Idi Amin

Idi Amin, former Ugandan president

Born: 1 January, 1925, in Koboko, Uganda

Died: 16 August, 2003, in Saudi Arabia, aged 78

IDI Amin Dada ran Africa’s most ruthlessly brutal regime as the military dictator of Uganda for nearly a decade in the 1970s. A former British Army cook who made himself a Field Marshal, he once proposed marriage to Princess Anne as a way of patching up relations between Britain and Uganda.

He also had a love affair with Scottish kitsch and declared himself king of Scotland as well as Emperor of Uganda. He had a spell of military training at Stirling and named four of his sons Campbell, McLaren, McKenzie and Mackintosh.

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Such buffoonery made him a favourite subject of satirists, comedians and the tabloids, who dubbed the 6ft 4in giant - Uganda’s heavyweight boxing champion from 1951 to 1960 - Big Daddy. But the fun so many had at the expense of Amin’s bizarre rhetoric and delusions of grandeur made it easy to ignore the nightmare that he imposed upon the Ugandan people. His excesses were hardly taken seriously until they affected those who helped him into power, namely the British and the Israelis.

But Amin was a very bad joke, a true human monster. His absurdity lay at the heart of darkness. Raised through the military ranks by British colonial officers who considered him a "good chap" who played rugby and obeyed orders, Amin began an eight-year orgy of slaughter and lunatic inhumanity after overthrowing the president, Milton Obote, in a military coup in January 1971.

Human rights organisations estimate Amin’s murder squads killed as many as half a million Ugandans. Victims included rival military factions; tribal groups Amin deemed hostile; pre-Amin politicians; religious leaders, including the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda; lawyers, including the chief justice; foreign travellers; and wives and lovers. In 1972 he expelled 80,000 Asians from the country and expropriated all their businesses and properties.

Evil and perverse though Amin was, he seemed for a while to fill a strange need in black Africa. To many Africans, he was a charismatic figure and master showman who symbolised the revival of black nationalism, an anti-hero who stood up to whites and humiliated Asians, always taking centre stage and manipulating the international media. Many of his peers considered his behaviour courageous and anti-colonial. His fellow African heads of state quietly overlooked his atrocities.

He was finally overthrown after trying to annex a part of Tanzania neighbouring southeastern Uganda. Just before launching his military incursion, he challenged the diminutive Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere to a boxing match. The dictator offered to enter the ring with Nyerere with one arm tied behind his back. Nyerere stayed silent.

The taunting of Nyerere was his biggest mistake. About 45,000 Tanzanian troops, assisted by armed Ugandan exiles, counter-invaded and put Amin’s ill-disciplined army to flight. The Tanzanians took Kampala, Uganda’s capital, on 11 April, 1979. Amin, a Moslem, fled to Libya and then, briefly, to Iraq before finally settling in the Red Sea port of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The Saudis provided him with a house, cars, drivers, cooks, maids and a monthly allowance. In return, the Saudis demanded that their infamous guest stay silent and enter political retirement.

Amin gave his official birth date as 1 January, 1925, but he was not sure when in 1924 or 1925 he was born into the small Kakwa tribe at Koboko in the north-west corner of Uganda, near its borders with Congo and Sudan.

Amin’s peasant mother was abandoned by her husband soon after Idi’s birth. She and her son subsequently lived with a clerk in the barracks of the King’s African Rifles (KAR) in Jinja, near the source of the Nile. Amin received little schooling and was effectively illiterate for the rest of his life. The teenage Amin sold mandazi (African doughnuts) on Jinja’s streets before being accepted as a trainee cook in the KAR.

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Amin fitted the British colonial stereotype of coming from a "warrior" tribe - the Kakwa are closely related to the physically magnificent and "warlike" Nubians of the Sudan. He joined the regular KAR ranks as a private and rapidly became a corporal, serving against the Mau Mau during its 1952-56 anti-British revolt in Kenya.

Amin rose to sergeant and then became one of only two native Ugandans to be commissioned by the British in the pre-independence army. As a lieutenant in early 1962, he was sent on an expedition against the free-ranging, cattle-rustling Karimojong, Turkana and Pokot tribes of Uganda’s "wild lands" in the north-east.

