“I am not a politician but a professional soldier. I am therefore a man of few words and I have been brief throughout my professional career.” Those were the first recorded words of Idi Amin Dada after he seized power in a military coup d’état in Uganda in January 1971. Since then, it seems, he has hardly stopped talking.

From a private in the cookhouse of the colonial King’s African Rifles, Amin has become a self-appointed field marshal. His giant frame, six feet four inches and 240 pounds, seems to bend under the weight of a chest full of medals, including the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Service Order, and Military Cross, all self-awarded. He has applauded Hitler’s extermination of six million Jews and once declared his intention to build a monument to the Nazi leader. While threatening to attack neighboring Tanzania he has talked of his love of President Julius Nyerere, and said he would marry him if he was not a man. To an ex-finance minister who warned him that Uganda was on the brink of bankruptcy because of excessive military spending, Amin simply barked, “Well, print more money.”

Amin, in characteristic manner, has taken African belief in the occult to ridiculous lengths. A Ghanaian mystic, who claimed he could raise people from the dead, was flown to Uganda by Amin, who subsequently claimed he had talked to a man the Ghanaian had resurrected. Amin said that his decision to expel the Asians and launch his so-called “Economic War” had come to him in dreams, and when a journalist sarcastically asked him if he often had such dreams, Amin blandly replied, “Only when necessary.”

His unending stream of idiocies has made him a comic figure to much of the white world. A “gentle giant” was one of the earliest descriptions in the Western press of the one-time Ugandan heavyweight boxing champion. “Idi was a splendid chap, though a bit short on the gray matter,” observed one of his former British colonial officers.

The truth is that there was never anything splendid or gentle about “Big Daddy.” Perhaps it takes an experience like the expulsion of 40,000 Asians or the disappearance and certain death of the Israeli hijack hostage, Mrs. Dora Bloch, to wake up the West to the realities of Amin. In Uganda, where at least 100,000 people have been savagely butchered since he came to power, the reality has long been known.

Amin was born in Koboko County, the smallest in Uganda’s West Nile district, which roughly encompasses his 50,000-member Kakwa tribe. His father was a Kakwa who had spent much of his life in the southern Sudan, and his mother was from the neighboring and ethnically related Lugbara tribe. These tribes are often described as Sudanic-Nubian, and the earliest members of them in Uganda came south as mercenaries in the colonial conquests of the region. They brought with them the Islamic faith, and Amin, like his parents, became a Muslim. The Nubians enjoy the unenviable reputation of having one of the world’s highest homicide rates; a background which no doubt helped to prepare Amin for the slaughter he has conducted during the past five and a half years.

Amin joined the King’s African Rifles in 1946 as an assistant cook. Since coming to power he has said he fought in Burma during the Second World War; and he uses this patently untrue claim to justify the medals that he awards to himself. He served with the KAR in Mauritius, where he was one of the ring-leaders of a mutiny which had to be put down by the police. According to a former British officer, “In 1955 there was only one blot on his copybook. His records showed that he had had venereal disease, which made him ineligible for a good conduct stripe.”

But by far the most serious and significant incident in Amin’s early military career occurred in Kenya in 1962. By then he was a lieutenant and commanded a platoon of “C” Company of the fourth KAR. The company was assigned to try to stamp out cattle rustling among the semi-nomadic Turkana tribesmen. After his men visited one Turkana village investigations were made as a result of complaints from the tribesmen.

Several bodies were exhumed from shallow graves in the village. Some had been tortured and buried alive. Others had been beaten to death.

By rights Amin should have faced a civilian court or a military court martial, charged with murder or manslaughter. The evidence was clear, witnesses existed, and he would have faced a lengthy prison sentence or possibly death. But history conspired to cover up his mini My Lai. Sir Walter Coutts, then British governor of Uganda, admits he argued that six months before the country’s independence it would be politically disastrous for the colonial administration to bring to trial one of Uganda’s two black officers. Sir Walter got his way, and consulted the then prime minister, Dr. Milton Obote.


