Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Amin, Idifree

(c. 1924–2003)
  • M. Louise Pirouet

Idi Amin (c. 1924–2003)

by unknown photographer, c. 1972

Amin, Idi (c. 1924–2003), president of Uganda, was born about 1924 in Koboko in north-western Uganda to Muslim parents. His mother was a Kakwa; his father is said to have been Nubian, a term used of the Sudanese troops brought into Uganda by Emin Pasha. He was brought up by his mother, who lived at an army barracks among Nubian troops of the King's African rifles. He received minimal education.

Army officer and coup leader

In 1946 Amin joined the King's African rifles. He was six feet four inches tall and became a heavyweight boxing champion and rugby player. He claimed falsely to have fought in Burma during the Second World War. He was, however, among troops sent to Kenya to deal with the Mau Mau uprising, a role he later tried to play down. He reached the rank of sergeant-major, the highest rank an African could achieve under colonial rule, and did part of his military training at Stirling in Scotland. In 1960, in the run-up to Uganda's independence, he was one of only two Ugandans to receive a commission. In late 1961 and early 1962 the army was called in to control an incident of serious cattle-raiding. Amin's platoon was responsible for massacring villagers. The governor, Sir Frederick Crawford, and prime minister, Milton Obote, baulked at court-martialling one of the only two Ugandan commissioned officers on the eve of independence, and he was let off lightly, a decision that Obote came to regret.

In 1966 Obote, who had come to power through an alliance with a Ganda tribal party, no longer needed to rely on their support and scrapped the constitution under which the traditional ruler of Buganda, the kabaka, was president and Obote prime minister. The kingdoms of southern and western Uganda were shorn of all powers and Obote appointed himself president. Buganda alone resisted. Amin, now a colonel, led the troops which besieged and overran the kabaka's palace with great loss of life, driving the kabaka into exile, an act for which the Ganda held Obote responsible, and for which they never forgave him. From 1966 until Obote's overthrow in 1971 a state of emergency was imposed, smouldering resentment grew among the Ganda, and freedoms were increasingly restricted, especially after an assassination attempt on Obote in late 1969.

In early 1971 Amin was in trouble. He had massively recruited men from his own west Nile region, putting him at odds with the Acholi, who had previously been the backbone of the army. He had been moved sideways in an army reorganization; he was threatened with having to account for a massive misappropriation of army funds; and a police investigation had implicated him in the murder of a rival for power, Brigadier Okoya, an Acholi. Amin also feared that his involvement with the southern Sudanese independence movement, the Anya Nya, was about to be revealed, just when Obote was moving towards allying Uganda with the Sudan government, which was engaged in seeking a peaceful end to the insurgency. He therefore took advantage of Obote's absence at a Commonwealth heads of government meeting to seize power in the early hours of 25 January 1971, helped by the Israelis, who were involved in training and supplying the armed forces, and, so it was widely believed, the British, who had forces just over the border in Kenya. If not actively involved, they gave their tacit support.

The Amin regime

Britain's Conservative government was glad to be rid of Obote, who had led embarrassing protests against the sale of arms to Rhodesia, and was moving too far to the left for comfort during the cold war era. The British government therefore formally recognized the new regime. Much of the British press supported the coup, believing that Amin would be easier to deal with than Obote. The Daily Telegraph welcomed him as a contrast to other African leaders and a staunch friend of Britain. The Ganda, some of whom seem to have been complicit in the coup, were jubilant at the overthrow of Obote. Amin cemented their support by bringing back from Britain the body of the kabaka, who had died in exile, and arranging for him to be suitably buried. In the immediate aftermath of the coup there was a temporary respite: extensive spy rings were unmasked, the state of emergency was lifted, road-blocks were removed, and most political prisoners were released. Amin presented himself as a reconciler, bringing together factions in the (Anglican) Church of Uganda and the Muslim community. He promised to step down within weeks and install a civilian government, promises he failed to keep.

When news of the first killings of Acholi and Langi in the barracks emerged, it was assumed that blood-letting was to be confined to the army. In July 1971 two Americans, the journalist Nicholas Stroh and a sociology lecturer, Robert Siedle, went to Mbarara barracks to investigate reports of killings, despite being warned not to do so. Both were murdered. Because of urgent inquiries by the USA, Amin was forced to set up an inquiry under Judge David Jeffrys Jones, who uncovered much of the truth, but left Uganda before his report was published, fearing for his life. No action was taken against those he named as responsible for the murders.

