Idi Amin Dada was the military dictator and third President of Uganda from 1971 to 1979. Amin joined the British colonial regiment, the King's African Rifles in 1946, serving in Somalia and Kenya. Eventually, Amin held the rank of Major General in the post-colonial Ugandan Army and became its Commander before seizing power in the military coup of January 1971, deposing Milton Obote. He later promoted himself to Field Marshal while he was the head of state.
Amin's rule was characterised by gross human rights abuse, political repression, ethnic persecution, extrajudicial killings, nepotism, corruption, and gross economic mismanagement. The number of people killed as a result of his regime is estimated by international observers and human rights groups to range from 100,000 to 500,000. During his years in power, Amin shifted in allegiance from being a pro-Western ruler enjoying considerable Israeli support to being backed by Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi, the Soviet Union and East Germany. In 1975–1976, Amin became the Chairman of the Organisation of African Unity, a pan-Africanist group designed to promote solidarity of the African states. During the 1977–1979 period, Uganda was appointed to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. In 1977, after the last two British diplomats withdrew from Uganda, Amin declared he had beaten the British and added "CBE", for "Conqueror of the British Empire", to his title. Radio Uganda then announced his entire title: "His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Alhaji Dr. Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE".
Dissent within Uganda and Amin's attempt to annex the Kagera province of Tanzania in 1978 led to the Uganda–Tanzania War and the demise of his eight-year regime. Amin later fled to exile in Libya and Saudi Arabia, where he lived until his death on 16 August 2003.
Amin never wrote an autobiography nor did he authorise any official written account of his life, so there are discrepancies regarding when and where he was born. Most biographical sources hold that he was born in either Koboko or Kampala around 1925. Other unconfirmed sources state Amin's year of birth from as early as 1923 to as late as 1928. According to Fred Guweddeko, a researcher at Makerere University, Idi Amin was the son of Andreas Nyabire (1889–1976). Nyabire, a member of the Kakwa ethnic group, converted from Roman Catholicism to Islam in 1910 and changed his name to Amin Dada in which he named his first-born son after himself. Abandoned by his father at a young age, Idi Amin grew up with his mother's family in a rural farming town in northwestern Uganda. Guweddeko states that Amin's mother was called Assa Aatte (1904–1970), an ethnic Lugbara and a traditional herbalist who treated members of Buganda royalty, among others. Amin joined an Islamic school in Bombo in 1941. After a few years, he left school with nothing more than a fourth grade English-language education and did odd jobs before being recruited to the army by a British colonial army officer.
Chronology of Amin's military promotions
1946 Joins King's African Rifles
1958 Sergeant Major (acting as Platoon Commander)
1959 Effendi (Warrant Officer)
1961 Lieutenant (one of the first two Ugandan Officers)
1964 Deputy Commander of the Army
1965 Colonel, Commander of the Army
1968 Major General
1971 Head of State
Chairman of the Defence Council
Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces
Army Chief of Staff and Chief of Air Staff
1975 Field Marshal
Colonial British Army
Amin joined the King's African Rifles (KAR) of the British Colonial Army in 1946 as an assistant cook. He claimed he was forced to join the Army during World War II and that he served in the Burma Campaign, but records indicate he was first enlisted after the war was concluded. He was transferred to Kenya for infantry service as a private in 1947 and served in the 21st KAR infantry battalion in Gilgil, Kenya until 1949. That year, his unit was deployed to Somalia to fight the Somali Shifta rebels. In 1952 his brigade was deployed against the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya. He was promoted to corporal the same year, then to sergeant in 1953.
In 1959 Amin was made Afande (warrant officer), the highest rank possible for a Black African in the colonial British Army of that time. Amin returned to Uganda the same year and in 1961 he was promoted to lieutenant, becoming one of the first two Ugandans to become commissioned officers. He was assigned to quell the cattle rustling between Uganda's Karamojong and Kenya's Turkana nomads. In 1962, following Uganda's independence from the United Kingdom, Amin was promoted to captain and then, in 1963, to major. He was appointed Deputy Commander of the Army the following year.
Amin was an athlete during his time in both the British and Ugandan army. At 193 cm (6 ft 4 in) tall and powerfully built, he was the Ugandan light heavyweight boxing champion from 1951 to 1960, as well as a swimmer. Idi Amin was also a formidable rugby forward, although one officer said of him: "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 the 1950s, he played for Nile RFC. There is a frequently repeated urban myth that he was selected as a replacement by East Africa for their match against the 1955 British Lions. Amin, however, does not appear on the team photograph or on the official team list, and replacements were not allowed in international rugby until 13 years after this event is supposed to have taken place.