In a letter three years ago from exile in Tanzania, Dr. Obote said, “I advised that Amin be warned—severe reprimand! After I had given my advice Sir Walter told me that an officer like Lieutenant Idi Amin was not fit to remain in the KAR; the case against him should have had a sentence of at least imprisonment, and that I was wrong to advise that Amin should not be dismissed. Then Sir Walter added, ‘I warn you, this officer could cause you trouble in the future.’ ” Four years later, after Uganda’s independence, Sir Walter, during a visit to the country, repeated his warning.

What is important about the Turkana massacre is that when the British government so warmly welcomed Amin to power in January 1971, they were in a position to be fully aware of the true nature of the man.

The trigger for the military takeover which brought Amin to power was set on December 19, 1969. Obote was shot, but not seriously, as he walked out of a party conference of the ruling Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) after introducing his “Move to the Left” policy—Britain’s reason for welcoming the coup d’état thirteen months later.

In the hospital while awaiting an emergency operation, Obote asked for various people to be called, including Amin. A group of soldiers went to fetch Amin from his house. But, apparently fearing there had been a coup d’état, he had fled bare-footed over a barbed-wire fence behind his house. At an officers’ meeting attended by Obote on January 17, Brigadier Pierino Okoya, the deputy army commander, publicly accused Amin of being a coward and said his actions had made it appear that the army was involved in the attempted assassination. The heated meeting was finally adjourned until January 26. But at eleven PM on the night before it was to reconvene, Brigadier Okoya and his wife were found shot dead at their home.

Months later detectives investigating an armed holdup arrested a gang of kondos—the Ugandan word for armed robbers. During interrogation, one of them admitted taking part in killing the brigadier, on instructions indirectly from Amin.

Whether Amin would have been charged with murder will never be known. All the police officers who investigated the case were killed after he came to power. The kondo gang were released from detention but they, too, were subsequently killed.

With the murder inquiry apparently closing in on Amin, President Obote made a last fateful mistake. On the eve of leaving for the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in Singapore, he ordered Amin and the defense minister, Felix Onama, to explain in writing before his return the disappearance of £2,500,000 in army funds, and the disappearance of guns from armories, which the police had found in the hands of kondos. Then Obote flew to Singapore. He had loaded the gun and pointed it at his own head. If Amin were to survive he had no choice but to pull the trigger.

Obote had been warned there might be an attempted coup d’état during his absence. But he believed the army would remain loyal. He did not realize that Amin had been systematically recruiting southern Sudanese, former Anyanya guerrillas, and Nubians as well as members of his own Kakwa tribe. Their control over the armories to this day remains the reason why Amin has survived.

What was to become clear afterward was the active involvement of Israel. Obote had been shifting away from his once strong links with Tel Aviv, which included supplying and training sections of the army and air force. Amin had done his parachute training in Israel and was very close to the head of the Israeli military mission in Uganda, Colonel Bolka Bar-Lev, whom he was to telephone continuously in Israel during the recent Palestinian hijacking of an Air France airbus and the subsequent Israeli rescue of the hostages.

Obote tried desperately to get back into Uganda to turn the tide after the January 25 coup d’état. But he was balked by Kenya; and although the bulk of the army remained loyal they had the weapons neither to stage successfully a coup nor to suppress an attempted one.

The British government was delighted. Edward Heath had clashed angrily with Obote at Singapore just a week before his downfall over Heath’s proposal to sell arms to South Africa. One of Amin’s first acts was to denationalize the British businesses taken over by Obote. Less than two years later he expropriated them himself, without the compensation Obote had promised.

