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The World | IDI AMIN

Former Ugandan Dictator Who Ruled by Terror Dies

August 16, 2003|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

Idi Amin, who ravaged Uganda as thoroughly as any leader in modern history ravaged any country, died today in a hospital in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, officials said. He was believed to be 78.

Amin, who almost single-handedly turned a nation's prosperity into economic ruin and plunged a peaceful society into a nightmare of chaos and terror, was admitted to King Faisal Specialist Hospital on July 18. He had been in a coma and on life support since his admission.

Ruling by decree, Amin was one of the first postcolonial dictators in Africa to unleash mass killings as a response to internal opposition. During his eight years as president of Uganda, beginning in 1971, his government was held responsible for the deaths of as many as 500,000 of his countrymen. An additional 100,000 or more fled into exile, and thousands languished in prisons and underground torture chambers.

Before Amin, Uganda's economy was considered one of the healthiest in East Africa. By the time he was overthrown, annual inflation was 200%, the national debt was $320 million, most plantations were overgrown, factories were closed, store shelves were bare.

"Those eight years were a nightmare," the late Anglican Archbishop Silvanus Wani said some years ago. "You would leave your home in the morning on God's work and not know if you would come home that night. Each evening was one of thanksgiving. The next day you went out in faith again."

But Amin filled a strange need in sub-Saharan Africa. A former heavyweight boxer, he was a charismatic figure. He stood 6 feet, 4 inches, weighed 270 pounds and ruled with a combination of naivete and peasant cunning. More a tribal chief than a president, he was a master showman who loved center stage and knew how to use the international media.

To many Africans, he symbolized the revival of black nationalism, a sort of antihero who, no matter how misplaced his priorities or vicious his misdeeds, stood up to the whites and humiliated the Asians, always commanding attention if not respect. In Africa and other parts of the world -- such as the Caribbean -- he became a cult figure celebrated in song.

Many of his peers considered such behavior courageous and anticolonial. They quietly overlooked his atrocities.

In 1972, acting on what some later said was a fit of anger at being rebuffed by the daughter of a prominent Indian family, Amin expelled 50,000 people of Asian descent from Uganda. Mostly Indians and Pakistanis, they made up most of the class of merchants and shopkeepers that kept the economy running.

He took their businesses without compensation and gave them to his illiterate army friends. Many of the soldiers simply sold the merchandise and closed up the shops. The Ugandan economy has yet to recover.

Three years later, Amin forced four British businessmen in Kampala, the capital, to carry him on a homemade throne, then made a dozen others kneel before him, reciting an oath of loyalty. He sentenced British author Denis Hill to death for referring to him as a "village tyrant," freeing him only after James Callaghan, then Britain's foreign minister, flew to Uganda to plead for his life. Later Amin awarded himself the Victorian Cross and announced that he was adding to his list of titles -- which included Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea -- that of Conqueror of the British Empire.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it was Amin the buffoon, not Amin the butcher, who first caught the world's attention. He raced around Kampala in a red sports car, watched "Tom and Jerry" cartoons at home, plunged into swimming pools in full military uniform during diplomatic functions, boasted that he had fathered 35 children and fired his beautiful foreign minister, Princess Elizabeth Bagaya, because, he claimed, she had made love to "an unknown European in a toilet" at Paris' Orly Airport.

"In a medical sense, Amin wasn't responsible for much of what he did," Dr. Solomon Asea, a physician and former Ugandan ambassador to the United States, once said. "He should have been a patient, not a president. I think it is safe to say that medically he was crazy. He could kill a person one minute and the next he'd be laughing and playing the guitar with no apparent recollection of what he'd done."

Amin is believed to have been born in 1925 to peasant parents who scratched a meager living from their two-acre plot north of Kampala. He was a Muslim and a member of the small Kakwa tribe. Shortly after his birth, his parents separated and Amin was raised by his mother, who lived with a succession of military men.

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