In a new featurette of the blog, we look at the worst dictators in history of the world and their lasting impacts.
The Homogeneity of India and Africa is sometimes striking. Like two peas in a pod, both the Sub-Continent and the Continent of sweeping savannahs have been rapaciously plundered by various European powers, but while India was able to consolidate and integrate itself into one collective democratic unit, numerous countries in Africa fell into the hands of power-hungry, barbaric and greedy tyrants – effects of which still prevail several decades later. Perhaps the most infamous of the barbaric Tyrants to torment the continent in recent decades was Idi Amin, the former pawn of Imperial Britain who rose through the ranks to become military dictator of Uganda. Amin, who was initially paraded as a charming and witty man, later was noticed for what he really was. He became the killer clown of Africa, butchering hundreds of thousands of his people while proclaiming himself the “Conqueror of the British Empire” and sending notes to Queen Elizabeth II, inviting her to come to Uganda to experience “a real man”.
Idi Amin first rose to prominence in the ranks of the King’s African Rifles, a regiment of the British Empire’s Colonial Army, derived from various native African tribes. Back in the waning days of the British Empire – when the British nobility could still just about get away with the rape and plunder of the tropics while pretending to bring civilisation to the “savages” – there was plenty of opportunity for an ambitious black man, so long as he was sufficiently subservient and willing to do the Empire’s dirty work when told to.
In 1962, the Brits handed Amin the job of suppressing a cattle rustling operation, being carried out in northern Uganda by the neighbouring Turkana tribe of Kenya. Amin had succeeded in doing the same however it later came to knowledge that Amin had been waging a campaign of sustained terror against the Turkanan tribesmen. His men carried out gruesome torture, cut off the testicles of their victims, bludgeoned some of them to death with clubs and buried others alive. Well, they did say that they wanted the Turkanans to stop stealing cattle. By this time, the British Empire was rapidly fading and since they weren’t used to the swamps and mosquitoes of Uganda, they decided to get the hell out of there. While any soldier would have been court martialed for his actions, Amin got away because the British didn’t want a prolonged legal battle at a country that was no longer their colony.
The Rise To Power
Uganda was officially granted independence on 9 October, 1962. Sir Edward Mutesa, King of the Baganda tribe, became the nation’s new President. Milton Obote, a good buddy of Amin, became the Prime Minister. Obote liked Amin even better than his previous British bosses had, and awarded him with rapid promotion. Amin became the deputy commander of Uganda’s armed forces. Obote had rapidly begun smuggling operations where he had made a lot money at the cost of Ugandan economy. When King Mutesa objected to the same, Obote suspended the constitution and made himself the overall leader of Uganda. King Mutesa was deported out of the country and Obote ruled with his trusted side-kick Amin.
However, as it turned out Amin wasn’t really a trust worthy side-kick. Amin waited until Obote went on holiday to Singapore, and then ordered the army to take over the country. Israel sent their General Chief of Staff, Colonel Bar-Lev, to Uganda to assist Amin with his coup. Amin declared himself the new President of Uganda. But Amin assured the people that he was only the temporary President, and that elections would take place very soon. However, Amin was forgetful and the elections never came. Probably because Amin was busy killing off anyone who he didn’t like.
Consolidation of Power
Amin went on to execute two thirds of the Ugandan army (6,000 out of about 9,000 troops) and replaced them with his own loyalists. Then Amin decided that Uganda would be a country for black people only, and set about expelling the 80,000 odd Indians and Pakistanis who were living there at the time, claiming that they were sabotaging the economy. He stole all of their property and gave it to the most loyal officers in his army and ofcourse, took some for himself – thank you very much. But, the only problem was, the Indians and Pakistanis constituted the majority of the professional and business class in Uganda, and without them, the economy collapsed.
