Idi Amin: a byword for brutality

2003-07-21 18:47

Kampala - Idi Amin, who is fighting for his life in a Saudi hospital, ruled Uganda in an eight-year orgy of slaughter and lunatic brutality that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

Amin did as much as any other African despot to stain the continent with a reputation for bloodshed and backwardness, killing more than 300 000 political rivals and ordinary Ugandans and destroying the country's economy.

As armed forces chief, Amin staged a coup on January 25, 1971 when President Milton Obote was out of the country and proclaimed himself head of state.

"Big Daddy," as he became known, began by slaughtering Obote loyalists, but the killing quickly spread from the barracks to the entire country, and included an Anglican archbishop, a chief justice and several cabinet ministers.

It was one of the most appalling reigns of terror anywhere, with Amin reputed to have fed the remains of victims to the crocodiles in Lake Victoria and kept the heads of decapitated political rivals in his refrigerator.

Amin also drove out of the country about 80 000 Ugandans of Asian origin, saying God had commanded him to do so in a dream. He distributed their vast businesses to his cronies, who mismanaged them, leading to a phenomenal economic meltdown.

Because of Oboto's pro-communist leanings, many in the West, including former colonial power Britain, at first embraced Amin's putsch and suspicions about foreign involvement linger to this day.

Amin's reputation as a buffoonish butcher did not prevent him from strutting on the international stage bedecked with medals and braid. He once addressed the UN General Assembly - in the local Lugandan tongue rather than in English, which he said was the language of colonialists.

Among the many titles he conferred on himself was that of CBE - "Conqueror" rather than "Commander of the British Empire," as well as conferring on himself a doctorate of law, declaring himself a field marshal and, in 1975, life president of Uganda.

At the height of his reign, fellow African leaders overlooked his blood-drenched rule and praised his anti-imperialism. He became head of the Organisation of African Unity in 1975.

When Palestinian commandos seized a French airliner carrying Israelis and forced it to land at Entebbe in 1976, Amin sided with the hijackers and allowed them to keep their hostages at the airport. The hostages were rescued in a daring raid by an elite Israeli assault force, in which several Ugandan soldiers and all the hijackers were killed.

The one leader prepared to stand up to Amin was President Julius Nyere of neighboring Tanzania. In 1978, Amin made the mistake of invading Tanzania. Nyere counter-attacked with a force of Tanzanian troops and Ugandan exiles, culminating in the capture of Kampala after seven months, forcing Amin to flee in April 1979.

Amin was born in either 1924 or 1925 into the Muslim Kakwa tribe in Koboko in northwest Uganda, close to the borders of Zaire - now the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan.

In 1946, he joined the King's African Rifles of the British colonial army, and being both big and a good sportsman - he held the title of Ugandan heavyweight boxing champion from 1951 to 1960 - he attracted attention among his superiors.

Amin was one of only two Africans who received army commissions during colonial rule. He was notorious for brutality and torture during the suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya from 1952 to 1956, but he was rewarded with promotion rather than prosecution.

Amin was thus a member of the ruling elite that moved into positions of power when independence was declared, first as a crony of Obote, who made him chief of the army and air force, and then as his sworn rival.

Leaving his country in economic ruins, Amin first sought refuge with Moamer Kadhafi of Libya and then in Saudi Arabia, where he has lived ever since in luxury with several wives and some of his estimated 50 children among the oil sheikhs of Jeddah.