Idi Amin: The Butcher of Uganda (Bio, Death, Facts)

Idi Amin ranks as one of the cruelest dictators of the 20th century. His reign in Uganda saw hundreds of thousands of people disappear.

Jun 29, 2023By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

idi amin uganda


One of the most brutal dictators of the 20th century, Idi Amin ruled over Uganda with an iron fist and a particularly evil sense of humor. His reign was marked by a brutality that earned him the nickname “the Butcher of Uganda.”


His reputation was well earned through his depraved antics, which included, by his own admission, cannibalism. For eight long years, Uganda shivered in fear. Idi Amin was mad, bad, and utterly terrifying.


The Early Life of Idi Amin

Idi Amin was an avid boxer, via The Guardian


There are many claims about when and where Idi Amin Dada Oumee was born. The claims range from 1923 to 1928, and he is thought to have been born in the capital, Kampala, or the town of Koboko in the north of Uganda.


Idi Amin was brought up as a Muslim, as his father had converted from Roman Catholicism. At a young age, he was abandoned by his father and raised by his mother, a traditional herbalist. It is claimed that Amin’s father was a member of the Kakwa ethnic group, while his mother was a member of the Lugbara ethnic group.

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He went to an Islamic school but dropped out after only 4th grade. He then joined the British colonial army.


Amin’s Army Career

Idi Amin in power, via Adam Smith Institute


Idi Amin joined The King’s African Rifles in 1946 and worked as an assistant cook. He also received military training at this time, and in 1947, he was transferred to Kenya as part of the 21st KAR infantry battalion. He served in campaigns against Somali rebels as well as the Mau Maus in Kenya. By 1953, he had been promoted to sergeant.


Amin was an imposing figure. Standing at 6 feet 4 inches, he became the Ugandan light heavyweight boxing champion. He played many other sports and garnered a significant amount of fame.


In 1962, Uganda gained independence from Britain, and Milton Obote was elected prime Minister. Having caught the attention of Obote, Idi Amin rose through the ranks and served in important positions. By 1964, he had been promoted to Commander of the Army.


In 1965, Idi Amin and Prime Minister Milton Obote were accused of attempting to smuggle gold and ivory into Uganda. The Ugandan parliament demanded an investigation, upon which Obote formed a new constitution, abolishing the position of the presidency (which had been largely ceremonial). Idi Amin then led an attack on the presidential palace and forced President Kabaka into exile.


These developments increased Obote’s power and made Idi Amin the second-most powerful man in Uganda.


Idi Amin Seizes Power

Milton Obote, deposed in January 1971, via Deutsche Welle


Throughout the latter half of the 1960s, a rift appeared between Idi Amin and Milton Obote. Part of the cause for this was different political affiliations. Obote had moved to the left of the political spectrum, which worried many Western governments that their capitalist interests would be in danger. As a former member of the British Colonial Army, Idi Amin represented an opportunity for Western powers to install a leader loyal to western doctrines. As such, western nations, particularly the United Kingdom, began to support Idi Amin over his potential rival.


In 1970, Idi Amin had been promoted to commander of all the armed forces, but in October of that year, Obote rescinded this command and took control himself. In January of the following year, suspecting that Obote would arrest him for corruption, Idi Amin launched a coup and took control of the government while Obote was in Singapore.


Amin promised that his government would hold free and fair elections to select a new leader as soon as possible when the situation had normalized.


Idi Amin as Dictator

Idi Amin, from Jean-Claude Francolon / Gamma-Rapho from Getty Images, via the Telegraph


As soon as he had seized power, Idi Amin acted swiftly to consolidate his position. He entrenched the military as the ruling force in Uganda and surrounded himself with people he could trust. Shortly after he seized power, Idi Amin began to receive military and financial support from Great Britain and Israel. When he asked Israel for advanced military equipment, however, he was refused. As a result, Idi Amin denounced Zionism and sought trade with Libya. Muammar Gaddafi immediately loaned Idi Amin $25 million and promised to continue to support his regime.


In 1972, Ugandan exiles launched a poorly coordinated attempt to overthrow Idi Amin, and as a result, Amin launched a purge of Obote supporters from the armed forces. This purge expanded to include people from all walks of life and all sectors of Ugandan society. People of the Acholi and Lango ethnic groups were primarily targeted in the initial purges. People were murdered at will, and their bodies were dumped wherever it was convenient. Among the important sectors targeted were those with any significant influence. This included bureaucrats, journalists, lawyers, doctors, politicians, judges, religious leaders, and even students.


