. I was taken with a Reuters chap, Nick Moore, to the military police barracks.

"He and I were put in what we were later told was an execution cell. There certainly were nasty things happening there. There was blood on the ceiling and bullet holes in the walls.

They were coming in and killing people with 10lb hammers so we didn’t hear any shooting."

Gall, who was eventually freed and deported, added: "Amin was a real gangster. Beneath that apparently jokey exterior there was a very nasty, brutal violent person who did tremendous damage to Uganda. He killed thousands of people. It was a rule of terror."

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