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The Life of Idi Amin and His Dictatorship Essay (Biography)

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Updated: Jun 2nd, 2022

Idi Amin is considered to be one of the most brutal and notorious dictators that post-independence Africa has had. He came to be known as the Butcher of Uganda for the despotic and brutal policies that he followed while he was the President of Uganda during the 1970s. Amin usurped power in 1971 in a military coup and ruled over Uganda for about eight years. It is estimated that he imprisoned, tortured, or killed about 500000 people. He was overthrown by Ugandan nationalists in 1979 after which he fled, first to Libya and then to live in exile in Saudi Arabia for the rest of his life. The legacy of Idi Amin teaches modern society precious lessons to make use of. Amin competes with the most atrocious dictators across the world because of the sadistic and paranoid nature he exhibited in pursuing his policies with the help of a corrupt establishment that ultimately brought the country on its knees. Before Amin usurped power, Uganda was a promising country which he eventually transformed into a poor and miserable nation.

Idi Amin is believed to have been born in 1925 in Koboko which is located in the Western Nile province of Uganda. He was brought up by his mother after his father deserted them. Not much is known about Idi Amin’s childhood except that he did not receive any formal education. In 1946 he enrolled with the King’s African Rifles (KAR) and was required to serve in Kenya, Somalia, Burma, and Uganda. He was regarded as an overeager and skilled soldier but also became known for his cruelty for which he was always sought after by his superiors as an ace interrogator. He quickly rose through the ranks in reaching the rank of Sergeant Major after which he became an “effendi”, which was the highest possible rank conferred on a black soldier by the British army. Amin was a distinguished sportsman and held the country’s title of heavy weight boxing champion continuously from 1951 to 1960. As circumstances became favorable for the independence of Uganda, Amin’s colleague Apolo Milton Obote, in being the leader of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) became Chief Minister and later the Prime Minister of Uganda. Amin was appointed as First Lieutenant of the country’s army. While on a mission to curb the stealing of cattle he inflicted severe atrocities and the British demanded that he be put on trial. However, Obote ignored the demand and instead sent him to the UK for Military training (Thomas Huber, 2009).

Upon returning to Uganda in 1964, he was made Major and was entrusted to deal with the army which showed signs of mutiny. Very soon, in being a willing soldier for the state, his successes enabled him to rise to the rank of Colonel. In having allegedly colluded with Obote in a deal that entailed smuggling of ivory, coffee, and gold out of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Amin became closer to him and was promoted to the rank of General and Chief of Staff. At the same time, Obote got the smell of a conspiracy against his rule and crushed the opposition by having five ministers arrested, suspended the constitution, and assumed the title of President. In 1966, at the instance of Obote, Idi Amin attacked the palace of King Freddie of Congo who had to flee to Britain in seeking refuge from the tyranny of the Ugandan army. Idi Amin consolidated his position in the army by using the money he got from smuggling activities and from supplying armaments to Sudanese rebels. He tactfully influenced the Israeli and British agents in his favor, and Obote having smelt the conspiracy, had Amin put under house arrest. Since this did not appear to have any impact on the nefarious activities of Amin, he was side-lined and given non-executive assignments. On January 25th, 1971, while Obote was attending a Commonwealth meeting in Singapore, Amin led a coup and assumed power in the country by declaring himself as the President. Historically he is well known in having declared himself as “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” (Alistair Boddy-Evans, 2009)

Idi Amin had his hidden side of a popular President. To begin with, he was well received within his own country as also in the international community. After King Freddie died in 1969 while in exile, he pursued getting his body returned and buried in Uganda with full state honors. The Ugandan Secret Service was rendered ineffective and several political prisoners were freed. But simultaneously he had his killer squads actively engaged in hunting down followers of Obote. He improved his relations with the British and the Israeli agents about which Ali Mazrui notes, “Amin reaffirmed his love for the British, and demonstrated considerable deference to the Israelis as his benefactors. Britain was in fact the first country to recognize his new regime, and Amin was not in the least embarrassed by this imperial gesture” (Mazrui, Ali, 1975)

