African tyrant left legacy of brutal killings


Idi Amin, who has died at an age thought to be 78, was one of the most brutal military dictators to wield power in post-independence Africa.

While chief of staff of the Ugandan army, under Dr Milton Obote's civilian government, he seized power in 1971. He made himself president, with the rank of field marshal, and after eight years of power left Uganda a legacy of bloodthirsty killings and economic mismanagement. Parliament was dissolved; no elections were held; secret police - most in plain clothes - exercised absolute power of life and death.

The death toll during the Amin regime will never be accurately known. The best estimate, from the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in Geneva, is that it was not less than 80,000 and more likely around 300,000.

For Tanzania's then president, Julius Nyerere, Amin was "a murderer, a liar and a savage".

Amin was neither well educated nor particularly intelligent. But he had a peasant cunning which often outflanked cleverer opponents, including Uganda's civilian president Obote. He also possessed a kind of animal magnetism; a quality he used with sadistic skill in his dealings with people he wished to dominate. In his relations with women it brought him a succession of casual mistresses, longer-serving concubines, and six wives. And it explains the otherwise bizarre decision by his last British colonial regimental commander to select Amin as one of the first two black Ugandans to be promoted to commissioned rank.

That was in 1961. With independence the next year and the rapid "Africanisation" which followed, he was elevated to army commander by 1964. He claimed to have been the officer who, virtually single-handed, put down the army mutiny at Jinja, Uganda's second city, in that year. Whatever the truth of it, Obote trusted him enough to put him in charge of the highly political military operation two years later: the attack on the "new palace" of the Kabaka (king) of Buganda on Mengo Hill. There was no military glory involved - Sir Frederick Mutesa and his supporters had only a few hunting rifles - but the victory of this Muslim officer of peasant origins over the Christian patrician ruler of the sophisticated Buganda, hitherto the dominant tribe, invested Amin with a mystique that was to make him a legend.

It gave him the conviction he was not as other mortals; that bullets could not touch him, that he was selected by God to walk with kings, presidents and prime ministers alike and, when directed by God in mystic dreams, to humble them.

Amin was born around 1925 in Koboko county in West Nile district, home of the Kakwa tribe. His father had spent much of his life in the southern Sudan, where the Kakwas, an Islamic people, originated. His mother was from the ethnically related Lugbara tribe. Violence and bloodletting were observed, by early Victorian explorers, to be particularly marked among these Sudanic-Nubian peoples.

Amin joined the army as an assistant cook in the King's African Rifles. He falsely claimed to have fought with the regiment in the Burma campaign but records show his entry into the KAR in 1946.

Sixteen years later, after training in Wiltshire, as a commissioned officer, he was to command a battalion of the 4th KAR and, when in civvies, wore the KAR tie all his life.

His only distinction in terms of overseas service was to be identified as leader of a scrimmage among Ugandan troops stationed in Mauritius, which was put down by British-led police. The other mark in his regimental book was an entry indicating, in 1955, that he had been repeatedly infected with and cured of venereal disease.

The first sign of his sadism came in 1962, commanding troops of the 4th KAR, when he carried out the Turkana Massacre, ostensibly a simple assignment to check cattle rustling. After complaints reached the British authorities in Nairobi, bodies were exhumed and it became clear that the victims had been tortured, beaten to death and, in some cases, buried alive. Amin was lucky. The British, with Uganda's independence only months away, decided it was politically impossible to court-martial one of the country's only two black officers.

In December 1969, would-be assassins, never identified, tried to kill Obote. Badly wounded, he ordered an investigation. Amin could not be found but turned up later at the meeting where Brigadier Okoya, the deputy army commander, indicated that the net was closing in. Just weeks later Okoya and his wife died from multiple bullet wounds in mysterious circumstances.

Later in 1970, while Obote was still in power, police investigating an armed hold-up arrested a gang of thugs with illegal arms. Under questioning one indicated he took his orders from Brigadier Amin. In the coup of January 25th, 1971, Amin took power while Obote was attending a Commonwealth prime ministers' conference in Singapore.

