"Say what you want to about the tenets of National Socialism. At least it's an ethos, dude." --Walter Sobchak, The Big Lebowski
Idi Amin: A Bad, Bad Man
Idi Amin, the former dictator of Uganda from 1971-1979, was quite possibly one of the craziest, cruelest rulers ever to get his hands on a state. While his body count doesn't even approach that of men like Pol Pot or Hitler, Amin tried very hard to make up for it with sheer lunacy, using terror and torture whenever the first strategy failed. The first strategy usually failed.
Amin was born in Buganda to Northwest Ugandan parents some time around 1925. The date is uncertain because the man himself refuses to disclose his actual age. He probably only went to school through the second grade, although this is also uncertain. He aimed for a military career from a young age, though, and claimed later to have served in World War II in Burma under the British, although he probably only served as a cook or orderly and may not have been in the army at all at that time. He definitely did join the King's African Rifles by 1946, though. In the tradition of other fine statesman like Abraham Lincoln, he pursued a career as a pugilist and wound up holding the Heavyweight Championship of Uganda from 1951 to 1960. He gained the attention of his military superiors by doing so, and after his battalion helped to put down the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, he was promoted to lieutenant in 1962. At about the same time, a group of soldiers under his command was ordered to disarm a number of cattle raiders in northeast Uganda by the British government, and while doing so apparently tortured several suspects. The British were informed of this and told the prime minister of the newly independent Uganda, a man named Milton Obote, about it. Obote, who would himself play an important part in the history of Uganda, chose to overlook Amin's transgressions, a sin of omission that would come back to haunt both him and the rest of the country later on.
Amin was promoted quickly through the ranks, attaining the rank of captain in 1963 and colonel and deputy commander of the army in quick succession in 1964. During this time, Ugandans were assisting rebels in the former Belgian Congo. Said rebels were paying the Ugandan government in gold, a notoriously untraceable medium of currency. At about the same time, Amin made some sizeable deposits into his personal bank account that he later admitted were a result of his interactions with the Congolese rebels, although he said that he was going to give the money back pretty soon. Amin was not the only one implicated, however; a number of top officials, including Milton Obote (who was still in charge of the country) were also implicated in this scandal. As a result, the leaders of the partially autonomous region of Uganda called Buganda began to call for the removal from office of Obote, threatening to secede from Uganda if their demands were not met. Obote responded by sending Amin to attack the Bugandan kabaka (a position roughly analogous to a king) at his palace. Amin's forces were successful and forced the kabaka to flee the country. As a reward for this service to Obote, Amin was promoted to commander of the Ugandan armed forces.
The Worst Clown Ever
By most accounts, Amin was a very silly public personality during this period. He is said to have liked jumping into swimming pools at parties in full dress uniform, and he had a great fondness for driving expensive cars in auto rallies with his youngest wife, Sarah, who now owns a restaurant in London. At some point during his time in Uganda, the Ugandan media published a story claiming that Amin ate dozens of oranges every day. Ever since then Amin has refused to have his picture taken, saying that by doing so he is punishing the Ugandan media for publishing that story. He also played the accordion.
If Idi Amin was a Far Side character, the accordion playing would be enough to establish him as evil. This being the real world, however, Amin apparently felt the need to establish this fact in other ways. He would be given his opportunity to do so when relations between himself and Obote began to deteriorate as a result of a chain of events that started in 1969. There was an assassination attempt on Obote, and Amin apparently fled to a military base rather than taking active charge of the army in the immediate aftermath. An army officer named Pierino Okoya took the opportunity to denounce Amin for cowardice and was murdered under mysterious circumstances not too long afterward in 1970. Obote, almost certainly sensing that Amin was maybe a little too crazy to be in charge of several thousand men with guns, moved him to an administrative position later in the year. Obote took a trip out of the country in January of 1971, and while he was gone, Amin figured out that he was going to be arrested and charged with embezzling funds from the military. Amin responded by taking over the country, which is a hell of a trump card in that situation.
Idi Amin was now in charge and decided that he would tolerate no dissent whatsoever, whether real or imagined. Although he appointed good cabinet ministers at first, he didn't listen to a word they said. Much of his time was spent consolidating his power and seeking to eliminate any and every potential threat. 1971 saw large-scale cleansings of members of the Langi and Acholi ethnic groups from the army, since they were suspected of siding with Obote. After he had killed a huge portion of his own army in this way, he asked England and Israel if they wouldn't mind giving out a little bit of military aid. They said no, and in retaliation and frustration he expelled all Israeli advisors from the country in 1972. He then turned instead to Libya, who was more than happy to oblige a fellow Muslim who had recently broken diplomatic ties with Israel by donating military aid. This pretty well turned Amin against Jews in general, as evidenced by the fact that he wrote letters to the U.N. following the Black September massacres of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. In those letters, he said not only that the terrorists themselves had done a good thing but also praised Hitler's conduct during the Holocaust.
That was just the start, however. Later in 1972 he woke up from a nap claiming that God had just told him in a dream that he should expel all non-citizen Indians and Pakistanis from Uganda. It didn't take too long for him to decide to extend the expulsion to citizens of Uganda who fit those ethnic groups, as well, though. This was bad not just because it was a major forced diaspora of a huge number of people (official counts are around 40,000, although many more went uncounted) but also because almost all of Uganda's businesses were owned by those people. While it may make a certain amount of sense to want to get rid of the upper class of a given society, it's almost never a good idea to turn your whole economy over to the friends of an insane dictator. Because Amin, a big fan of nepotism, redistributed ownership of those businesses to his friends and family, or at least those who had ties to him, almost all of the leaders of the new Ugandan economy had no idea how to run a business. Uganda thus suffered from shortages, higher prices, and a generally shattered economy because of Amin's ill-fated nap.
