Despot of the Week #6 – Idi Amin


Throughout the impoverished continent of Africa, rapaciously plundered by various European powers, plagued by disease and racked by an almost unceasing state of warfare, the rule of brutal strongmen has generally been the order of the day. Perhaps the most infamous of the barbaric Despots to torment the continent in recent decades was Idi Amin, the former stooge of Imperial Britain who rose through the ranks to become military dictator of Uganda, initially with the approval and support of the US, UK and Israel, but later at odds with all of them. “Big Daddy” Amin became the killer clown of Africa, butchering hundreds of thousands of his people while proclaiming himself the “Conqueror of the British Empire” and sending notes to Queen Elizabeth II, inviting her to come to Uganda to experience “a real man”.


Country of Rule: Uganda

From: 25 January 1971 – 11 April 1979

Official Title: His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.

Demise: Died in exile on 20 July, 2003, reportedly from massive organ failure. 78 years of age.

Death Toll: Estimates range from 100,000 – 500,000. Most sources settle on a figure of around 300,000 deaths resulting from Amin’s regime.

Physical Defects: None. Idi Amin broke from the typical Despot’s mould by being a tall (6’4”) and powerfully built man. In his youth he held the Ugandan heavyweight boxing title for nine years and was said to be an excellent rugby player. Amin more closely resembled a brutish ogre than the demented hobbit look so common among Despots. Sadly, Amin’s regime did not coincide with that of Kim Jong Il of North Korea, ruling out the possibility of a little n’ large dictator comedy duo.

Bio: Idi Amin first rose to prominence in the ranks of the King’s African Rifles, a regiment of the British Empire’s Colonial Army, derived from various native African tribes. Back in the waning days of the British Empire – when the British nobility could still just about get away with the rape and plunder of the tropics while pretending to bring civilisation to the “savages” – there was plenty of opportunity for an ambitious black man, so long as he was sufficiently subservient and willing to do the Empire’s dirty work when told to.

Amin participated enthusiastically in Britain’s 1952 suppression of the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya, in what was to become one of the worst post World War II atrocities, involving the massacre of perhaps tens of thousands of Mau-Mau tribesmen, and the internment and slow starvation of untold numbers more in concentration camps. So pleased with Amin’s help in butchering the defenceless tribesmen were his British masters, that he rose to become one of only two Ugandan commissioned officers in the British army. One prominent British officer said of Amin:

“A splendid type and a good rugby player, but virtually bone from the neck up, and needs things explained in words of one letter.”

Ah those splendid Imperial Brits – always ready with a patronising pat on the head for their favourite subjects! Capital fellow for a black chap that Amin, eh? Spot of the old sadism perhaps, but a jolly good prop forward, eh wot?

In 1962, the Brits handed Amin the job of suppressing a cattle rustling operation, being carried out in northern Uganda by the neighbouring Turkana tribe of Kenya. Putting into practice some of the useful techniques he’d learned during the Mau-Mau uprising, Amin ensured that those pesky Turkanans would never want to engage in their cow-napping antics ever again. Subsequent investigations into the affair by British authorities described Amin’s methods as “over-zealous”. Given that these were the same people who’d been merrily carrying out a campaign of genocide against the Mau-Maus for most of the previous decade, one might pause to wonder what sort of activity would qualify for such a description. Well, it turns out that Amin had been waging a campaign of sustained terror against the Turkanan tribesmen. His men carried out gruesome torture, cut off the testicles of their victims, bludgeoned some of them to death with clubs and buried others alive. Well, they did say that they wanted the Turkanans to stop stealing cattle.

By this time, the rapidly fading British Empire was preparing to grant Uganda its independence. Nobody much liked the place anyway – all swamps and mosquitoes – and they couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there. By this time, having to go to the trouble of a court martial looked like too much bother all around. And after all, Amin was one of the Brits’ favourite Ugandans. So the colonial authorities turned a blind eye to the Turkana massacre and went off to pack their luggage.