As a reign of terror got under way, the chief justice, Kabimu Kiwanuka, a former prime minister of Uganda, was arrested in his robing room and brutally killed by plain-clothes thugs. The Anglican Archbishop, Janani Luwum, was killed in a simulated car crash. Other leading figures were expunged in similar brutal circumstances.

About six weeks after Amin seized power, a dynamite explosion at Makindye Prison in Kampala killed 32 army officers, crammed into a tiny cell. The group was made up of Christian tribes such as the Acholi and Langi, who had supported the Obote government. It now seems that two-thirds of the Ugandan army's soldiers, out of a total of 9,000 men, were executed in Amin's first year of power.

According to Amnesty, the ICJ, and exile sources, Amin deliberately created four rival and overlapping agencies to carry out his mass killings. These were the Military Police, the Presidential Guard, the Public Safety Unit and the Bureau of State Research.

His bodyguards were drawn from his own Kakwa tribe and, with their special language and accent, they were well placed to detect any attempt by an outsider to infiltrate their ranks. This, combined with Libyan security experts, and Amin's own good luck, headed off seven major assassination attempts organised by dissident army and air force officers between 1972 and 1979.

In 1977, after Britain broke diplomatic relations with his regime, Amin declared he had beaten the British and conferred on himself the decoration of CBE which, he said, stood for "Conqueror of the British Empire". Radio Uganda then solemnly read out the whole of his title: "His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Alhaji Dr Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE".

He acted on hunches and impulses. His decision to expel the 35,000 Ugandan Asians in the space of three months between August and November 1972 came to him, he said, in a dream. He expounded the dream the next day to troops at a military post in the north, and the policy came into effect before nightfall.

Until a bitter quarrel with Israel, when he ordered the diplomatic mission in Kampala to be closed, Amin was proud of the parachutist's wings which he wore on his elaborate marshal's uniform. He brought back this badge from the course he took in Israel while still an army sergeant. Another participant later declared that Amin had failed his tests but was given the wings for reasons of diplomacy.

In 1976 came the hijacking of an Air France plane bound from Athens to Paris, initially by two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two from Germany's Baader-Meinhof gang. The plane was forced down at Entebbe and the crisis ended with an audacious airborne raid by Israeli commandos. But one passenger, the unfortunate Dora Bloch, who held joint Israeli-British citizenship, had been taken from the airport to hospital in Kampala.

After the raid, according to Uganda's minister of health at the time, Henry Kyemba, who later escaped into exile, Ms Bloch was taken screaming from her hospital bed and brutally executed the same day.

The Bloch affair loosened tongues in Israel and a doctor who had served in an Israelimedical aid team in Uganda told a newspaper correspondent in Tel Aviv: "It's no secret that Amin is suffering from the advanced stages of syphilis, which has caused brain damage."

The Islamic religion became a fetish for this unbalanced man, and his uncouth espousal of it did great harm to the Muslim cause in Africa. Amin's fanaticism came to a head in a bizarre telegram sent to the then United Nations secretary-general, Kurt Waldheim, when he purported to analyse the Middle East situation and focused his hatred on the Israelis.

The message contained these phrases, personally dictated by Amin to his secretary: "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." Reaction in black Africa was overwhelmingly angry.

Amin's family life remains cloaked in mystery. He divorced his first three wives. The fourth, Kay, disappeared and her body, butchered into chunks and then reassembled, was seen at a mortuary by one of Amin's ministers, who then fled into exile. There were two other wives, the sixth being a nightclub singer, Sarah, whom he married when she was 19 and he 50. He claimed to have fathered 32 children.

Amin's downfall came in 1979 after some weeks when Ugandan troops crossed the frontier into Tanzania, looting and wrecking villages along the Kagera river. Nyerere retaliated by despatching an armoured column, led by three tanks. Hundreds of Ugandan exiles volunteered to join it.

Libya's Col Gadafy had begun sending troops to help shore up the regime, but hastily reversed the airlift after some 400 Libyan casualties. Amin followed them into brief exile in Tripoli and then moved on to a villa in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia on condition that he remain incommunicado because of the harm they believed he was doing to Islam.

For 24 years he gave no interviews and stayed close to home.

Idi Amin Dada: born around 1925; died August 16th, 2003