Following conversations with a colleague in the British Army, Amin became a keen fan of Hayes Football Club – an affection that would remain for the rest of his life.
In 1965, Prime Minister Milton Obote and Amin were implicated in a deal to smuggle ivory and gold into Uganda from Zaire. The deal, as later alleged by General Nicholas Olenga, an associate of the former Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, was part of an arrangement to help troops opposed to the Congolese government trade ivory and gold for arms supplies secretly smuggled to them by Amin. In 1966, the Ugandan Parliament demanded an investigation. Obote imposed a new constitution abolishing the ceremonial presidency held by Kabaka (King) Edward Mutesa II of Buganda, and declared himself executive president. He promoted Amin to colonel and army commander. Amin led an attack on the Kabaka's palace and forced Mutesa into exile to the United Kingdom, where he remained until his death in 1969.
Amin began recruiting members of Kakwa, Lugbara, Nubian, and other ethnic groups from the West Nile area bordering Sudan. The Nubians had been residents in Uganda since the early 20th century, having come from Sudan to serve the colonial army. Many African ethnic groups in northern Uganda inhabit both Uganda and Sudan; allegations persist that Amin's army consisted mainly of Sudanese soldiers.
Seizure of power
Eventually, a rift developed between Amin and Obote, worsened by the support Amin had built within the army by recruiting from the West Nile region, his involvement in operations to support the rebellion in southern Sudan, and an attempt on Obote's life in 1969. In October 1970, Obote himself took control of the armed forces, reducing Amin from his months-old post of commander of all the armed forces to that of commander of the army.
Having learned that Obote was planning to arrest him for misappropriating army funds, Amin seized power in a military coup on 25 January 1971, while Obote was attending a Commonwealth summit meeting in Singapore. Troops loyal to Amin sealed off Entebbe International Airport, the main artery into Uganda, and took Kampala. Soldiers surrounded Obote's residence and blocked major roads. A broadcast on Radio Uganda accused Obote's government of corruption and preferential treatment of the Lango region. Cheering crowds were reported in the streets of Kampala after the radio broadcast. Amin announced that he was a soldier, not a politician, and that the military government would remain only as a caretaker regime until new elections, which would be announced when the situation was normalised. He promised to release all political prisoners.
Amin gave former king of Buganda and President Sir Edward Mutesa (who had died in exile) a state funeral in April 1971, freed many political prisoners, and reiterated his promise to hold free and fair elections to return the country to democratic rule in the shortest period possible.
Establishment of military rule
On 2 February 1971, one week after the coup, Amin declared himself President of Uganda, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Army Chief of Staff, and Chief of Air Staff. He announced that he was suspending certain provisions of the Ugandan constitution and soon instituted an Advisory Defence Council composed of military officers with himself as the chairman. Amin placed military tribunals above the system of civil law, appointed soldiers to top government posts and parastatal agencies, and informed the newly inducted civilian cabinet ministers that they would be subject to military discipline. Amin renamed the presidential lodge in Kampala from Government House to "The Command Post". He disbanded the General Service Unit (GSU), an intelligence agency created by the previous government, and replaced it with the State Research Bureau (SRB). SRB headquarters at the Kampala suburb of Nakasero became the scene of torture and executions over the next few years. Other agencies used to root out political dissent included the military police and the Public Safety Unit (PSU).
Obote took refuge in Tanzania, having been offered sanctuary there by Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere. He was soon joined by 20,000 Ugandan refugees fleeing Amin. The exiles attempted to regain the country in 1972 through a poorly organised coup attempt.
Persecution of ethnic and other groups
Amin retaliated against the attempted invasion by Ugandan exiles in 1972 by purging the army of Obote supporters, predominantly those from the Acholi and Lango ethnic groups. In July 1971, Lango and Acholi soldiers were massacred in the Jinja and Mbarara Barracks, and by early 1972, some 5,000 Acholi and Lango soldiers, and at least twice as many civilians, had disappeared. The victims soon came to include members of other ethnic groups, religious leaders, journalists, artists, senior bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, students and intellectuals, criminal suspects, and foreign nationals. In this atmosphere of violence, many other people were killed for criminal motives or simply at will. Bodies were often dumped into the Nile River.
