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The Rise to Power of the Butcher of Uganda

Idi Amin Dada, who came to be known as the “Butcher of Uganda,” rose to officer rank in the Ugandan Army before its independence from British colonial administration in 1962. Associated with the newly-sovereign nation’s President and Prime Minister Milton Obote, he staged a military coup and usurped the role of president on January 25, 1971. Five years later, he named himself president for life.

Idid Amin could be mercurial and tyrannical. His expulsion of all Asians from Uganda in 1972 led to a breakdown of the country’s economy, and he publicly insulted the U.S. and the U.K. In July 1976, he was personally involved in the hijacking of a French airliner to Entebbe. His regime’s economic mismanagement and corruption drove the nation to poverty. Politically, his rule was characterized by human rights abuses, repression and persecution of other ethnic groups, leading to the death of between 100,000 and 500,000 people. In 1979, Amin was driven into exile to Saudi Arabia. where he remained until his death in 2003.

Beauveau Nalle, who was the Chargé d’Affaires for 14 months at U.S. Embassy Kampala, Uganda prior to the ascension of Idi Amin, was interviewed by Thomas Dunnigan in April 1994. Robert Keeley, who became Deputy Chief of Mission in Uganda in 1971, was interviewed by Thomas Stern beginning in December 1991.

Please follow the links to read Keeley’s account of the evacuation and shut down of the U.S. embassy Kampala in 1973, more about coups, and about Africa.

“It was like an express train coming down the track”

Beauveau Nalle,  Political Officer/Chargé d’affaires, Kampala, Uganda,  1967-1970

NALLE: Yeah, everybody saw it coming. It was like an express train coming down the track. It was not subtle.

Uganda at the time of independence had a functioning multiparty government. There was Obote’s party, the Uganda People’s Congress, the UPC. There was the opposition, the Democratic Party led by a very dear friend, Alex Latim. And there was a regional grouping of the Buganda tribe, who were the dominant tribe in Uganda and who lived around the Kampala area, called the Kabaka Yeka — the Kabaka alone. All three of those parties essentially functioned in parliament.

Obote (seen left) was becoming more and more authoritarian, more and more vaguely leftist, although I pretty consistently refused to call it leftist. I said it was nationalism, fuzzy head London School of Economics (LSE) socialism, that kind of stuff.

He had a lot of young kids who did have an LSE degree and they reflected that attitude. The London School was well known in the 50s, 60s, and 70s and I think was pretty harmless. If you’d ever suggested to those people that they ought to be real socialists, they’d turn pale with horror.

The army’s role was growing ever larger. About a year before Amin took over the government, somebody took a potshot at Dr. Obote at the Annual National Congress of the UPC — shot him right through the mouth. The army went amuck and for about 12 hours it was a pretty horrifying situation. There was no Ambassador; I was Chargé.

It was frightening. They beat up American citizens, they killed a fair number of people, they beat up Brits, and there was a strong anti-foreign element in it. There was a strong anti-white element in it. And as I said, it lasted for about 12 hours. I take some pride in having been able to get a formal, written apology from the GOU [Government of Uganda] for all of this.

Amin (seen right) cut and run. Jumped out the back window of his house in his pajamas and disappeared, which really mystified us all. Why did he run? We thought he was going to make his move one of these days. Why did he do what he did? We spent a lot of time pondering that.

I was a member of an institution called the Uganda Club, which was set-up as an answer to the all-British, all-white Kampala Club. I was one of two white members of this particular club. Everyone from the Prime Minister to the Cabinet to the Governor was a member and Ugandan. I made it a habit of stopping in there and having a couple of beers every night…

One evening after this happened, Amin appeared at the Club in full uniform with six of his senior officers, with sidearms. Everyone was sitting around, laughing and joking. I was at the bar. Suddenly I heard the whole Club go silent. I was wondering, what was going on?

I walked out of the bar and there was Amin, a huge man, an enormous fellow, with his officers with their weapons, sitting in the main lounge, sitting at attention, not talking, just looking around. I thought, Jesus, what’s going to happen? They sat there for about half an hour, and then Amin said something in one of the local languages, and they all got up and walked out

What it was, I’m convinced to this day, was a threat on the part of Amin about reestablishing his position. Because he knew that he was laughed at because he ran away. This was his reprisal, his counter-threat. And it worked. People were scared to death.