Israel was equally delighted, because her close ties with Uganda were ensured. Yet little more than a year later, after the Israelis had discovered their mistake and refused to supply him with arms, Amin went to the Arab world, broke relations with Israel and expropriated all Israeli property in Uganda. So misunderstood were the implications of Amin’s takeover that the New Statesman observed: “So far as Britain is concerned, Amin will undoubtedly be easier to deal with than the abrasive Obote.”


The slaughter in Uganda began immediately. One of the first to die was Brigadier Suleiman Hussein, the army chief of staff who had led attempts to prevent the coup d’état. He was beaten and hideously mutilated by Nubian soldiers in Upper Luzira maximum security prison. A servant at the “command post,” as Amin’s house is known, said later that Hussein’s severed head was brought to Amin, who put it on a table and spoke to it, then kept it in his refrigerator overnight. Of the twenty-three officers with the rank of lieutenant-colonel and above at the time, fourteen are known to have been murdered and two escaped into exile. Several were among a group of thirty-two officers who were crammed into a tiny cell at Makindye prison in Kampala and blown up with dynamite on March 5, 1971.

About half of the 9,000-man army came from the northern Acholi and Langi tribes, who had traditionally favored military service. At least two-thirds of those soldiers were killed during Amin’s first year in power. Yet in that period few people believed the stories of what was happening in Uganda. The exceptions were the press in Tanzania and Zambia, where both governments had refused to recognize Amin. Tanzania’s President Nyerere had gone so far as to describe Amin as a murderer, saying he would never sit with him.

At that time I was working as a journalist in Tanzania and I also doubted the stories, emanating mainly from exile sources. On New Year’s Day, 1972, I received a telephone call from a near-hysterical relative of Obote. He said that several hundred Ugandan soldiers had been transferred from a prison in the capital, Kampala, to another on the Tanzanian frontier. There they were all to be killed, and the caller said Amin would claim it had happened in an attack on the prison by Tanzanian artillery and ground troops. I was skeptical about the story. But only a month later I was to interview nineteen of the twenty-one survivors of what became known as the Mutukula prison massacre. In all, 555 people were murdered. Most had their throats cut.

Throughout 1971 and 1972 the killings swept the country. The Acholi and Langi, seen as principal supporters of Obote, suffered worst. Right across the country members of Obote’s UPC were also slaughtered.

At the time of the coup d’état journalists visiting Kampala had seen the people there vigorously welcoming Obote’s downfall. Few of the correspondents realized that Kampala was in the heartland of the Baganda, whose differences with Obote were such that they were willing to welcome anyone. So, from the outset, Amin’s popularity was badly misjudged. Elsewhere in the country the mood was very different.

Edward Rugumayo, an able young technocrat who became Amin’s minister of education and fled into exile two years later, issued a 5,000-word statement condemning Amin. He described eight methods of killing used at Makindye prison. These involved making prisoners line up and ordering the first to smash the second man’s head with a hammer. This process was repeated down the line until the last man was shot. Another method was to cut flesh from a victim and force him to eat it until he died. Rugumayo said it was estimated that 80,000 to 90,000 people died in Amin’s first two years in power; but he admitted that this might be a conservative figure.

Amin created three other killer squads in 1971 to assist the military police; they are still directly under his command. They are euphemistically called the Public Safety Unity, the Bureau of State Research, and the Presidential bodyguard. Most of their members are southern Sudanese, Nubians, or Kakwa. All four of these units are still slaughtering Ugandans. The most feared is the Public Safety Unity (PSU) which has its headquarters at Naguru Barracks, a former police training college in Kampala.

A young businessman now in exile recently spent forty-four days in Naguru, and saw twenty-two prisoners killed. To protect his relatives and friends still inside Uganda his name cannot be given; but his account of conditions at Naguru, corroborated by others who have also survived and fled, forms part of the latest evidence that the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has submitted to the secretary general of the United Nations, Dr. Kurt Waldheim.