Uganda was officially granted independence on 9 October, 1962. Sir Edward Mutesa, King of the Baganda tribe, became the nation’s new President. Milton Obote, a good buddy of Amin, became the Prime Minister. Obote liked Amin even better than his previous British bosses had, and awarded him with rapid promotion. After helping to put down a military revolt in Jinja, Uganda’s second largest city, Amin became the deputy commander of Uganda’s armed forces.

As an extra special treat, Amin was sent to Israel to undertake a paratrooper training course with the IDF. Well, the Israelis were damned if they didn’t like Amin just as much as the Brit colonials and Prime Minister Obote did! Big, jolly, smiling Amin! Everybody just loved the cuddly old lug! The Israelis liked Amin so much that they had him run an operation for them on the side, smuggling weapons and ammunition to a secessionist movement in southern Sudan. The bad old Sudanese government had said some nasty things about the “Zionists”, and Israel wanted to punish them for such naughtiness.

Back in Uganda, Amin and Prime Minister Obote became the best of pals. They got along so well, that they put a smuggling operation together, stealing Ugandan armaments and selling them in the Democratic Republic of Congo in return for ivory and gold, making themselves filthy rich! When the party pooping King Mutesa objected to this, Obote suspended the constitution and declared himself the new President. Obote forced King Mutesa out of the country and put everybody who didn’t like it into prison. Then he made his good pal Amin the commander of all of Uganda’s military forces.

Things went swimmingly for a couple of years, but then it turned out that Obote and Amin weren’t such good friends after all. Obote was worried that Amin had been heavily recruiting troops from the West Nile region of Uganda. This was where Amin grew up, and the soldiers who joined the army were turning out to be more loyal to Amin than they were to Obote. Not only that, but in 1969, somebody tried to kill Obote, and Obote suspected that Amin was responsible. So Obote tried to remove Amin from command of the military. Only Amin decided that he didn’t want to go. So he waited until Obote went on holiday to Singapore, and then ordered the army to take over the country. Israel sent their General Chief of Staff, Colonel Bar-Lev, to Uganda to assist Amin with his coup. Obote just wasn’t so co-operative when it came to smuggling guns to Sudanese rebels, but Amin was considered Israel’s boy.

So Obote was forced to extend his vacation plans – by another nine years in fact – while Amin declared himself the new President of Uganda. But Amin assured the people that he was only the temporary President, and that elections would take place very soon. The people were so happy! Only Amin was so busy having people shot that he forgot to hold the elections after all. Big, happy, forgetful Amin!

Amin’s first task as President was to get rid of anybody who might have retained any loyalty to Obote. He executed approximately two thirds of the Ugandan army (6,000 out of about 9,000 troops) and replaced them with his own loyalists. Then Amin decided that Uganda would be a country for black people only, and set about expelling the 80,000 odd Indians and Pakistanis who were living there at the time, claiming that they were “sabotaging the economy.” He confiscated all of their property and gave it to the most loyal officers in his army. The only problem was, it was the Indians and Pakistanis who constituted the majority of the professional and business class in Uganda, and without them, the economy collapsed. Silly, careless Amin!

Amin set up not one, but three separate state security organisations: The Public Safety Unit, The State Research Bureau and the Military Police. None of these organisations had much co-operation with each other, they just reported directly to Amin. In total, they encompassed some 18,000 security personnel, tasked with the job of securing Amin’s grip on power. Over the coming years, Amin would instruct his security forces to engage in periodic purges, getting rid of anybody who upset him. Members of rival tribes, diplomats, businessmen, academics, members of the clergy, journalists, bothersome foreigners and plain old ordinary Ugandan citizens all got the chop. Anywhere between 100,000 and 500,000 people (depending on who you ask) were murdered. Entire villages were wiped out, and the Nile became so clogged with dead bodies that they began blocking up the dam intake pipes.

