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