Who Is Idi Amin? The Most Unpredictable African Dictator

Idi Amin depicted on the Ugandan 5 shilling banknote.
Idi Amin depicted on the Ugandan 5 shilling banknote.

Africa has had its fair share of mad dictators during the 20th century who have committed unspeakable crimes against humanity. These dictators may be alike in their disdain for dissidents and love for power, but one of them stands out due to his lunacy and unpredictable nature that confounded friends and foes alike. He is Idi Amin Dada, the Ugandan dictator who ruled from 1970 to 1978.

Early Life

Idi Amin was born on May 17, 1925, in Koboko during the British colonial period. He spent much of his childhood tending to his father’s herds and helping out with the farm work. He joined a madrassa after embracing Islam in 1940 and did odd jobs to fend for himself. Thanks to his huge physique, the British recruited him into the Kings African Rifles where he served in places like Burma and Kenya and rose through the ranks to reach the rank of Lieutenant in 1961. While in the army, he was known for his prowess in boxing as well as his ruthlessness when dealing with captured combatants during military operations in Uganda and Kenya.

Rise to Power

When Uganda became independent in 1962, Idi Amin was among the highest ranking officers in the armed forces but he was facing a major problem. The outgoing British had recommended his prosecution over crimes committed during bandit suppression operations and the person responsible for his prosecution would be his friend, then Prime Minister Milton Obote. To his relief albeit short, Obote refused to prosecute him and instead gave Amin promotions up to Chief of General Staff in 1970. Amin’s penchant for breaking laws would sour his cordial relations with Obote as he formed an inquiry to prosecute him over his economic crimes. Idi Amin overthrew the government on January 25, 1971.


From the onset of his reign, he faced problems ranging from attempted assassinations to economic problems. Since he was viewed as an illegitimate ruler, his country was stripped off donor funds and grants. To cover this shortfall, he tried to court Arab countries but to no avail. The economic situation was made worse when he expropriated Asian businesses and properties to his cronies and this move totally collapsed the Ugandan economy. He also purged the army to rid it off Obote allies and tribesmen and made frequent changes that disrupted the fragile morale of the army that was not paid on time and lacked resources. The Entebbe raid of 1976 by Israel decimated his air force and exposed his Achilles heel and further increased his isolation from the international stage.

Death and Legacy

Ultimately, it was his disastrous decision to invade Tanzania with a weakened army that fastened his downfall. When the capital fell on April 11, 1979, Amin fled into exile, making stops in Libya and finally settling in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. While in exile, he followed the developments in Uganda through television and engaged in religious activity by reading the Quran and other non-political activities. Idi Amin died on July 19, 2003, due to kidney failure and was buried in Jeddah, his adopted city in a private ceremony. He would be remembered for his erratic behavior, buffoonery, and barbarism.


More in Politics