But while all this killing was going on, Amin’s friends in the international community couldn’t have been happier. Y’see, Obete was a bit of a nationalist and planned to use some of Uganda’s land and resources to develop the country, rather than sell it all off to overseas interests. Amin, on the other hand, would quite happily let the nice foreigners come in and plunder the country! At least, that’s what the nice foreigners thought at the time. Israel sent Mossad agents to Uganda to help train Amin’s state executi… umm sorry, his security forces. The US sent CIA agents to deliver the funds Amin needed to prop up his regime. And Dear Old Blighty sent a hearty “Tally ho old bean and all the best, eh wot?” for letting them maintain some of their commercial interests from back in the old Empire days. Everybody was as pleased as punch with the situation.

However, Amin became rather put out when Israel turned down a shopping list he sent them, including such items as Phantom fighter jets and other sophisticated weapons systems he wanted to use to go off and invade Tanzania. After that, Amin decided that he didn’t want to be friends with Israel anymore.  In fact, he went so far as to make the following observations:

“Germany is the right place where, when Hitler was the supreme commander, he burnt over six million Jews. This is because Hitler and all German people knew that the Israelis are not people who are working in the interest of the people of the world, and that is why they burnt the Israelis alive with gas.”

Israel was dismayed. But Amin didn’t care. He’d already found himself a new best friend: Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya. Now Gaddafi might have looked like a flaming cross dresser with a cheap pair of sunglasses, but he was always ready to lend a helping hand to a fellow Despot in need. So Amin started getting his armaments from Libya. They weren’t quite as cool as the weapons that Israel had, but they were better than nothing.

Colonel Gaddafi prepares for a night out at the Blue Oyster club.

Colonel Gaddafi prepares for a night out at the Blue Oyster club.

By 1975, Amin had consolidated his grip on impoverished Uganda by ruthlessly eliminating anybody who was in his way. Most of the nation’s scarce resources were diverted into the ever expanding military. Not much was spared for civilian development. The military chiefs loyal to Amin became Uganda’s new elite. In a demonstration of his authority, Amin decided to stage a publicity stunt for the benefit of the world media. In an elaborate ceremony, he forced a group of Kampala’s white residents to carry him around on a throne, then kneel before him and pledge loyalty. Amin always had a flair for showmanship. He was just a natural ham.

In 1976, Amin caused an international outrage by allowing a hijacked Air France passenger aircraft, carrying 105 Israeli hostages, to land in Uganda. Amin tried to put up the pretence of “assisting” with the hostage negotiations, while in fact he was collaborating with the Palestinian hijackers all along. Israel had no patience with the charade and promptly dispatched a unit of commandoes to Entebbe to take care of business. During the 58 minute operation, two of the hostages were killed and one left behind. The remaining 102 hostages were rescued, while the 8 hijackers were liquidated, along with 45 Ugandan soldiers who happened to get in the way.

The whole affair was considered a major embarrassment for Amin, and he reacted with insane fury. He ordered a fresh purge to be carried out, involving the murder of anybody suspected of “opposing” him, on whatever pretext. He pretty much just got totally pissed off and wanted to see some heads roll for it. Amin also expelled all remaining foreigners from the country.

At this point, the US and Great Britain were beginning to wonder if Amin was really the good old boy they thought he was. Murdering hundreds of thousands of Ugandans was one thing, but collaborating with Palestinian terrorists… well that just wasn’t cricket! Britain officially broke off diplomatic relations with Uganda. Amin responded by declaring himself the “Conqueror of the British Empire”. In fact, this became a part of his official title. US support for Amin was broken off shortly afterwards. In an unofficial capacity, however, relations between Britain and Uganda continued. Britain was turning a tidy little profit from selling armaments to South Africa’s Apartheid government on the side, a stance that was endorsed by Amin, against almost universal opposition among the other Commonwealth nations. Amin always appeared to derive great pleasure from taunting his former Imperial masters, however. Before a previous state visit to Britain, Amin had sent the following telegram to Queen Elizabeth II:

“My Dear Queen, I intend to arrive in London for an official visit on August 4th this year, but I am writing now to give you time to make all the necessary preparations for my stay so that nothing important is omitted. I am particularly concerned about food, because I know that you are in the middle of a fearsome economic crisis. I would also like you to arrange for me to visit Scotland, Ireland, and Wales to meet the heads of revolutionary movements fighting against your imperialist oppression.” 