Members of rival tribes, diplomats, businessmen, academics, members of the clergy, journalists, bothersome foreigners and plain old ordinary Ugandan citizens all got the chop. Anywhere between 100,000 and 500,000 people (depending on who you ask) were murdered. Entire villages were wiped out, and the Nile became so clogged with dead bodies that they began blocking up the dam intake pipes.
Amin goes Bat-Shit Crazy
By 1975, Amin had consolidated his grip on impoverished Uganda by ruthlessly eliminating anybody who was in his way. Most of the nation’s scarce resources were diverted into the ever expanding military. Not much was spared for civilian development. The military chiefs loyal to Amin became Uganda’s new elite. In a demonstration of his authority, Amin decided to stage a publicity stunt for the benefit of the world media. In an elaborate ceremony, he forced a group of Kampala’s white residents to carry him around on a throne, then kneel before him and pledge loyalty.
In 1976, Amin caused an international outrage by allowing a hijacked Air France passenger aircraft, carrying 105 Israeli hostages, to land in Uganda. Amin tried to put up the pretence of “assisting” with the hostage negotiations, while in fact he was collaborating with the Palestinian hijackers all along. Israel had no patience with the charade and promptly dispatched a unit of commandoes to Entebbe to take care of business. During the 58 minute operation, two of the hostages were killed and one left behind. The remaining 102 hostages were rescued, while the 8 hijackers were liquidated, along with 45 Ugandan soldiers who happened to get in the way.
The whole affair was considered a major embarrassment for Amin, and he reacted with insane fury. He ordered a fresh purge to be carried out, involving the murder of anybody suspected of “opposing” him, on whatever pretext. He pretty much just got totally pissed off and wanted to see some heads roll for it. Amin also expelled all remaining foreigners from the country.
The Beginning of the End
Post the Air France event, global ties with Uganda began to weaken. The UK and US decided that they didn’t want to be associated with terrorism (genocide is perfectly okay. But terrorism, oh no that awful). All economic and diplomatic ties were severed. Amin’s grip on the country was beginning to weaken. He could no longer count on much in the way of international support, and Uganda’s already battered economy suffered. Civil unrest became a constant threat. Amin attempted to distract the public’s attention from internal strife by acting on long standing plans to invade neighbouring Tanzania.
However, during the invasion, the Tanzanian forces showed they were no pushovers and decimated the Ugandan army. They went on to stage a counter-invasion and took the Ugandan capital of Kampala, forcing Amin to flee to safety. His reign of terror was finally over. Idi Amin left a legacy of chronic national debt, an annual inflation rate of over 200%, crime rate through the roof, catastrophic divide between the rich and the poor, and hundreds of thousands of its citizens left dead.
In 1989, Amin attempted to return to Uganda in order to stage a coup, but he was intercepted by authorities in Zaire and sent back to Saudi Arabia. There he remained until 2003, when he died from massive internal organ failure. In an interview that Amin gave, shortly before his death, he stated that he had no regrets about his actions in Uganda and claimed he was happier at Saudi Arabia than he had ever been in Uganda.
My Experience of Uganda
‘Everything you read and heard about Idi Amin, in papers and movies regarding how bad it was when he was in power. Well, how it really was, was much much worse’ – Abdullah – a Ugandan rebel at the time of Idi Amin – now a driver for my client.
As much as I’d like to make it seem that I travelled to Uganda to write up this blog post, its completely not the case. I had gone to Uganda with very limited knowledge about Idi Amin but during my 3 week stay there, learnt a lot about him and his impact on Uganda. His legacy and reign of terror is still very strongly felt in Kampala. There exists an almost tangible feeling in the air that signifies the divide between Foreigners and the Locals. The way they treat each other and how conversations happen. There still exists a fear that whoever is in power can at any time just assume charge over the entire country (and seemingly the current President is trying to do the same).
I only felt glad that despite all the similarities between India and Uganda (and many other African countries), we were lucky enough not to have a dictator at the helm of affairs, and a constitution that is strong enough to protect our people and the country.