Idi Amin (c. 1923–August 16, 2003), who became known as the “Butcher of Uganda” for his brutal, despotic rule as the President of Uganda in the 1970s, is perhaps the most notorious of Africa’s post-independence dictators. Amin seized power in a military coup in 1971, ruled over Uganda for eight years, and imprisoned or killed at least 100,000 of his opponents. He was ousted in 1979 by Ugandan nationalists, after which he went into exile.
Fast Facts: Idi Amin
- Known For: Amin was a dictator who served as the president of Uganda from 1971 to 1979.
- Also Known As: Idi Amin Dada Oumee, “The Butcher of Uganda”
- Born: c. 1923 in Koboko, Uganda
- Parents: Andreas Nyabire and Assa Aatte
- Died: August 16, 2003 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
- Spouse(s): Malyamu, Kay, Nora, Madina, Sarah Kyolaba
- Children: Unknown (estimates range from 32 to 54)
Idi Amin Dada Oumee was born around 1923 near Koboko, in the West Nile Province of what is now the Republic of Uganda. Deserted by his father at an early age, he was brought up by his mother, an herbalist and diviner. Amin was a member of the Kakwa ethnic group, a small Islamic tribe that had settled in the region.
Success in the King’s African Rifles
Amin received little formal education. In 1946, he joined Britain’s colonial African troops known as the King’s African Rifles (KAR) and served in Burma, Somalia, Kenya (during the British suppression of the Mau Mau), and Uganda. Although he was considered a skilled soldier, Amin developed a reputation for cruelty and was almost cashiered on several occasions for excessive brutality during interrogations. Nevertheless, he rose through the ranks, reaching sergeant major before finally being made an effendi, the highest rank possible for a black African serving in the British army. Amin was also an accomplished athlete, holding Uganda’s light heavyweight boxing championship title from 1951 to 1960.
A Violent Start
As Uganda approached independence, Amin’s close colleague Apollo Milton Obote, the leader of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), was made chief minister and then prime minister. Obote had Amin, one of only two high-ranking Africans in the KAR, appointed as first lieutenant of the Ugandan Army. Sent north to quell cattle stealing, Amin perpetrated such atrocities that the British government demanded he be prosecuted. Instead, Obote arranged for him to receive further military training in the U.K.
Soldier for the State
On his return to Uganda in 1964, Amin was promoted to major and given the task of dealing with an army in mutiny. His success led to a further promotion to colonel. In 1965, Obote and Amin were implicated in a deal to smuggle gold, coffee, and ivory out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A parliamentary investigation demanded by President Edward Mutebi Mutesa II put Obote on the defensive. Obote promoted Amin to general and made him chief-of-staff, had five ministers arrested, suspended the 1962 constitution, and declared himself president. Mutesa was forced into exile in 1966 after government forces, under the command of Amin, stormed the royal palace.
Idi Amin began to strengthen his position within the Army using the funds obtained from smuggling and from supplying arms to rebels in southern Sudan. He also developed ties with British and Israeli agents in the country. President Obote first responded by putting Amin under house arrest. When this failed to work, Amin was sidelined to a non-executive position in the Army. On January 25, 1971, while Obote was attending a meeting in Singapore, Amin led a coup d’etat, taking control of the country and declaring himself president. Popular history recalls Amin’s declared title to be “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.”
Amin was initially welcomed both within Uganda and by the international community. President Mutesa—fondly known as “King Freddie”—had died in exile in 1969, and one of Amin’s earliest acts was to have the body returned to Uganda for a state burial. Political prisoners (many of whom were Amin followers) were freed and the Ugandan Secret Police was disbanded. At the same time, however, Amin formed “killer squads” to hunt down Obote’s supporters.
Obote took refuge in Tanzania, from where, in 1972, he attempted unsuccessfully to regain the country through a military coup. Obote supporters within the Ugandan Army, predominantly from the Acholi and Lango ethnic groups, were also involved in the coup. Amin responded by bombing Tanzanian towns and purging the Army of Acholi and Lango officers. The ethnic violence grew to include the whole of the Army, and then Ugandan civilians, as Amin became increasingly paranoid. The Nile Mansions Hotel in Kampala became infamous as Amin’s interrogation and torture center, and Amin is said to have moved residences regularly to avoid assassination attempts. His killer squads, under the official titles of “State Research Bureau” and “Public Safety Unit,” were responsible for tens of thousands of abductions and murders. Amin personally ordered the execution of the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda, the chancellor of Makerere College, the governor of the Bank of Uganda, and several of his own parliamentary ministers.
In 1972, Amin declared “economic war” on Uganda’s Asian population, a group that dominated Uganda’s trade and manufacturing sectors as well as a significant portion of the civil service. Seventy thousand Asian holders of British passports were given three months to leave the country, and the abandoned businesses were handed over to Amin’s supporters. Amin severed diplomatic ties with Britain and “nationalized” 85 British-owned businesses. He also expelled Israeli military advisors, turning instead to Colonel Muammar Muhammad al-Gadhafi of Libya and the Soviet Union for support.
Amin was considered by many to be a gregarious, charismatic leader, and he was often portrayed by the international press as a popular figure. In 1975, he was elected chair of the Organisation of African Unity (though Julius Kambarage Nyerere, president of Tanzania, Kenneth David Kaunda, president of Zambia, and Seretse Khama, president of Botswana, boycotted the meeting). A United Nations condemnation was blocked by African heads of state.
Popular legend claims that Amin was involved in blood rituals and cannibalism. More authoritative sources suggest he may have suffered from hypomania, a form of manic depression characterized by irrational behavior and emotional outbursts. As his paranoia became more pronounced, Amin imported troops from Sudan and Zaire. Eventually, less than 25 percent of the Army was Ugandan. Support for his regime faltered as accounts of Amin’s atrocities reached the international press. The Ugandan economy suffered, with inflation eclipsing 1,000%.
In October 1978, with the assistance of Libyan troops, Amin attempted to annex Kagera, the northern province of Tanzania (which shares a border with Uganda). Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere responded by sending troops into Uganda, and with the aid of rebel Ugandan forces they were able to capture the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Amin fled to Libya, where he stayed for almost 10 years before finally relocating to Saudi Arabia. He remained there in exile for the remainder of his life.
On August 16, 2003, Amin died in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The cause of death was reported as multiple organ failure. Although the Ugandan government announced that his body could be buried in Uganda, he was quickly buried in Saudi Arabia. Amin was never tried for his gross abuse of human rights.
Amin’s brutal reign has been the subject of numerous books, documentaries, and dramatic films, including “Ghosts of Kampala,” “The Last King of Scotland,” and “General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait.” Often depicted in his time as an eccentric buffoon with delusions of grandeur, Amin is now considered one of history’s cruelest dictators. Historians believe his regime was responsible for at least 100,000 deaths and possibly many more.
- “Idi Amin, a Brutal Dictator Of Uganda, Is Dead at 80.” The New York Times, 16 Aug. 2003.
- Wall, Kim. “Ghost Stories: Idi Amin’s Torture Chambers.” IWMF, 27 Dec. 2016.