Relations got worse and worse between Amin and Obote. A senior army officer was murdered. He was taking a bath on his front porch. It was an old fashioned town; he was sitting out there scrubbing himself, humming away. A Land Rover drove by, boom boom, and that was the end of Brigadier Okoya. He was one of the senior Acholi officers who were opposed to Amin.

“I would say inside of three days, the killing began and it never stopped”

On the night of January 24th, Sheila and I gave a reception at our house to which we invited mostly Americans because I’d had some complaints from the American community that when hotshot visitors from Washington came through, I did nothing but entertain Ugandans.

I said, well goddamn it, that’s what I’m here for. I’m here to entertain Ugandans, not Americans. But still and all, in this particular case we did invite mostly Americans. It was all over around 11:00. I took [a friend] back to the hotel where he was staying, I got back to the house around midnight.

A friend of mine who was the Dean of the School of Agriculture at the University, called me and said, “Can you hear machine gun fire?”

I said, “Let me step out on the porch.” I went out on the balcony and heard the tat-tat-tat all over the city.

And that was it. Obote was out of town at the Commonwealth Conference in Singapore. We all felt when Obote left — the Station Chief, the Israelis — we were all pretty much in agreement, that Obote felt he was in command of things or else he wouldn’t have gone off to Singapore. But he did, and Amin took over the government. I would say inside of three days, the killing began and it never stopped. The first people he killed were six Canadian missionaries. It didn’t get much publicity

We had about … eight hundred, maybe a thousand Americans in the country. I put in the “hold fast” in the home system and to my delight and pleasure it worked. We had a notification, a network of radios and stuff, and by-golly the system worked, which surprised me a lot.

There was a tourist group in town and they were a problem because they thought they were important and wanted to get out of town.

I said to them, “Look, the airport is closed.”

And later the tour leader turned to me and said, “Well Mr. Nalle, these are important people. They haven’t got time to wait around, they’re going to miss their connections in Nairobi.”

I said, “You’re damn right they’re going to miss their connections in Nairobi, and they’re going to get hungry, they’re going to get tired, they’re going to get dirty and they’re going to want to get their laundry done. And it’s not going to be done. Because I don’t see any chance of these folks leaving for four or five days.” And that was just the case. They were furious.

One guy, the president of this big liquor distributing company in Hartford, Connecticut — Highblood or Hugh Blind or something — he beat me about that on the head and shoulders. He had to get back to sign a contract.

I said, “You can’t do it. There are soldiers at the airport who will kill you.”

He kind of walked away scratching his head.  It would have been funny if it hadn’t been serious. But the killings went on and they never stopped.

 “Amin’s take-over was not seen as that horrendous at the beginning”

Robert Keeley, Deputy Chief of Mission Kampala, Uganda, 1971-1973

KEELEY: My bad luck was that in January 1971, Idi Amin took over Uganda. That was about two or three weeks after I had seen [Ambassador] Clyde Ferguson. He had gone back to Kampala. One day, I picked up The New York Times and read that some guy named Idi Amin had become the President of Uganda. The name didn’t mean a thing to me. (Keeley is seen at right).

When I later took the DCM course at FSI before leaving the U.S., Ferguson was one of the lecturers.  That was the second time I had met the Ambassador before arriving at the post. By that time, Amin was well established.

Ferguson described what had happened. He said that tribalism, which was a major problem throughout the African continent, was probably more severe and savage in Uganda than anywhere else, including Nigeria (which he knew quite well and which had and still has a very severe tribal problem despite a new constitution).

Amin’s take-over was not seen as that horrendous at the beginning. The British, the Americans, and the Israelis were, if not delirious, at least quite happy because they were very unhappy with Milton Obote, whom Amin over-threw.

Idi Amin, who had impressed some as a buffoon in many ways, did not act in that way in the early days of his regime. He had trained in Israel as a paratrooper; he wore the Israeli paratrooper’s wings very proudly; he claimed to be a very close personal friend of Moshe Dayan.