On another occasion, Amin sent the Queen the following telegram:

“Dear Liz, if you want to know a real man, come to Kampala.”

It’s not known whether or not the Queen responded positively to this overture.

By 1978, Amin’s grip on the country was beginning to weaken. He could no longer count on much in the way of international support, and Uganda’s already battered economy suffered a further blow when the price of coffee – the nation’s main export – began to fall. Civil unrest became a constant threat. Amin attempted to distract the public’s attention from internal strife by acting on long standing plans to invade neighbouring Tanzania.

Amin got more than he bargained for, however, and not only did his army take a pasting, but Tanzanian forces pushed back and staged a counter invasion of Uganda. On 11 April, 1979, Tanzanian forces took the Ugandan capital of Kampala, forcing Amin to flee to safety in Libya. His regime was over. His legacy was a country in a state of chronic national debt, an annual inflation rate of over 200%, and hundreds of thousands of its citizens left dead. Obote decided that the moment was opportune to come back from his vacation. He was returned to power shortly afterwards in a general election. However, it turns out that Obote’s regime was not that much different to Amin’s, and hundreds of thousands of Ugandans would continue to be slaughtered at the hands of the government in the coming years.

Colonel Gaddafi eventually got fed up of hosting the freeloading Amin and kicked him out of Libya. Amin went to live in Iraq for a while, before finally finding a safe haven in Saudi Arabia, where he subsisted on a comfortable pension provided by the Saudi monarchy. In 1989, Amin attempted to return to Uganda in order to stage a coup, but he was intercepted by authorities in Zaire and sent back to Saudi Arabia. There he remained until 2003, when he died from massive internal organ failure. In an interview granted to a Ugandan newspaper before his death, Amin claimed to enjoy playing the accordion, fishing, swimming, and reciting passages from the Koran. He expressed no remorse for the crimes of his regime, but mentioned that:

“I’m very happy now, much happier now than when I was president.”

Despot Rating: For much of his time in power, the Western media portrayed Idi Amin as little more than a brutish buffoon. The murderousness of his regime was often downplayed in favour of sensational stories about his self aggrandising antics and personal eccentricity. He was surrounded by bizarre rumours, that he enjoyed feeding dissenters to crocodiles, practised cannibalism and kept the severed heads of executed statesmen in his fridge. How much basis this all has in reality is very much a matter for debate. But when asked if he was really a cannibal, Amin declared that “I don’t like human flesh. It’s too salty for me.”

Although Amin was an uneducated man, his public buffoonery tended to mask the level of ruthless cunning and calculation that was behind much of his activity. He was not an effective leader and did nothing to contribute to Uganda’s development. In fact, he left the country in a worse state than it was when he found it. But he knew how to seize power and maintain it. All of his efforts were bent on that task, and to his own personal glory.

In some quarters of Africa, Amin is regarded as a charismatic cult hero and leader of Black Nationalism. But this ignores the full extent of his vicious cruelty. Amin is personally responsible for perhaps as many as half a million deaths. However, he was supported by Great Britain, the US and Israel throughout many of his worst crimes. It was only when he strained too far from the leash that they decided to punish him, following the standard policy carried on by the West throughout much of the developing world.

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* 4.5 Hitler moustaches / 5 for Idi Amin.


2 Responses to Despot of the Week #6 – Idi Amin

  1. Stuart says:

    Fabulous and nicely written. Great series of Despots. Keep up the good work

  2. Mike says:

    Wonderful .. It helped alot about his full fact ..

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