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Idi Amin was born in Kampala, of the Kakwa tribe, near Koboko in the West Nile Arua district. Although he was a Kakwa, the only language he ever spoke fluently was Luganda, the tongue of Uganda's largest tribe, the Baganda. He was brought up by his mother, who was thought to be a witch doctor, and received little formal education.
Amin took tribalism, a long-standing problem in Uganda, to its extreme by ordering the persecution of Acholi, Lango, and other tribes. Reports of the torture and murder of 300,000 to 500,000 Ugandans during Amin's presidency have been widespread since the 1970s.
Amin joined the King's African Rifles of the British colonial army as a private in 1946, rising to the rank of lieutenant after seeing action during the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya. He was considered a skilled, but somewhat overeager, soldier, and developed a reputation for cruelty. He rose through the ranks, reaching sergeant-major before being made an effendi, the highest rank possible for a Black African in the British army. Amin was also an accomplished sportsman. Besides being a champion swimmer he held Uganda's light heavyweight boxing championship from 1951 to 1960.
After independence in October 1962, Milton Obote, Uganda's first prime minister, rewarded his loyalty by promoting him to captain in 1963 and deputy commander of the army in 1964. 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 Frederick Walugembe Mutesa II (also the Kabaka (King) of Buganda, popularly known as King Freddie), put Obote on the defensive; he promoted Amin to general and made him chief-of-staff, had five ministers arrested, suspended the 1962 constitution, and declared himself as the new president. King Freddie was forced into exile in Britain in 1966 where he died in 1969.
Amin began recruiting members of his own tribe into the army as well as many Muslims from his West Nile area to the northwest of Uganda near the Sudan border. Relations with Obote began to sour. Obote first responded by putting Amin under house arrest, and when this failed, Amin was given a non-executive position in the army.
Seizure of power
After hearing that Obote was planning to arrest him for misappropriating army funds, he seized power in a coup on January 25, 1971, when Obote was attending a Commonwealth summit meeting in Singapore. He was assisted by Rwandan exiles, whom Obote had targeted as enemies. Obote stayed in exile, and Amin declared himself the new President.
Idi Amin was initially welcomed both within Uganda and by the international community. He gave King Freddie (who had died in exile) a state burial in April 1971, freed many political prisoners, and disbanded the Secret Police, the General Service Unit. He promised to hold elections within months. Many foreign journalists considered him a somewhat comical and eccentric figure. He was fond of racing cars (of which he owned several), boxing, and Disney cartoons.
His light-hearted and often childish public persona hid an inner brutality, however. Shortly after taking power Amin established "killer squads" to hunt down and murder Obote's supporters as well as much of the intelligentsia, whom he distrusted. Military leaders who had not supported the coup were executed, many by beheading.
Obote took refuge in Tanzania, from where he attempted to regain the country through a military invasion from Tanzania in September 1972, without success. Obote supporters within the Ugandan army, mainly from the Acholi and Lango tribes, were also involved in the invasion. Amin retaliated 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, Amin becoming more and more paranoid. The Nile Mansions Hotel in Kampala became infamous as Amin's interrogation and torture centre.
On August 4, 1972, Amin gave Uganda's 70,000 Asian-born citizens who held British passports 90 days to leave the country, following an alleged dream in which, he claimed, God told him to expel them. Those who remained were deported from the cities to the countryside. The same year he severed diplomatic relations with Israel, and in 1976 with Britain. In 1972, Amin turned to Colonel Muammar Al Qadhafi of Libya and the Soviet Union for support.
Amin had strong links to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The Israeli embassy was offered to them as headquarters; and Flight 139, the Air France A-300B Airbus hijacked from Athens on June 27 1976, was invited by Amin to stop at Entebbe International Airport in Entebbe town, 32 km away from Kampala. The hijackers demanded the release of 53 PLO prisoners in return for the 256 hostages, and were assisted by Amin's troops. Amin visited the hostages more than once. On July 3, 1976, Israeli paratroopers attacked the airport and freed all of the hostages but one 75-year-old woman, Dora Bloch, who had been taken to a hospital before the rescue. Uganda's air force was badly crippled as its fighter jets were destroyed in the action.
- See also: Operation Entebbe.
The success of the operation largely contributed to his downfall, increased resistance and sabotage operations crippled the nation during his final years.
Partly on the basis of his "visions" and this behaviour, Idi Amin is often believed to have suffered from neurosyphilis: Deborah Hayden makes the case for this hypothesis in her Pox: Genius, Madness and the Mysteries of Syphilis.
As the years went on, Amin became increasingly erratic and outspoken.
He had his tunics specially lengthened so that he could wear many World War II medals. He also granted himself a number of grand titles including 'President for life', ‘Conqueror of the British Empire’, ‘Big Daddy’ and, bizarrely, ‘King of Scotland.’
In October 1978 Amin ordered the invasion of Tanzania while at the same time attempting to cover up an army mutiny. With help of Libyan troops, Amin tried to annex Kagera, the northern province of Tanzania. The Tanzanian armed forces fought back, enlisting Ugandan exiles who had fled into Tanzania. By April 1979 Tanzania, under president Julius Nyerere, had driven out Amin, taking the Ugandan capital Kampala with the help of the Ugandan and Rwandan guerrillas.
Amin fled to exile, first in Libya, where sources are divided on whether he remained until December 1979, or 1980, before finding final asylum in Saudi Arabia. He opened a bank account in Jeddah in 1979, and resided there, subsisting on a government stipend. The new Ugandan government chose to keep him exiled, saying that Amin would face war crimes charges if he ever returned.
On July 20, 2003, one of his wives, Madina, reported that he was near death in a coma at the King Faisal specialist hospital in Jeddah. She pleaded with Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni that he might return to die in Uganda. The reply was that if he returned, he would have to "answer for his sins". Idi Amin died in Saudi Arabia on August 16, 2003, and was buried in Jeddah.
On August 17, 2003 David Owen told an interviewer for BBC Radio 4 that while he was British Foreign Secretary (1977-1979) he had suggested to have Amin assassinated. His idea was directly rejected. Owen said, "Amin's regime was the worst of all. It's a shame that we allowed him to keep in power for so long."
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