The killings, motivated by ethnic, political, and financial factors, continued throughout Amin's eight-year reign. The exact number of people killed is unknown. The International Commission of Jurists estimated the death toll at no fewer than 80,000 and more likely around 300,000. An estimate compiled by exile organizations with the help of Amnesty International puts the number killed at 500,000. Among the most prominent people killed were Benedicto Kiwanuka, the former prime minister and chief justice; Janani Luwum, the Anglican archbishop; Joseph Mubiru, the former governor of the Central Bank; Frank Kalimuzo, the vice chancellor of Makerere University; Byron Kawadwa, a prominent playwright; and two of Amin's own cabinet ministers, Erinayo Wilson Oryema and Charles Oboth Ofumbi.
In August 1972, Amin declared what he called an "economic war", a set of policies that included the expropriation of properties owned by Asians and Europeans. Uganda's 80,000 Asians were mostly from the Indian subcontinent and born in the country, their ancestors having come to Uganda when the country was still a British colony. Many owned businesses, including large-scale enterprises, which formed the backbone of the Ugandan economy. On 4 August 1972, Amin issued a decree ordering the expulsion of the 60,000 Asians who were not Ugandan citizens (most of them held British passports). This was later amended to include all 80,000 Asians, except for professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, and teachers. A plurality of the Asians with British passports, around 30,000, emigrated to the UK. Others went to Australia, Canada, India, Kenya, Pakistan, Sweden, Tanzania, and the U.S. Amin expropriated businesses and properties belonging to the Asians and handed them over to his supporters. The businesses were mismanaged, and industries collapsed from lack of maintenance. This proved disastrous for the already declining economy.
In 1977, Henry Kyemba, Amin's health minister and a former official of the first Obote regime, defected and resettled in the UK. Kyemba wrote and published A State of Blood, the first insider exposé of Amin's rule.
Following the expulsion of Ugandan Asians in 1972, most of whom were of Indian descent, India severed diplomatic relations with Uganda. The same year, as part of his "economic war", Amin broke diplomatic ties with the UK and nationalised eighty-five British-owned businesses.
That year, relations with Israel soured. Although Israel had previously supplied Uganda with arms, in 1972 Amin expelled Israeli military advisers and turned to Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya and the Soviet Union for support. Amin became an outspoken critic of Israel. In return, Gaddafi gave financial aid to Amin. In the 1974 French-produced documentary film General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait, Amin discussed his plans for war against Israel, using paratroops, bombers and suicide squadrons.
The Soviet Union became Amin's largest arms supplier. East Germany was involved in the General Service Unit and the State Research Bureau, the two agencies which were most notorious for terror. Later during the Ugandan invasion of Tanzania in 1979, East Germany attempted to remove evidence of its involvement with these agencies.
In 1973, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Patrick Melady recommended that the United States reduce its presence in Uganda. Melady described Amin's regime as "racist, erratic and unpredictable, brutal, inept, bellicose, irrational, ridiculous, and militaristic". Accordingly, the United States closed its embassy in Kampala.
In June 1976, Amin allowed an Air France airliner hijacked by two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - External Operations (PFLP-EO) and two members of the German Revolutionäre Zellen to land at Entebbe Airport. There the hijackers were joined by three more. Soon after, 156 non-Jewish hostages who did not hold Israeli passports were released and flown to safety, while 83 Jews and Israeli citizens, as well as 20 others who refused to abandon them (among whom were the captain and crew of the hijacked Air France jet), continued to be held hostage. In the subsequent Israeli rescue operation, codenamed Operation Thunderbolt (popularly known as Operation Entebbe), on the night of 3-4 July 1976, a group of Israeli commandos were flown in all the way from Israel and seized control of Entebbe Airport, freeing nearly all the hostages. Three hostages died during the operation and 10 were wounded; seven hijackers, about 45 Ugandan soldiers, and one Israeli soldier, Yoni Netanyahu, were killed. A fourth hostage, 75-year-old Dora Bloch, an elderly Jewish Englishwoman who had been taken to Mulago Hospital in Kampala before the rescue operation, was subsequently murdered in reprisal. The incident further soured Uganda's international relations, leading the United Kingdom to close its High Commission in Uganda.
Uganda under Amin embarked on a large military build-up, which raised concerns in Kenya. Early in June 1975, Kenyan officials impounded a large convoy of Soviet-made arms en route to Uganda at the port of Mombasa. Tension between Uganda and Kenya reached its climax in February 1976 when Amin announced that he would investigate the possibility that parts of southern Sudan and western and central Kenya, up to within 32 kilometres (20 mi) of Nairobi, were historically a part of colonial Uganda. The Kenyan Government responded with a stern statement that Kenya would not part with "a single inch of territory". Amin backed down after the Kenyan army deployed troops and armored personnel carriers along the Kenya–Uganda border.