Asian Ugandan refugees arriving in England, from Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images, via New Lines Magazine


This violence continued at the same pace for the entire eight-year tenure of Idi Amin’s dictatorship. It is difficult to determine how many people were killed, but it is estimated that it could be as much as 500,000.


Amin filled the government with ethnic and religious affiliates, mainly from the Kakwa ethnic group and people from South Sudan. Most of his government was made up of Muslims. Along with the preferential treatment of certain ethnic groups and religions, Idi Amin persecuted others. Uganda was home to roughly 80,000 Asians, mainly from the Indian sub-continent, most of whom were born in Uganda. Idi Amin ordered their expulsion and seized their properties. As Asians accounted for 90% of Uganda’s tax revenue, including the vast majority of businesses, the Ugandan economy completely collapsed.


Following the expulsion of Asians, Idi Amin broke all ties with Great Britain and Israel. India then broke ties with Uganda over the mistreatment of Asian Ugandans.


Soviet Support

Idi Amin was an athletic man who excelled at sports, from the French film General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait, via Janus Films


From 1973 onwards, the Soviet Union began providing arms, armor, and technical assistance to Uganda. It saw Uganda as a key player in counterbalancing Chinese influence in Tanzania and Western influence in Kenya.


This close working partnership also meant that Idi Amin could send many of his advisors to the Eastern Bloc for military and intelligence training. By 1975, the Soviet Union is estimated to have supplied Idi Amin’s regime with $12 million in financial support and $48 million in ordnance.


Idi Amin used these funds and military equipment to build up his army, which he used to threaten his neighbors. Of prime concern was Kenya. Tensions rose in February 1976 when Idi Amin claimed that some regions of Kenya rightfully belonged to Uganda. The tensions dissipated despite Kenya being accused of impounding a shipment of Soviet arms bound for Uganda at the port in Mombasa.


In 1976, Idi Amin further soured relations with the West by hosting a plane that had been hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations, and Revolutionäre Zellen. Amin held the Jewish and other Israeli citizens hostage while allowing the other nationalities to go free. Israeli commandos rescued most of the hostages.


The Downfall of Idi Amin

Idi Amin with his wife in Berlin, from picture-alliance / dpa, via Die Welt


In the final years of his reign, Idi Amin survived many assassination attempts. His grip on power weakened, and there was a diminished number of those who were loyal to him.


In 1977, he appointed General Mustafa Adrisi as vice president. Adrisi had his own core support within the military and wielded significant power. Amin grew suspicious of him and stripped him of power, angering Adrisi’s military supporters and causing further unrest in the country as Amin purged Adrisi’s supporters.


Soldiers loyal to Adrisi eventually mutinied in 1978. Amin sent soldiers to crush the mutineers, who had fled across the border to Tanzania. Amin ended up accidentally invading Tanzania, and after capturing an area of Tanzania, he declared that the invasion was intentional.


After Tanzania organized a counter-offensive, Idi Amin realized Uganda would probably lose the war, and he tried to save face by offering to settle the conflict in a boxing match between him and Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere. Predictably, the Tanzanian president ignored the message.


On April 11, 1979, Kampala was captured, and after a brief but failed attempt to rally support for his cause, Idi Amin fled the country. The following years saw him find protection in Saudi Arabia. He continued to fund his supporters during the Ugandan Bush War that followed. Many groups of rebels in Uganda fought for Idi Amin’s return, but they eventually failed.


Idi Amin’s torture chamber in Kampala, via Achieve Global Safaris


In 1989, Amin caused a serious incident by leaving Saudi Arabia without permission and flying to Zaire (today, the Democratic Republic of Congo). He was immediately arrested. Saudi Arabia eventually agreed to allow him back into the country, and Idi Amin spent the rest of his life there.


He became a fruitarian and earned the nickname of Dr. Jaffa for his love of oranges. He died of kidney failure in 2003 and was buried in Ruwais Cemetery in Jeddah.


Idi Amin was a polygamist who had at least six wives. He was charismatic, with a sense of humor that showed through in his public life. He titled himself “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.” He also claimed to be the uncrowned King of Scotland.


His behavior was noted as being erratic. He would be happy and laughing in one moment and murderously angry in the next.


He was also a brutal dictator responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.