There were widespread allegations of brutality against Amin - on one occasion, he was accused of castrating eight Karimojong to extract confessions. He was almost court-martialled and was saved only because, with independence approaching, it would have been politically embarrassing to take action against one of the two Ugandan officers in the army.

After independence, two army factions developed - Amin loyalists who, like their mentor, had come up through the ranks, and a new, younger generation who had come directly from Sandhurst Military College.

Uganda’s first prime minister, Milton Obote, promoted Amin, whose trademark was a tartan forage cap, to army chief, and together the pair established a lucrative ivory and gold smuggling operation from the Congo. When Obote cracked down on, and then abolished, the four independent-minded hereditary kingdoms of southern Uganda, he used his army chief to do the dirty work. Amin killed hundreds of Baganda tribesmen in an attack on the Kampala palace of the Kabaka (king) of Buganda.

Obote established a one-party socialist republic, declared himself president, threatened to nationalise British-owned businesses and plotted to get rid of Amin, whose growing power he feared.

Instead, Amin got rid of Obote, with the help of MI6 and Mossad, the intelligence services of Britain and Israel. Amin struck on 25 January, 1971, while Obote was attending a Commonwealth summit in Singapore. Britain immediately recognised the new Ugandan ruler, who dressed his crack units in kilts and established a pipe band.

The Daily Telegraph called him "a welcome contrast to other African leaders and a staunch friend of Britain". Israel described Amin as its special African friend and he graduated with Israeli army paratroop wings after training in the Negev Desert.

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Amin made state visits to Britain in 1971 and 1972, during which he enjoyed a ceremonial trip to Edinburgh and dinner in London with the Queen (on the silver anniversary of the Queen’s coronation, Amin asked her to send him her "25-year-old knickers" to mark the celebrations).

But even as Britain and Israel were welcoming the military dictator, Amin’s mass killing had begun. Former ministers who served Obote were the first to die. Amin’s special killer squads - the State Research Bureau and the Public Safety Unit - butchered Sandhurst-trained officers and soldiers from the Langi and Acholi ethnic groups, the backbone of the army. Truckloads of murdered soldiers were dumped into the Nile, to be replaced by Amin’s "Nubians".

No one was immune from the murder squads. The chief justice, Benedicto Kiwanuka, was dragged from the High Court by soldiers and never seen again. The vice-chancellor of the University of Makerere, once the finest university in black Africa, disappeared. When Janan Luwuum, Uganda’s Anglican Archbishop, spoke out against the reign of terror, Amin publicly denounced him. The archbishop’s bullet-riddled body, still in ecclesiastical robes, was later dumped in a Kampala mortuary. Amin also killed and dismembered Kay, the feistiest of his many wives, and dumped her remains in the boot of the car of her lover, who was also killed.

Towards the end of 1972, Amin switched allegiance from Britain and Israel to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and the Palestinians. The Israelis, his close military advisers, had refused to give him a squadron of Phantom jets to bomb Kenya and Tanzania. He advised the Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, to "tuck up her knickers" and run to Washington, setting the scene for one of modern history’s most dramatic rescue missions.

In June 1976, Palestinian terrorists hijacked an Air France plane on a flight from Tel Aviv, flew it to Uganda’s Entebbe airport and, with Amin’s co-operation, held hostage 100 Israeli passengers. In a remarkably daring night raid on 4 July, Israeli commandos routed Ugandan soldiers guarding the airfield and rescued the hostages.

The only revenge that Amin could take was against a lone elderly passenger, Dora Bloch, who had been taken to hospital in Kampala when a piece of meat got lodged in her throat. After the Israeli commandos flew out, State Research Bureau men hauled her out of bed and, in full view of hospital staff, dragged her screaming to a waiting car. Her body was dumped in a forest 20 miles from Kampala.

Amin, who awarded himself the VC (Victorious Cross) and CBE (Conqueror of the British Empire), survived at least a dozen assassination attempts before he fled from Uganda in the wake of Tanzania’s invasion. He is survived by six wives, several ex-wives, numerous concubines and at least 43 children.


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