On Point

Why Didn't Amin Rot and Die in Jail?

by Austin Bay
August 20, 2003

He died cheating the hangman, in exile bankrolled by autocrats with petrodollars. That's very bad.

Idi Amin, the sadist and mass murderer who ran Uganda from 1971 to 1979, died in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, shortly after his son made a global plea for a kidney transplant to save the old thug. What the elder Amin deserved was a transplant to a jail cell.

Amin left a despicable legacy. A Muslim convert, he murdered at least 250,000 Ugandan Christians, most of them Anglicans, though he hated Catholics with equal zeal. He also murdered Ugandans of Asian descent and drove the rest into exile. Amin's "ethnic cleansing" of Asians severely damaged Uganda's economy.

Amin allied with Libya's Muhammar Qaddaffi and buddied with other Arab radicals. He considered war with Kenya and fought neighboring Tanzania. Tanzanian forces finally helped topple him.

He could also practice selective terror. In 1977, Amin's police arrested a Ugandan friend of mine. His crime? He was a Christian and an intellectual. They interrogated him for four days, assuring him he would be killed -- and other prisoners were slain. Then my friend was abruptly released. He isn't sure why, perhaps the whim of a jailer. I suspect Amin's police had a goal -- to terrorize an educated man. They succeeded.

Amin and his goons killed between 300,000 and 400,000 Ugandans, out of a 1970s population of around 10 million. Amin's raw homicidal toll exceeds that of ex-Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic's genocides in Bosnia and Kosovo. Milosevic is now on trial in the Hague.

Amin survived on shrewdness and showmanship buttressed by cold-blooded slaughter. Six feet four with a weight-lifter's chest, he could play to a movie image of an African dictator, especially when he draped his military uniform with ribbons and gold medals the size of grapefruit. His smart mouth fed the press a line of sass that no reporter could ignore -- a line of anti-Western sass. Amin understood political theater. One day, he organized an attack on apartheid South Africa. Well, not quite. He had a Ugandan battalion stage a mock attack against a village flying Republic of South Africa flags. It got him headlines.

Early on, Amin decided his political power -- like Mao Tse-Tung said -- grew from the barrel of a gun. Amin got his start in the colonial British Army. He joined the King's African Rifles -- though the date of his enlistment is uncertain.

In 1981, after Amin had fled Uganda, I met a retired British officer who had served in Uganda in the early 1950s. He knew Amin. Amin had military skill and was a good sergeant major, the colonel said, but "someone who needed an officer watching him, you know." The colonel had heard stories about Amin's service with the British Army in Burma during World War II. Amin allegedly tortured and killed Japanese prisoners, but "nothing quite ever came of it" (i.e., no court martial).

In the last couple of days, I've read several obituaries of Amin. They report that Amin may never have served in Burma and that the records indicate he first enlisted in 1946, after World War II concluded. What's true? The colonel said the Burma story was hearsay. Perhaps Amin was already developing an image -- first fear by propaganda, later fear in practice.

The tragedy of Amin is that he died in exile, not rotting in a jail or executed for his crimes. He spent much of his 24 year exile under "hotel arrest" in Jeddah or living in a Saudi-supplied villa.

Why no extradition and trial? One Ugandan theory argues that the Saudis simply will not let an African Muslim potentate be toppled, tried and convicted by a predominantly Christian African state. That's an argument loaded with religious and ethnic explosives, too hot and politically incorrect to touch. However, East Africans I know believe it. Post 9-11, it may not seem so outlandish.

The usual "international human rights crowd" has been slow to condemn the current horrors perpetrated by Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. During the Cold War, Amin escaped their condemnation because he was "anti-colonialist."

What utter pish. He was a vicious brute who killed en masse and then retired to a luxury hotel.

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