In July 1971 Amin visited Britain and Israel, the two countries who had had most to gain from the overthrow of Obote. (Israel was supplying arms to the Anya Nya in order to tie up Sudanese and Egyptian military resources in this conflict and so reduce the threat to Israel; Obote's growing alliance with Sudan had threatened this tactic, whereas Amin supported the Anya Nya for ethnic reasons.) In Britain he met the prime minister, Edward Heath, and had lunch at Buckingham Palace. He tried to obtain large quantities of arms to use against Tanzania, which had given refuge to Obote. This encounter ought to have enabled the British government to get the measure of the person whom they had backed earlier in the year. He also visited Scotland, where he had done some of his army training. He admired all things Scottish, dressed a regiment of his army in the kilt, and called four of his sons by Scottish names. In the mid-1970s a small fringe group, the Scottish National Liberation Army, which occasionally resorted to low-level violence including letter-bombing, won Amin's support and he offered to become king of Scotland should they request his services. The title of Giles Foden's The Last King of Scotland (1998) refers to this offer, but the book is a fictional account of an ugly example of collaboration with Amin.

From Britain Amin went on to Israel with the same request for arms. Neither Britain nor Israel acceded to his request, though the British would have provided some small arms had he been able to pay. After this rejection Amin went to Libya, where Colonel Gaddafi promised help. Amin now stridently asserted his adherence to Islam, persuaded Gaddafi and other Muslim leaders that Uganda was 70 per cent Muslim (the previous census had shown the Muslim population at 5.6 per cent), made Uganda a member of the Organization of Islamic States, and placed limits on the Christian churches, recognizing only the Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox.

In the first two years of Amin's rule several bouts of killings within the army took place as he and his immediate supporters eliminated rivals. Only one of these, a massacre which took place in January 1972 at Mutukula, on the border with Tanzania, gained much publicity and then only because the trouble spilled over into Tanzania. The nature of the regime only became clear to the outside world when in August 1972 Amin announced that non-citizen Asians would have to leave the country within ninety days. At independence Asians in the east African territories had been offered the possibility of acquiring British citizenship and some had chosen to do so. Others had chosen local citizenship. Asians dominated the retail trade and large sections of business and manufacturing throughout east Africa, as well as being prominent in the professions and the administration, and their privileged position attracted growing resentment. Britain had negotiated an agreement with Obote to speed up the admission of 20,000 British passport-holding Asians, but the prime minister, Edward Heath, procrastinated in the face of opposition from the Conservative right wing. On 4 August 1972 came Amin's bombshell announcement. There was an outcry from sections of the British press and public. Britain, of course, had no option under international law but to admit its own nationals. Arrangements for an evacuation were delayed while Britain tried to find out if Amin could be dissuaded, and while they tried to persuade other countries to accept some of the Asians. After further unaccountable delays and rising panic in Uganda, only a UN airlift ensured that all were got out on time. 27,000 came to Britain. British attitudes began to change when people saw their plight. Television pictures showed women and children clutching all that remained to them in small suitcases: many had been robbed in Uganda on their way to the airport. Voluntary groups and churches provided generous help. One of the few Ugandans who protested at the treatment of the Asians was the chief justice, Benedicto Kiwanuka, who also intervened on behalf of a Briton, Daniel Stewart, wrongly arrested by the army. This cost Kiwanuka his life. He was abducted on 21 September and murdered.

On 17 September, in the middle of the Asian crisis, Ugandan exiles mounted an invasion from Tanzania. This was a fiasco: the plane intended to land at Entebbe never got off the ground, and the small force which entered through western Uganda was ill disciplined and had to pass through hostile territory. Nevertheless Amin grew increasingly anxious about guerrilla activity, and in early 1973 eleven alleged guerrillas were shot publicly by firing squad.

By the end of 1972 most Britons had left Uganda after Britain withdrew financial support. A declining handful stayed throughout his rule, including Bob Astles, who had taken Ugandan citizenship and acted as an aide to Amin, allegedly helping to set up the notorious State Research Bureau. He fled to Kenya when Amin fell but was extradited to Uganda and imprisoned. In 1985 he was stripped of Ugandan citizenship and deported to Britain, where at first he defended Amin. He later revealed nothing of what he knew. Amin was supplied with luxury goods throughout his period of rule by the so-called 'whisky-run' from Stansted airport, which Britain unaccountably permitted.

Britain's economy benefited from the arrival of the Asians, but Uganda's suffered disastrously. Asian businesses were handed to soldiers who had no idea how to run them and lacked creditworthiness. Rampant inflation followed, and shortages of every kind, even of basic necessities. To compound his problems, throughout 1973 and 1974 Amin faced threats of assassination and coups from within the army. He dispensed with the cabinet and ruled through his defence council. Having alienated the West—he expelled fourteen members of the British high commission in 1974—he increasingly turned to Libya and the Arab world, and to the Soviet Union (whom he embarrassed by professing admiration for Hitler: they made him recant this publicly). He courted African support by his noisy denunciation of apartheid in South Africa, and during the Arab–Israeli War of 1973 helped to persuade almost all African states to break off relations with Israel.