The Boxing Glove Tightens
Obote had not been idle in his absence, however, and tried to stage a coup from Tanzania in 1972 to reassert power in Uganda. The coup was not successful except in the sense that it made Amin feel insecure in his power. Amin just got crazier and crazier after that, and began to become increasingly brutal. It was during this period that he began to dispatch death squads to hunt down and execute civilians suspected of dissent, especially members of the Langi and Acholi ethnic groups. They didn't just execute them, however; the bodies were usually found horribly mutilated, a fact which gave rise to rumors of witchcraft being practiced within the Ugandan government. At least 300,000 people were killed, although estimates range as high as half a million. His main base for these activities was called the State Research Bureau, which was located at Nakasero. Awful tortures were carried out at this installation, to which even Amin's right-hand man, Englishman Bob Astles, was sent at one point. Nails were hammered into people's skulls, their limbs were broken, broken bottles were jammed into their knees and elbows, they were slowly strangulated by way of sisal ropes, and other, more conventional tortures such as whips and knives were used too. One particularly brutal rumor tells of prisoners being forced to kill one another with hammers. Humiliation did not even stop at death for some of the victims. Some of the executions, especially of high-ranking army officials, were carried out with a guillotine, whereupon the heads would be frozen so that the dictator could take them out at meals and scold them for failing to back his regime. The executions knew no social or class barriers, either. After the chief justice of Uganda ordered a British businessman who was being held without a warrant to be set free, the chief justice was executed. The same happened to the vice-chancellor of Makerere University and a number of ministers in Amin's own government, as well as an Anglican Archbishop named Luwum who was killed in what was called a traffic accident but was actually a poorly masked political assassination. Although many of the killings were politically motivated, many more were carried out more or less at random by the death squads, again evoking the dual themes of cruelty and anarchy that seem to exemplify Amin's reign.
Although he was ostracized by the international community, some tried to placate or at least moderate his insanity. The other heads of state of Africa tried to do so in 1975 when they elected him to a one year term as chair of the Organization of African Unity. This didn't work. Although the United States cut off aid to Uganda in 1972 in protest of Amin's policies, he was still able to get aid from both Libya and the U.S.S.R., both of which were probably motivated by mutual hatreds of the U.S. and Israel.
Idi Amin definitely hated Israel. There could be no question of this fact when in 1976 he allowed Palestinian terrorists to land a hijacked Air France plane whose passengers were mainly Jewish at his Entebbe airport, even going so far as to provide a small backing force for the hijackers of about 80-100 of his Ugandan soldiers. The terrorists were allowed to use the airport as a base of operations until an Israeli commando raid rescued most of the one hundred hostages. Three hostages and an Israeli commander were killed in the raid at a cost of 20-40 Ugandan soldiers and all of the terrorists. Amin was not one to take defeat lying down, however, and in revenge he dispatched a crack team of assassins to a hospital in Uganda to kill an old lady who had been injured while a hostage. Score one for Idi.
Fall From Power
Fortunately for Uganda, Amin was on his way out, though. In late 1978, Amin chose to cover up an army mutiny in Uganda by invading Tanzania. He had a lot of success at first and managed to occupy a 700 square mile strip of Tanzania to the north of the Kagera river for two months in 1978. While there, his forces pretty much made themselves at home by torturing and killing Tanzanian citizens and killing livestock out of spite. The Tanzanians were none too happy about this, and after they expelled the invaders, they proceeded to conduct a counter-invasion in 1979. After that, things went swiftly downhill for Amin, and by April they took over the capital, Kampala, and Uganda was finally free of Idi Amin.
Although he'd had his ass pretty much handed to him by the Tanzanians, Amin managed to escape with his life. He first fled to his old ally, Libya, but he just couldn't behave himself. After the Libyan police and his personal security force had a run-in, he was asked to leave the country by the end of 1979. He went to Saudi Arabia, and lived in Jeddah for a number of years in relative seclusion. A few journalists have tracked him down for interviews, and they tell of a man who owns several cars, at least five satellite dishes, and who is now reluctant to start talking about politics although hard to shut up when started. He still plays the accordion and still allows no pictures, although he drinks orange juice incessantly throughout the interviews.
Amin hasn't been idle in exile, though. In 1989, he was caught in Zaire on his way to reenter Uganda. When identified, he was made to go back to Saudi Arabia, where he has continued to attempt to fool with Ugandan politics. In 1999, the Saudi government forced him to move from luxurious Jeddah to relatively spartan Mecca as a result of his attempts to funnel arms to Ugandan rebels. Oh, Idi, when will you ever learn?
Fairly Subjective Afternote
That's Idi Amin, then. If you've read this far, you might be wondering why I included the quote at the top. Aside from the fact that The Big Lebowski is one of my favorite movies, I included the quote because it illustrates a pretty important fact about Idi Amin. See, you know where you stand with some oppressive regimes. If you're a Jew in Nazi Germany, you're in trouble. If you're an intellectual in Pol Pot's Cambodia, you're in trouble. But with the case of Idi Amin, if you were in the country at all, regardless of race, creed, religion, or anything else, you were in trouble. At the risk of editorializing as well as over-generalizing, it all goes to show that rule of law is always better than rule of man.
Ed note: After spending 4 weeks in a coma at a Jeddah hospital, Idi Amin died of kidney failure on 16th August 2003.