Obote made attempts in 1972 to regain control from Tanzania, where he had taken refuge after his ouster, and in retaliation, Idi Amin bombed towns in the country and went on a purging spree within his army by targeting Lango and Acholi officers who had conspired with Obote. This was followed by large-scale ethnic violence which later took the army also within its fray. Amin became extra suspicious and started his infamous torture center at the Nile Mansions Hotel in Kampala where he interrogated suspected conspirators by adopting inhuman methods of torture. He was suspicious to such an extent that he used to frequently change his residence to avoid assassination attempts. His killer squads became responsible for the murder, torture, and abduction of thousands of people; the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda was executed along with many senior government functionaries including some of his ministers. The BBC article dated 15th April 2002 amply corroborates the misdeeds of Amin concerning the atrocities, “but many in Uganda are appalled by this idea. During Idi Amin’s rule, tens of thousands met with cruel deaths. Some were crushed alive by tanks, others disemboweled” (BBC, 2002).

Idi Amin launched an economic war against the Asian businesses in his country, ordered over 70000 Asians to leave the country, and took control over their business. Diplomatic ties with Britain were severed and Israeli military officers were expelled. In turn, he improved his ties with the Soviet Union and Libya and offered the vacant Israeli embassy as headquarters for the Palestinian Liberation Organization. His support to PLO is further corroborated by the fact that an Air France plane that was hijacked from Athens was allowed to land at Entebbe where the PLO negotiated for the release of its prisoners in return for the safety of the air passengers. Israel retaliated with an air raid in which they incapacitated Amin’s air force and rescued all but one of the hostages.

Idi Amin was believed to be a charismatic and gregarious dictator and was depicted by the media as an admired independence leader for the Africans. As per popular belief, Amin engaged himself in blood rituals and cannibalism as practiced by the Kakwas, of which he was a member. According to authentic sources he could have been suffering from hypomania which is a kind of hyper dejection with symptoms of emotional outbursts and illogical behavior. Amin’s obsession and distrust of his countrymen became more prominent when he started employing mercenaries from Zaire and Sudan which led to a situation whereby only about 25% of his army was comprised of Ugandans. With increasing incidents of the inhuman massacres at his instance, the support that he enjoyed began to falter and the economy went into a slump with inflation reaching over 1000%, (Thomas Huber, 2009).

Amin made attempts in October 1978 to annex Kagera, the Tanzanian province that shared borders with Uganda. Julius Nyerere, the Tanzanian President reacted by marching his troops into Uganda and with the help of the rebels in the Ugandan army captured Kampala. Amin had to flee to Libya where he lived for about ten years and then relocated to Saudi Arabia where he lived in exile and died in 2003.

Before Amin came to power in 1971, Uganda was privileged as being one of the wealthiest countries in Africa although political insecurity was a constant disturbing element. The biggest setback that Amin’s policies created for Uganda were, his economic war on the Asian community as a result of which the economy of the country collapsed and tax revenues declined which created a dependence on imports for products that were once produced in Uganda. Although Amin’s actions in having expelled the Asians were popularly supported by the native people, the decision damaged the economy to a great extent. In this regard, FJ Ravenhill observed, “The popularity of the move subsided considerably, however, when the Asian exodus was completed and severe economic repercussions were felt” (Ravenhill, 1974). If the confiscated properties of Asian businessmen had been entrusted to native businessmen who were capable of managing them efficiently, Amin’s economic war would have been successful. According to Ofcansky, “5,655 ranches, factories, estates, and businesses were left behind by Asians with an estimated $400 million in personal possessions” (Ofcansky, Thomas P, 1996). He goes on to state that the business taken over by African owners failed rapidly and, “the economy suffered from shortages of basic commodities such as sugar, soap, bread, milk, and salt… items such as cement, steel, corrugated iron roofing, blankets, matches… and copper mining and smelting and fertilizer production had also ceased” (Ofcansky, Thomas P, 1996).