Deposition and exile
By 1978, the number of Amin's supporters and close associates had shrunk significantly, and he faced increasing dissent from the populace within Uganda as the economy and infrastructure collapsed from years of neglect and abuse. After the killings of Bishop Luwum and ministers Oryema and Oboth Ofumbi in 1977, several of Amin's ministers defected or fled into exile. In November 1978, after Amin's vice president, General Mustafa Adrisi, was injured in a car accident, troops loyal to him mutinied. Amin sent troops against the mutineers, some of whom had fled across the Tanzanian border. Amin accused Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere of waging war against Uganda, ordered the invasion of Tanzanian territory, and formally annexed a section of the Kagera Region across the boundary.
In January 1979, Nyerere mobilised the Tanzania People's Defence Force and counterattacked, joined by several groups of Ugandan exiles who had united as the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA). Amin's army retreated steadily, and, despite military help from Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi, he was forced to flee into exile by helicopter on 11 April 1979, when Kampala was captured. He escaped first to Libya, where he stayed until 1980, and ultimately settled in Saudi Arabia, where the Saudi royal family allowed him sanctuary and paid him a generous subsidy in return for his staying out of politics. Amin lived for a number of years on the top two floors of the Novotel Hotel on Palestine Road in Jeddah. Brian Barron, who covered the Uganda–Tanzania war for the BBC as chief Africa correspondent, together with cameraman Mohamed Amin of Visnews in Nairobi, located Amin in 1980 and secured the first interview with him since his deposition.
During interviews he gave during his exile in Saudi Arabia, Amin held that Uganda needed him and never expressed remorse for the nature of his regime. In 1989, he attempted to return to Uganda, apparently to lead an armed group organised by Colonel Juma Oris. He reached Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), before Zairian President Mobutu forced him to return to Saudi Arabia.
On 20 July 2003, one of Amin's wives, Madina, reported that he was in a coma and near death at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, from kidney failure. She pleaded with the Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, to allow him to return to Uganda for the remainder of his life. Museveni replied that Amin would have to "answer for his sins the moment he was brought back". Amin died at the hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on 16 August 2003 and was buried in Ruwais Cemetery in Jeddah.
Family and associates
A polygamist, Idi Amin married at least five women, three of whom he divorced. He married his first and second wives, Malyamu and Kay, in 1966. The next year, he married Nora and then married Nalongo Madina in 1972. On 26 March 1974, he announced on Radio Uganda that he had divorced Malyamu, Nora and Kay. Malyamu was arrested in Tororo on the Kenyan border in April 1974 and accused of attempting to smuggle a bolt of fabric into Kenya. She later moved to London. Kay died on 13 August 1974, reportedly from an attempted surgical abortion performed by her lover Dr. Mbalu Mukasa (who later committed suicide). Her body was found dismembered. In August 1975, during the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit meeting in Kampala, Amin married Sarah Kyolaba. Sarah's boyfriend, whom she had been living with before she met Amin, vanished and was never heard from again. By 1993, Amin was living with the last nine of his children and a single wife, Mama a Chumaru, the mother of the youngest four of his children. His last known child, daughter Iman, was born in 1992. According to The Monitor, Amin married a few months before his death in 2003.
Sources differ widely on the number of children Amin fathered; most say that he had 30 to 45. Until 2003, Taban Amin (born 1955), Idi Amin's eldest son, was the leader of West Nile Bank Front (WNBF), a rebel group opposed to the government of Yoweri Museveni. In 2005, he was offered amnesty by Museveni, and in 2006, he was appointed Deputy Director General of the Internal Security Organisation. Another of Amin's sons, Haji Ali Amin, ran for election as Chairman (i.e. mayor) of Njeru Town Council in 2002 but was not elected. In early 2007, the award-winning film The Last King of Scotland prompted one of his sons, Jaffar Amin (born in 1967), to speak out in his father's defence. Jaffar Amin said he was writing a book to rehabilitate his father's reputation. Jaffar is the tenth of Amin's 40 official children by seven official wives.
On 3 August 2007, Faisal Wangita (born in 1983), one of Amin's sons, was convicted for playing a role in a murder in London. Wangita's mother is Amin's fifth wife, Sarah Kyolaba (born 1955) a former go-go dancer, but known as 'Suicide Sarah', because she was a go-go dancer for the Ugandan Army's Revolutionary Suicide Mechanised Regiment Band.
Among Amin's closest associates was the British-born Bob Astles, who is considered by many to have been a malignant influence and by others as having been a moderating presence. Isaac Malyamungu was an instrumental affiliate and one of the more feared officers in Amin's army.
