An image of terror

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

Idi Amin, 1925-2003.

THE death of Idi Amin on August 16 in a hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, at the age of 78 made headlines all over the world. Idi Amin Dada Oumee was the military dictator of Uganda from 1971 to1979. His brutality and antics ensured that he was in the international spotlight throughout his eight-year rule. International human rights groups have estimated that between 100,000 and 300,000 people, out of a population of 12 million, were killed during his rule. Most of his victims were people belonging to the Acholi, Lango and other tribes. It was his summary expulsion of over 70,000 Ugandan Asians in 1972 that signalled the beginning of Uganda's descent into chaos. Most of those expelled were Indians and Pakistanis whose forefathers had settled in Uganda.

Amin was born in the West Nile district in the Kakwa ethnic group. He started his career as a lowly private in the British colonial army in 1946. While serving in the Army, Amin showed his proficiency in boxing and swimming, and emerged as the all-Uganda champion in both the disciplines during the 1950s. After Uganda gained independence in 1962, Amin became close to the country's first Prime Minister Milton Obote. Promotions came quickly, and by 1964 Amin was the Deputy Commander of the Ugandan Army. Obote and Amin were so close at one time that the Opposition accused both of them of being involved in a deal to smuggle gold, coffee and ivory out of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Interestingly, the same charges were made against the country's current President, Yoweri Museveni, when Ugandan troops were fighting along side Congolese rebels, until last year.

When the Opposition demanded a high-level probe into the allegations and the whole issue threatened to snowball into a major political crisis, Obote suspended the Constitution, promoted Amin to the rank of a general and declared himself President. Obote soon fell out with Amin, after reports reached him to the effect that his Army chief was misappropriating funds on a large scale and recruiting people from his own tribe into the Army. Amin was sidelined and given a non-executive position in the Army. When Amin heard that Obote was planning to arrest him on charges of corruption, he planned to stage a coup. He got his opportunity when Obote left the country to attend a Commonwealth Summit in Singapore in January 1971.

Idi Amin's military coup was initially welcomed by the West and conservative African regimes. Obote was closely identified with the progressive camp in Africa, led by Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, which was in the forefront in the struggle against apartheid and colonialism. With the de-colonisation struggle gaining momentum in southern Africa, the West thought that Idi Amin would be more manageable. It was even suggested at the time that the British helped Amin in executing his military coup. Obote sought refuge in Tanzania.

In 1972, loyalists of Obote in the Ugandan Army tried to stage a coup. Amin retaliated by ordering the bloody purge of suspected Obote supporters in the Army and administration. Obote loyalists were mainly from the Acholi and Lango ethnic groups. Amin is also said to have ordered the killing of the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda, the Chief Justice of Uganda and the Vice-Chancellor of Makerere University, around that time. Makerere University was among the country's most prominent centres of higher learning at that time. Most of the reputed academic staff left Uganda during the Amin interregnum for a variety of reasons.

Later in the same year, in what began as a populist move, Amin gave his ultimatum to Ugandan Asians to leave the country in 90 days. In the meantime, he decreed that he should be addressed 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 the Conqueror of the British Empire in General and Uganda in Particular".

Amin's move to send out the Indians and Pakistanis was initially welcomed by many Ugandans. Asians were convenient scapegoats for many of the economic ills that plagued the country. Uganda, once hailed as the "pearl of Africa", was already in dire economic straits. After the expulsion of the Asians, Amin preferred to describe Uganda as the "Black Man's Country". The Asians' tendency to segregate themselves socially and their reluctance to invest their capital and savings in Uganda (they preferred to repatriate their profits to their accounts in Swiss and British banks) did not endear them to the local populace. In hindsight, many Ugandan Asians, while faulting the methods he used, now feel that Amin's intentions were to get native Ugandans to get involved in business. Today, many Ugandans are successful businessmen and they have to be grateful to some extent to the draconian measures Amin took to create a level playing field.

The departure of the Asian entrepreneurial class had an immediate impact on the important sugar and textile industries. Educational institutions run and staffed by Asians closed down. Inadvertently, Amin may have done many Asians a good turn. Today, many of them are well-placed in Britain, either as professionals or running successful businesses. Others returned to Uganda after the fall of Amin to reclaim their enterprises. Today, Asians are once again successfully reintegrated into Ugandan society. The three richest Ugandans today are of Indian origin.

Amin's honeymoon with the West came to an end soon. He cut off diplomatic links with Israel and allowed the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) to set up an office in Kampala. Uganda also came closer to radical regimes like those in Libya. In 1976, radical Palestinians, after hijacking a passenger plane, landed it at the Entebbe airport. The hijackers had demanded the release of 53 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in exchange for the 256 hostages on board the Air France plane. Amin, given his foolhardy ways, thought that he would be able to negotiate a peaceful end to the hijacking crisis. But, the Israeli security agencies used the occasion to stage a raid in which they freed most of the hostages and killed the hijackers. The Ugandan Air Force was badly crippled in the raid.

By the late 1970s, Uganda was in a mess, economically as well as politically. Kenneth Kaunda, who was at the time the President of Zambia, described Amin as "mentally unbalanced". Amin by then had taken to sending insulting messages to heads of state he did not get along with. He invited President Nyerere to a boxing match to settle the dispute between the two countries. On another occasion, he announced that he loved Nyerere and would have "married him if he were a woman". When he assumed the chairmanship of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1975, he made four white residents in Kampala carry him on a palanquin. Many of his alleged atrocities, like keeping the heads of his enemies in his refrigerator, may have been exaggerated by the Western media but it was during his disastrous rule that Uganda was run to the ground. The country is yet to recover from the ravages inflicted by Amin's idiosyncratic rule.

It was estimated that around 75 per cent of the Ugandan Army was comprised of foreigners from neighbouring countries like Sudan, Rwanda and Zaire. Some units of the Ugandan Army were in open revolt by 1978. Others were running their own fiefdoms in areas under their control. To divert the attention of the people, Amin started a war with Tanzania, laying claim to the northern province of Kagera. The Tanzanian Army launched a counter-offensive and, with the help of dissident Ugandan Army sections, captured Kampala in April 1979, forcing Amin to flee from Uganda. Amin found sanctuary for brief periods in Libya and Iraq but eventually was granted the status of a political exile in Saudi Arabia on the understanding that he would refrain from political activities.

Amin was among the most colourful and controversial figures that strode on the African political stage.

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