The second part of the legacy left behind by Amin was the brutalities inflicted by him in maintaining his authority and in enforcing his will. According to Nayenga, “Whereas no one conversant with recent political developments in Uganda will dispute Amin’s brutality, it should be observed that any attempt to provide precise figures of the victims involved is an exercise in futility” (Nayenga, Peter, 1979). In a country that is controlled by a single person, it becomes very difficult to ascertain the extents to which the person had gone and involved himself in the crimes. In the absence of proper records of the incident,s it is difficult to ascertain and quantify the actual damages suffered by the country. Nobody dared to speak out in opposition to the processes used by Amin in fear of reprisal, since discussing such matters was viewed as treason. Amin considerably reduced the influence of Christianity by targeting Catholics, just as he did with Asians because they were seen by him as being obstacles in converting people to Islam. In this context, Mujaju has observed, “Amin had by 1974 become suspicious of all Christians as increasingly he had built up Islam as the bedrock of his regime. He now publicly castigated all Christian bishops in Uganda, expelled over 50 white Catholic priests out of Uganda and branded others as spies and military personnel” (Mujaju, Akiiki B, 1976)

Uganda was able to recoup to some extent its economic downfall during the 1980s after the country rebounded from economic catastrophes and civil war. There was relative stability and peace along with a certain level of prosperity. However civil wars continued to make the country seethe with the rigors of repeated political disturbances for the next two decades between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the government forces (Country Information Paper, 2009).

It is quite evident that Idi Amin could remain in power only by creating a fear psychosis amongst the people in regard to the extent to which he could go in enforcing his dictates. During the infamous killing binge in which he ordered the killing of his political opponents, he had their bodies thrown in front of crocodiles and their cut-off heads placed in the freezer of his palace in Kampala. Ironical, but true, his guests could see the severed and frozen heads on the tables while Amin continued with his conversations with them. Amongst those killed in such a manner was the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda, Janani Luwam. Luwam’s son labeled Amin a “madman,” who “has killed so many people and… has never repented for what he has done” (Albert Mohler, 2003). Amin is said to have been involved in cannibalism and he never refuted the charge. In regard to the accusation, he said, “I don’t like human flesh. It’s too salty for me” (Albert Mohler, 2003).

Amin is indeed a historical figure who made postcolonial theorists wonder at the combination of the western style of leadership and the established heritage of Africa that he adopted in creating a complicated identity crisis which in fact was a consequence of the long period of suffering at the hands of his white tormenters. Different people have described him as a fool and as a man child who was ignorant of how absurd he had become in the eyes of the world while he was laughing and murdering his way across eight years of viciousness that he was in power. Amin has emerged as a person whose life serves as an annotation about the shameful and weird imperialism that he indulged in, even though he may not have himself been conscious of the fact that he was enabling the provision of a means by way of his behavior and actions, for the world to examine his personality from every angle. On a positive note, Amin had a majestic dream for Uganda in building an army that could challenge the most powerful countries. He desired to make the Ugandan economy and its tourism blossom into reaching a stage that would be the envy of all African nations. He had the desire to create an infrastructure in keeping with modern world-class standards which would ultimately benefit each of the citizens of his country.

Works Cited

Albert Mohler, Looking Evil in the Face: The Lessons of Idi Amin, 2003. Web.

Alistair Boddy-Evans, Biography: Idi Amin Dada, 2009. Web.

BBC, Should Idi Amin be allowed back to Uganda? 2002, Web.

Country information paper, Republic of Uganda, 2009. Web.

Mujaju, Akiiki B. “The Political Crisis of Church Institutions in Uganda.” African Affairs, Vol. 75, No. 298. (1976)

Mazrui, Ali. “The Resurrection of the Warrior Tradition in African Political Culture.” The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1. (1975)

Nayenga, Peter. “Myths and Realities of Idi Amin Dada’s Uganda.” African Studies Review, Vol. 22, No. 2. (1979)

Ofcansky, Thomas P. Uganda: Tarnished Pearl of Africa. Westview Press: Boulder, Colorado, 1996

Ravenhill, F.J. “Military Rule in Uganda: The Politics of Survival.” African Studies Review, Vol. 17, No. 1. (1974)

Thomas Huber, Idi Amin Dada: The Portrait of a Tyrant, 2009, Web.

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