In July 1975 the Organization of African Unity (OAU) held its summit in Kampala, and Amin became its chairman for the following year. He embarrassed Britain by making a group of Britons carry him to a reception at the OAU summit. Later in the year he humiliated James Callaghan, then foreign secretary, who had to come to Kampala to plead for the life of Denis Hills, who had called Amin 'a village tyrant' in his book The White Pumpkin (1975). When Amin addressed the UN general assembly he insulted Britain by inflammatory remarks about Northern Ireland. The British ambassador to the UN walked out.

On 27 June 1976 an Air France plane was hijacked en route from Tel Aviv via Athens to Paris, carrying many Jewish passengers. It landed at Entebbe, Uganda, where a group of Palestinians was awaiting it. Amin himself came to the airport and was clearly in league with the hijackers. The non-Jewish passengers were released, and the Jewish passengers held as hostages at gun-point in the airport buildings. A week later, with deadlines running out, the Israelis mounted a spectacular night-time airborne operation to rescue the hostages. They knew the layout of the airport, as they had built it; they rescued the hostages, blew up all Uganda's fighter planes, and took off again after only ninety minutes, to Amin's shock and bewilderment when he awoke in the morning and discovered what had happened. Ugandans inside the country had to keep their glee to themselves: in Nairobi the exiles rejoiced in the streets. Kenya had perhaps allowed the Israeli planes to refuel in Nairobi because of previous events. Early in 1976 Esther Chesire, a relative of the Kenyan vice-president, Daniel arap Moi, and a student at Makerere University, had disappeared. Amin had set up an inquiry into her disappearance, but no trace of her was ever found. In February there was a major confrontation with Kenya over Uganda's boundaries. Until 1902 a large part of western Kenya had been part of the Uganda protectorate. Amin now claimed it as part of 'greater Uganda' and was eventually forced by the Kenyans into a humiliating climbdown.

On 3–4 August 1976 the army invaded Makerere University. Tension there was high after the murder of a student, the disappearance of Esther Chesire, the murder of Theresa Mukasa-Bukenya, a respected warden of the hall of residence where Chesire had lived, and the presence on the campus of Amin's son, Taban Amin, who had not qualified for entrance to the university. Student protests erupted on 3 August, and were put down with great force over two days. Cardinal Nsubuga and Archbishop Luwum went to the campus together to investigate and were told that all was peaceful. Many students were beaten up and temporarily imprisoned by the army, and five were murdered. Later Amin forced the university to award him an honorary doctorate of laws.

Religious leaders had become increasingly concerned about the growing antagonism between Muslims and Christians and the rising tide of violence. Late in 1976 Luwum chaired a conference of Anglican, Catholic, and Muslim leaders to discuss this, and they pledged themselves to fight this evil. They requested a meeting with Amin, who was furious that the conference had been held without his knowledge, feared that he was losing the support of the Muslim community, and misunderstood their phrase 'fight evil'. Luwum was falsely accused of involvement in plotting armed insurrection, to which the Church of Uganda bishops responded in a carefully worded letter. On 17 February 1977 Luwum was paraded in front of journalists and the army, the latter clamouring for him to be killed. When the following day the Ugandan media announced that he and two ministers had died in a traffic accident, no one believed them. Amin himself is believed to have shot the archbishop. There was international outrage and Luwum was acclaimed as a martyr. He is memorialized in Canterbury Cathedral and on the west front of Westminster Abbey. A few months after these murders Amin announced that he would attend the Commonwealth heads of government meeting to be held in June in London, to which he had not been invited, and the queen's silver jubilee. Although he kept the British government on tenterhooks for months, he did not show up. Earlier he had awarded himself the VC ('Victorious Cross') and appointed himself CBE ('Conqueror of the British Empire').

Exile and final years

Faced with growing disloyalty in the army, Amin created a diversion by invading Tanzania on 30 October 1978 and annexing the Kagera Salient, a triangle of land adjacent to south-western Uganda, to which he had previously laid claim. The Tanzanian army, accompanied by Ugandan exiles, pushed the Ugandan army back across the border and then advanced on foot, liberating Kampala in April 1979 before moving on to secure the rest of the country. Amin fled, first taking refuge in Libya, and then moving to Saudi Arabia. In January 1989 he tried to return to Uganda through Zaire. Saudi Arabia took him back only under pressure from the United States. He was placed under strict control in Jiddah. He died there on 16 August 2003 and was buried the same day, in accordance with Muslim custom.

