Idi Amin will go down in history as both murderer and clown, the crazy cannibal who ruined Uganda and gave Africa a dreadful image that has lasted to this day.
The former Ugandan dictator died early yesterday from multiple organ failure and was buried in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah. Ugandan officials said he was 80. He had been in a coma in King Faisal hospital in Jeddah for a month after being admitted with high blood pressure, and then suffering kidney failure.
The dictator was forced from power in 1979 by Tanzanian troops and Ugandan exiles. He fled to Libya and Iraq before settling in Saudi Arabia. He had ruled Uganda for eight years and was said to be responsible for the deaths of 300,000 people.
His story has been largely told by his enemies. In 1973 the British put it about that he had syphilis and drank several bottles of whisky a day. They were confident he would soon be dead. Reports of body parts in his fridge come from former allies turned enemies. The figure of 300,000 dead has never been corroborated. It is certain that many more Ugandans were killed by Milton Obote's second regime which lasted from 1982 to 1985, and by the short-lived Okello regime that followed it.
What is also true is that Britain created Amin. A corporal in the King's African Rifles, he was rapidly promoted as independence neared. He loved the British and seemed not unhappy with his role as well-trained, faithful beast. Asked if Amin might try to seize power, one British high commissioner replied that he had just enough intelligence to know he couldn't run the country.
He had an open straightforwardness that ordinary people liked. I remember seeing him once at the roundabout on the airport road in 1972, driving on his own in an open Jeep, his tartan forage cap perched on the side of his head. He pulled up at the roundabout to let my taxi pass and waved gaily. When he came to give a speech in Masaka, the town I lived near, he walked through the crowd without security and pointed to the few white foreigners in the crowd and told people to respect them and treat them as guests because they had come to help build Uganda.
Peter Allen, a British judge who served all Uganda's regimes, recalled that he never had problems with him, and confirmed that subsequent regimes were far worse. But he told me that Amin's army officers frequently tried to interfere with his court. "So I used to phone him up and complain," said Allen. "You always knew where you stood with Amin. The next day I might see the officer I had complained about limping down the street or nursing a black eye. Idi used to summon them and biff them himself. I wouldn't get any more interference for a while."
Exactly why he suddenly changed from being very pro-British to very anti is still not completely clear. When he came to power he told the British that he would support their policy on South Africa and tell other African leaders to stop criticising apartheid and Israel. What he wanted in particular from Britain was a visit from the Queen or the Queen Mother and signed pictures of them. He also wanted arms and an intelligence service. But it was soon after his state visit to London that his attitude began to change. Perhaps he sensed that beneath the pomp and circumstance, the British were sniggering at him, not treating him with the respect accorded to a President.
Once he had broken with Israel and Britain, Amin became increasingly paranoid and dangerous, seeing enemies everywhere. The expulsion of the Asians and the first invasion of Obote's supporters which began on the day the Asians started to leave in 1972 made him suspicious of everyone. The Chief Justice, Benedict Kiwanuka, was dragged from his court and never seen again. Senior army officers disappeared. Those from the Langi and Acholi ethnic groups were singled out and killed.
In 1976 Palestinians hijacked a plane full of Israeli nationals and Jews and parked it at Entebbe airport. Amin protected the hijackers. One night, while negotiations were still going on, Israeli commandos flew in and rescued all but one of the hostages. They blew up the airport, killing several hijackers and Ugandan soldiers.
The humiliation of the spectacular raid on Entebbe drove Amin to new heights of paranoia and repression. He expelled foreigners. His security organs, the State Research Bureau and the Public Safety Unit, killed at will. Lacking the capacity to govern coherently, Amin increasingly lived in a fog of confusion and suspicion. A former minister, Henry Kyemba, said he suffered from fits of insanity and boasted of eating human flesh. He would order the execution of anyone suspected of opposing him. Public executions were common. In January 1977, Amin accused the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda, Janani Luwum, of conspiring to help another invasion. The next day, he and two ministers were murdered.
His deadly wrath was limited to key individuals and their families. The dangers to ordinary people were the road blocks where soldiers raped and stole. For most Ugandans the Amin years meant a slow collapse of schools, roads and hospitals. Otherwise life went on, at least in the south, until the price of coffee, Uganda's main export, began to fall in 1978. Amin sent his army into north-west Tanzania but its President, Julius Nyerere, who had always opposed Amin, counter-attacked and invaded Uganda.
It took six months for the Tanzanians to get to the capital and even longer to take control of the north. Amin's troops fought harder than expected to defend his regime but eventually Amin fled to Libya and then Saudi Arabia.
Uganda suffered more after Amin had gone. Governments came and went, civil war began in 1981. Only with the victory of Yoweri Museveni in 1986 did the country stabilise, and even then the war in the Acholi area of northern Uganda continued.
The economy has slowly recovered and this year it might just match the wealth Uganda produced in 1971 the year Amin came to power.
Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society. In 1971 he taught in UgandaReuse content