Erratic behaviour, self-bestowed titles, and media portrayal
As the years progressed, Amin's behaviour became more erratic, unpredictable, and outspoken. After the United Kingdom broke off all diplomatic relations with his regime in 1977, Amin declared he had defeated the British and conferred on himself the decoration of CBE (Conqueror of the British Empire). His full self-bestowed title ultimately became: "His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular", in addition to his officially stated claim of being the uncrowned King of Scotland. He was not a recipient of a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) or a Military Cross (MC). He conferred a doctorate of law on himself from Makerere University, and the Victorious Cross (VC) was a medal made to emulate the British Victoria Cross.
Amin became the subject of rumours and myths, including a widespread belief that he was a cannibal. Some of the unsubstantiated rumours, such as the mutilation of one of his wives, were spread and popularised by the 1980 film Rise and Fall of Idi Amin and alluded to in the film The Last King of Scotland in 2006.
During Amin's time in power, popular media outside of Uganda often portrayed him as an essentially comic and eccentric figure. In a 1977 assessment typical of the time, a Time magazine article described him as a "killer and clown, big-hearted buffoon and strutting martinet". The foreign media was often criticised by Ugandan exiles and defectors for focusing on Amin's excessive tastes and self-aggrandizing eccentricities, and downplaying or excusing his murderous behavior. Other commentators even suggested that Amin had deliberately cultivated his eccentric reputation in the foreign media as an easily parodied buffoon in order to defuse international concern over his administration of Uganda.
Portrayal in media and literature
- Victory at Entebbe (1976), a TV film about Operation Entebbe. Julius Harris plays Amin. Godfrey Cambridge was originally cast as Amin, but died of a heart attack on the set.
- Raid on Entebbe (1977), a film depicting the events of Operation Entebbe. Yaphet Kotto plays Amin as a charismatic but short-tempered political and military leader.
- In Mivtsa Yonatan (1977; also known as Operation Thunderbolt), an Israeli film about Operation Entebbe, Jamaican-born British actor Mark Heath played Amin, who in this film is first angered by the Palestinian terrorists whom he later comes to support.
- Rise and Fall of Idi Amin (1981), a film recreating Idi Amin's atrocities. Amin is played by Kenyan actor Joseph Olita.
- Mississippi Masala (1991), a film depicting the resettlement of an Indian family after the expulsion of Asians from Uganda by Idi Amin. Joseph Olita again plays Amin in a cameo.
- The Last King of Scotland (2006), a film adaptation of Giles Foden's 1998 novel of the same name. For his portrayal of Idi Amin in this film, Forest Whitaker won the Academy Award for Best Actor, a BAFTA, the Screen Actors' Guild Award for Best Actor (Drama), and a Golden Globe.
- General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait (1974), directed by French filmmaker Barbet Schroeder.
- Idi Amin: Monster in Disguise (1997), a television documentary directed by Greg Baker.
- The Man Who Ate His Archbishop's Liver? (2004), a television documentary written, produced and directed by Elizabeth C. Jones for Associated-Rediffusion and Channel 4.
- The Man Who Stole Uganda (1971), World In Action first broadcast 5 April 1971.
- Inside Idi Amin's Terror Machine (1979), World In Action first broadcast 13 June 1979.
- State of Blood: The Inside Story of Idi Amin (1977) by Henry Kyemba
- The General Is Up by Peter Nazareth
- Ghosts of Kampala: The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin (1980) by George Ivan Smith
- The Last King of Scotland (1998) by Giles Foden (fictional)
- Idi Amin Dada: Hitler in Africa (1977) by Thomas Patrick Melady
- General Amin (1975) by David Martin
- The Collected Bulletins of Idi Amin (1974) and Further Bulletins of President Idi Amin (1975) by Alan Coren, portraying Amin as an amiable, if murderous, buffoon in charge of a tin-pot dictatorship. Alan was also responsible in part for a music release – "The Collected Broadcasts of Idi Amin". It was a British comedy album parodying Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, released in 1975 on Transatlantic Records. It was performed by John Bird and written by Alan Coren, based on columns he wrote for Punch magazine.
- I Love Idi Amin: The Story of Triumph under Fire in the Midst of Suffering and Persecution in Uganda (1977) by Festo Kivengere
- Impassioned for Freedom: Uganda, Struggle Against Idi Amin (2006) by Eriya Kategaya
- Confessions of Idi Amin: The chilling, explosive expose of Africa's most evil man – in his own words (1977) compiled by Trevor Donald
- "Kahawa" by Donald Westlake; a thriller in which Amin is a minor character, but Amin's Uganda is portrayed in detail.