He was known for his smile, but military dictator Idi Amin Dada ruled Uganda with an iron fist for eight long years. Those who celebrated the general’s military coup that overthrew President Milton Obote in 1971 had no idea how violent and tyrannical the next decade would be.
By the end of his rule, Amin had ordered the killings of an estimated 300,000 people (some estimates peg the number as high as 500,000) out of a population of 12 million.
Even though Amin also known as the “Butcher of Uganda” oversaw mass killings and extraordinary human rights violations, many Ugandans still cherish his legacy to this day. This speaks volumes of his success in fostering the image of a liberator a man of the people ridding their homeland of its imperialist past.
Idi Amin’s story isn’t fully encapsulated between the years of 1971 and 1979, though. In order to gain a semblance of understanding of the man’s psyche, we have to start at the beginning.
Idi Amin: Man Of The People?
Ugandans were generally enthusiastic about Amin taking control. To them, the new president wasn’t merely a military leader, but a charismatic man of the people. People danced in the streets.
He wasted no opportunity to shake hands, pose for pictures, and dance the traditional dances with commoners. His informal personality made it seem like he really cared about the country.
Even Amin’s multiple marriages helped his spouses were of various Ugandan ethnic groups. In addition to his six wives, it is alleged that he had a minimum of 30 mistresses around the country.
But the biggest boost to his popularity came when he allowed King Mutesa’s body to return to Uganda for burial in his homeland, abolished Obote’s secret police, and granted amnesty to political prisoners. Unfortunately, Amin was not the benevolent ruler he appeared to me.
Idi Amin’s Brutal Reign
In the shadows, Idi Amin Dada was busy creating his own “killer squads,” tasked with killing soldiers suspected of being loyal to Obote. These squads brutally murdered a total of 5,000-6,000 soldiers from the Acholi, Langi, and other tribes, right in their barracks. These tribes were thought to be loyal to the ousted president, Milton Obote.
To some, it quickly became apparent that Amin’s man-of-the-people persona was no more than a front to hide his true inclinations. He was ruthless, vindictive, and used his military clout to further his goals.
His inability to deal with political matters in a civil manner was further highlighted in 1972 when he asked Israel for money and arms to help fight Tanzania. When Israel refused his request, he turned to Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, who promised to give him what he wanted.
Amin then ordered the expulsion of 500 Israelis and 50,000 South Asians with British citizenship. As Israel had undertaken several large building projects, and Uganda’s Asian population consisted of many successful plantation and business owners, the expulsions led to a dramatic economic downturn in Uganda.
All of these developments soured Amin’s international image. But he didn’t seem to care.
A Brutal Military Dictatorship
By the mid-1970s, the Ugandan dictator grew increasingly erratic, repressive, and corrupt. He routinely changed his personnel, altered travel schedules and modes of transportation, and slept in different places whenever he could.
Meanwhile, to keep his troops loyal, Amin showered them with expensive electronics, whiskey, promotions, and fast cars. He also handed over businesses previously owned by Uganda’s Asian population to his supporters.
More importantly, Amin continued to oversee the murder of an increasing number of his countrymen. Tens of thousands of Ugandans continued to be violently killed on ethnic, political, and financial grounds.
His methods of murder became increasingly sadistic. Rumors spread that he kept human heads in his refrigerator. He reportedly ordered 4,000 disabled people to be thrown into the Nile to be torn apart by crocodiles. And he confessed to cannibalism on several occasions: “I have eaten human meat,” he said in 1976. “It is very salty, even more salty than leopard meat.”
By this point, Amin was using the majority of national funds for the armed forces and his own personal expenses — a classic tenet of 20th century military dictatorships