This Day in History 1/25: Idi Amin takes power in Uganda

At first, many thought that the jolly general from the King’s African Rifles was a droll African joke.

Today, few are laughing about him.

On January 25, 1971, Idi Amin deposed president Milton Obote to become Uganda’s most notorious leader.  A veteran of the British colonial forces, Amin’s delusions, his lust for riches and power, and especially his brutality would create a figure both fascinating and horrifying in the public imagination.

In a nutshell, Amin was a stone cold bad guy.  Estimates range from 100,000 to 500,000 deaths during his eight-year regime from 1971-1979.  His wrath spread to ethnic minorities, Asians (whom Amin expelled in 1972 amid an ill-conceived program of reappopriation), religious leaders, journalists, artists, senior bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, students and intellectuals, criminal suspects, foreign nationals, and pretty much anyone who stood in his way.

How did he dispatch so many people at will?  Don’t ask.

Amin was also fond of pissing off pretty much everybody.  An early supporter of the United States and Israel, he did an abrupt about-face in 1972, siding with Muammar Quaddafi’s Libya, the Soviet Union, and East Germany, which supplied arms and helped in interrogation and torture.  The expulsion of the Ugandan Asians didn’t sit well with India, which severed relations with Uganda, as did Great Britain.  By 1973, even the US had to jump ship.

This, of course, didn’t prevent Amin from taking top billing in a notorious international incident.  In 1976, Amin allowed an Air France airliner hijacked by two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations (PFLP-EO) and two members of the German Revolutionäre Zellen to land at Entebbe Airport.  Once landed, the non-Jewish hostages were released, and another 103 hostages were held at the airport.  Amin took to the cameras to play the diplomat, but Israel wasn’t fooled.  A group of Israeli commandos seized the airport and freed all the hostages, killing seven hijackers and 45 Ugandan troops.

As time went on, Amin would further dip into madness.  His official title became, “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, 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” The VC, by the way, was the Victorious Cross, which he made up after the British Victoria Cross (The real VC).  His doctorate was one he conferred on himself.  He never got a real DSO (Distinguished Service Order) or an MC (Military Cross), but Amin was never one to worry about the facts.

He also didn’t have to worry about atoning for his sins, neither.

After he was deposed in 1979, Amin would first live in Libya, then Saudi Arabia.  The Saudis, in a twisted sense of generosity, bankrolled his sorry butt in order that he stay out of politics.  He lived out the rest of his days not feeling one ounce of remorse for what he did, right up to his death in 2003.

The attached film is a 1974 French documentary  named Idi Amin Dada.  It shows Amin at the height of his power, and you can almost taste the crazy coming off the screen.

WARNING: It’s probably too violent for classroom use.

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