Amin had at least five wives. Malyamu (sister of Wanume Kibedi, a former foreign minister), with whom he had had a long-standing relationship, he formally married in 1966. He married Kay Adroa, the well-educated daughter of a clergyman, later in 1966, Norah a year later, and Medina in 1972. In March 1974 he divorced according to Islamic custom Malyamu, Kay, and Norah, saying that he wished to live monogamously with Medina, his Muslim wife. Kay died in August 1974, possibly after a botched abortion, though it was generally believed at the time that she had been murdered. Amin married Sarah Kyolaba on 2 August 1975 on the eve of the summit of the OAU held in Kampala, after having her boyfriend murdered. Malyamu fled to Britain in November 1975 after recovering from a suspicious road traffic accident. Sarah also sought refuge in north London. Norah lived quietly in Uganda running a business. Amin also had many concubines, some of whom claimed to be his wives, and is thought to have fathered some fifty children. Medina shared his exile in Saudi Arabia.

An African tyrant

Amin is seen as the quintessential African tyrant. Allegations of cannibalism and of dementia resulting from tertiary syphilis attached themselves to him—though the latter at least seems to have been incorrect. He appears to have lacked any moral sense. It is impossible to say how many died during his rule. He himself did not order all the killings, but he was responsible for the behaviour of the army and the State Research Bureau, the main killing machine. Census returns suggest a population shortfall of between 420,000 and 850,000 by the end of his presidency, but the shortfall does not represent the number of killings. Many died in the fighting; health services had collapsed; those who died were not able to reproduce; large numbers fled the country; and many personal scores were paid off with the aid of Amin's men. Henry Kyemba in State of Blood (1977) listed one hundred prominent people murdered by the regime. Many of the rest were ordinary people who happened to get in the way of Amin's thugs. Amnesty International's estimate of 300,000 killings is probably as near the truth as we shall ever get.

Sources

  • M. Mamdani, From citizen to refugee: Ugandan Asians come to Britain (1973)
  • D. Humphry and M. Ward, Passports and politics (1974)
  • D. Martin, General Amin (1974)
  • M. Twaddle, ed., Expulsion of a minority: essays on Ugandan Asians (1975)
  • W. Stevenson and U. Dan, 90 minutes at Entebbe (1976)
  • Y. Ofer, Operation thunder: the Entebbe raid: the Israelis' own story, trans. J. Meltzer (1976)
  • H. B. Hansen, Ethnicity and military rule in Uganda (1977)
  • H. Kyemba, State of blood: the inside story of Idi Amin (1977)
  • Uganda and human rights: reports to the UN commission on human rights, International Commission of Jurists (1977)
  • S. Kiwanuka, Amin and the tragedy of Uganda (1979)
  • M. L. Pirouet, ‘Religion in Uganda under Amin’, Journal of Religion in Africa, 11 (1980), 12–19
  • J. J. Jørgensen, Uganda: a modern history (1981)
  • T. Avirgan and M. Honey, War in Uganda: the legacy of Idi Amin (1982)
  • M. Mamdani, Imperialism and fascism in Uganda (1983)
  • P. Allen, Days of judgment: a judge in Idi Amin's Uganda (1987)
  • A. Omara-Otunnu, Politics and the military in Uganda, 1890–1985 (1987)
  • S. Karugire, The roots of instability in Uganda (1988)
  • M. L. Pirouet, ‘Refugees in and from Uganda in the post-independence period’, Uganda now: between decay and development, ed. H. B. Hansen and M. Twaddle (1988), 239–53
  • R. M. Byrnes, ed., Uganda: a country study (1992)
  • P. Mutibwa, Uganda since independence: a story of unfulfilled hopes (1992)
  • T. P. Ofcansky, Uganda: tarnished pearl of Africa (1996)

Archives

Film

  • BFINA, ‘General Idi Amin: a portrait’, People and politics, S. Hall (director), Thames Television, 20 June 1974
  • BFINA, ‘Idi Amin’, The most evil men in history, M. Bluett (director), Channel 5, 24 Sept 2001
  • BFINA, ‘The man who ate his archbishop's liver’, E. Jones (director), Channel 4, 21 March 2004

Likenesses

  • photographs, 1964–80, Getty Images, London
  • photographs, 1968–79, Empics, Nottingham
  • photographs, 1970×79, Rex Features, London
  • photographs, 1970×79, Camera Press, London
  • photographs, 1970–1977, Popperfoto, Northampton
  • photograph, 1972, Getty Images, London [see illus.]
  • Camerapix, photograph, repro. in Martin, General Amin, jacket