Very little is known of Idi Amin’s early life. We know that he was born sometime in the 1920s, and was raised by his mother in Northern Uganda, but apart from this, we have no concrete details. Amin’s records become clearer in 1946 though, as he joined the British Army. The British Empire at the time still controlled Uganda, and Amin signed up as a cook in the King’s African Rifles. He was transferred to the infantry in 1947, and his unit was deployed to Somalia and Kenya to help put down uprisings there. By 1961, he was an officer, and in the vacuum of competent leadership following independence in 1962, rose quickly though the officer corps. In 1965, Prime Minister Milton Obote and Amin staged a coup against the ceremonial President, Kabaka Mutesa. Obote made Amin Commander of the Armed Forces, who promptly began to bring the army more and more under his personal control. Obote eventually demoted Amin to mere Commander of the Army, and when Amin learned that Obote also planned to have him arrested, he staged a coup in 1971.
At the very beginning of his rule, Amin promised to release Obote’s political prisoners, and to return power to the civilian authorities after the restoration of order. Predictably, this did not happen, as Amin instead suspended the constitution, declared himself President and Head of the Armed Forces, established a secret police and filled his cabinet and staff with military cronies. Obote had fled to Tanzania, and launched a failed attempt to retake his government. This led Amin to order the massacre soldiers of Obote’s ethnic group in their barracks, and the country soon descended into an orgy of slaughter and violence. Amin had anybody who even vaguely appeared disloyal killed; eventually, hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life, professions and geographic areas were killed for committing no real crime. Not even other members of the government were safe, as several members of Amin’s cabinet fell victim. Amin also ordered the expulsion of all Asians in Uganda; most of them were economically skilled and valuable Indians who had come to Uganda during the British Era. Their exile crippled Uganda’s already struggling economy. It also led to severing of diplomatic relations with India and Britain, and the nationalisation of British businesses in Uganda. In addition to angering the Commonwealth nations, Amin aligned Uganda with the USSR and was especially bellicose towards Israel. This culminated in 1976, when Amin allowed a hijacked Israeli airliner to land in Uganda, prompting an Israeli special forces raid which partially succeeded in freeing some of the hostages. After a brief armed standoff with Kenya, Amin’s vice president fled the now ruined country to Tanzania. The Vice President’s troops mutinied and themselves fled to Tanzania, leading Amin to formally annex an area of Tanzania, and declare war in 1978. Tanzania won, and Amin was forced to flee, at first to Libya and then to Saudi Arabia. He launched an abortive attempt to regain control of Uganda in 1989, but otherwise lived quietly in exile. He died in 2003 of kidney failure. It was revealed after his death that MI6 had had plans to assassinate him while he was President.
Idi Amin is one of the most erratic and brutal dictators in history. He was not motivated by any ideology, merely a love of power and violence. His forces would kill anybody, including religious figures, for no particular reason, and in addition to officially using the title “Conqueror of the British Empire” and festooning himself with fake British Army medals, he insisted throughout his life that he was in fact also the rightful King of Scotland. Amin’s level of sheer strangeness and eccentricity would be funny if not for the long, sustained, continuous massacre which was his rule.