Part of this evidence reads:

The most revolting form of torture described by the businessman, and every former Naguru detainee, occurred after the guards shot an inmate. One or two prisoners would be called from their cell after the shooting and would be ordered to beat the dead person’s head into an unrecognizable pulp with a car axle. Then the prisoner would be ordered to lie down in the blood and gore of the dead person.

This happened to the businessman.

He described how people were murdered for the most trivial of alleged offenses. One man, Mohammed Mukasa, was killed in Naguru after being found in possession of a toy pistol. The principal killer at Naguru, said the businessman, was a corporal named Oola:

The people doing the killing seem to get enjoyment from them. They were delighted when someone was going to die. First they would drink a lot of waragi; a local gin. I recall that Oola, when he knew someone was going to die, would come to the prison and say, “Leo iko kazi, leo iko kazi” (which means in Swahili “Today there is work”). Then he would go and get drunk. He would come back at night; that was when they killed people.

On one occasion the businessman’s sister, a former nun and a deeply religious woman, tried to take food to him at Naguru. She was blindfolded and raped. Later she found she was pregnant.

Two of the most infamous areas in Uganda are the once-picturesque Mabira and Namanve Forests. Early in 1975 a young Ugandan schoolmaster fled into exile with a seemingly unbelievable story. He told of being kept in a forest concentration camp where the only food for the prisoners was the flesh of other prisoners who were killed. His personal nightmare lasted five days. In a cell before being transferred to the forest, he and other prisoners were forced to kill twenty-seven badly mutilated prisoners in another cell: “For me, the shameful score was three brothers. I killed them with a total of eight blows with the hammer. The soldiers laughed, abused us and locked us up with the corpses,” he said in a fourteen-page sworn statement.

He described how one of the prisoners complained to the guards that he was hungry. The prisoner and one other were called forward by the guard and beheaded. Then the blood from the bodies was collected in a bucket and two more prisoners were ordered to butcher the corpses. The meat from the bodies was cooked over a fire.

“We were hungry, angry and ashamed,” the teacher said in his statement, “but because of the guns we had to do it. One soldier announced the food was ready and we ate shamefully.” Those who vomited were kicked and beaten with rifle butts. The remains of the corpses were thrown into a trench. On the following day eight more prisoners were selected, beheaded, butchered, and eaten. The teacher finally escaped after paying a guard the equivalent of thirteen dollars.

It is impossible to describe the reign of terror which prevails in Uganda. Every village, clan, and family has lost relatives and friends. The faces and names of the killers are known; but no one acts. It is as if Uganda is paralyzed by fear.

The vibrations of Amin have been felt by neighboring countries. Kenya, which virtually welcomed his advent to power, is the latest to suffer.

That Amin has survived is a mystery to most people. There have been several uprisings in the army and several attempted assassinations. This year he was slightly wounded by a bullet; in another attempt three grenades thrown at him killed many bystanders and a bodyguard. Palestinians plan his security, and when he moves he frequently changes cars, a ploy which has paid off on at least two occasions when his official car was riddled with machine-gun fire and all the occupants killed.

In a memorandum to African leaders after fleeing into exile, the former education minister, Edward Rugumayo, said:

Too many nations regard what is happening in Uganda as an internal matter. Is systematic genocide an internal matter or a matter for all mankind? The Sharpeville massacres were condemned by the entire civilized world, but nobody has yet condemned the wholesale killings and disappearances of innocent people in Uganda. It is high time the OAU, the Commonwealth and the United Nations condemned the murders being perpetrated by Amin in Uganda. It should be the concern of mankind.

The Rugumayo appeal expressed the sentiments of many Ugandans. They wonder why their plight is ignored while those of Mrs. Dora Bloch and the British university lecturer Denis Cecil Hills, who was sentenced to death then reprieved last year, merit appeals from the Queen, Dr. Waldheim, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other prominent international figures. It is not that the evidence is not known. Could it be, they ask, that one white life is more important than the lives of 100,000 blacks?

Copyright © The Observer, 1976.

This Issue

September 16, 1976