The Western countries — those that were major players in Uganda such as the British and the Americans — were deploring the tribalism, the tribal favoritism and persecution, that was being practiced by Obote. He had established more or less a one party system after a period of a multi-party, very democratic political environment right after independence.

Obote had dictated an increasingly leftist economic policy, with more and more socialism and nationalization of private property; he was anti-foreign and anti-investment. So Amin’s coup was initially seen as a welcome change and an opportunity.

Furthermore, Idi Amin thought that he could resolve the conflict over the Ugandan monarchies, particularly that of the King of Buganda [a subnational kingdom within Uganda], King Freddie, who had recently died. The Baganda [people of Buganda] cheered Amin on because he was going to bring their King’s body home and was going to bury him in Bugandan soil.

So Amin was seen quite differently at the beginning and was in fact quite popular in his early days. People marched and danced in the streets with their pom-poms and banana leaves, cheering him on.

“He advanced by eliminating his rivals either physically or by discrediting them or by scaring them

To understand Amin, you have to look very briefly at his biography, his background. He was a Muslim born in the Northwest corner of Uganda, near the Sudan and Zaire borders, which is an area heavily Muslim populated.

The British tended to recruit their African troops from the Northern tribes–Acholis, Langis, etc., because they were probably more war-like and therefore perhaps more reliable; furthermore these tribesmen didn’t have competing opportunities.

The Baganda in southern Uganda dominated the country. They are more numerous; they live in the southern part, around Lake Victoria, an area which is extremely fertile, and they have a surplus of agricultural production. They were also very good businessmen and most of them were interested in making money and in pursuing peaceful activities.

The Baganda were also more easily converted to Christianity; that is where the missionaries established most of their schools. The railroad was in Bugandan territory as was the British administration; they had all the advantages, particularly in education. Missionaries also work in very remote areas.

Traditionally the British would recruit their soldiers from more rural, less urbanized, less educated populations which have fewer opportunities, so that the military becomes their profession and livelihood. Amin, a poor peasant boy, was recruited into the army.

He used to talk about serving in World War II; there is no way that that happened because he was too young. He talked about serving in Burma. That was a myth. He used to be very complimentary about Eisenhower because he fed the same rations to his black troops as he did to the white ones. He talked about all of these things as if he had personally experienced them.

There was absolutely no way he could have fought either in Burma or Europe or anywhere else. I think he came to believe his own fantasies. He and others had repeated them often enough that he probably thought that they were actually true…

Amin was recruited at a very young age. He had had only about four years of education, if that; he was barely literate. He could read, but without any great facility; he couldn’t write very well–he always had help in producing documents. He could express himself in English and several local languages; he was not a bad linguist.

Initially, I think he was a cook’s assistant, which is really a low position even in an African army — the King’s (later the Queen’s) African Rifles. He essentially peeled potatoes. That would not be surprising given his level of education and general skills. He didn’t stay at that level; he got promoted.

His advancements came essentially through boxing. He was very tall with a tremendous reach and big hands; he was big and strong and tough in general. You could picture him in any culture as a heavy-weight champion, and that is what he was.

The Ugandans are very fine boxers; they still prove it to this day in the Olympics; they have a strong boxing tradition which the British encouraged. The main avenue for advancement in boxing was the army.

Amin became the Ugandan Army’s (that is, the African Rifles’) heavy-weight champion. He had the physical attributes, the general toughness and courage; that is what it took to be a champion. His boxing prowess tended to get him promoted. I don’t want to be excessively facetious about it, but I think it is descriptive that he worked his way up to sergeant because he could maintain order and discipline amongst rather unruly troops.

The pre-independence colonial armies were officered by the British. They may have included some key British technical non-coms–warrant officers–but the fighting troops, the infantry carrying the rifles were Africans, and like most armies, but particularly in a race-divided environment, there were two classes of people: the officers sitting around in their mess and the African troops in the barracks.

Idi Amin became prominent as the link between the two: the officers sitting around sipping their tea or their brandy or their port, upon hearing some noises and disruptions outside, would call in Sergeant Amin and tell him to take care of the problem.

Amin goes out, there are some shouts and screams as he knocks some heads together and kicks some butts and then silence. The officers resume their sipping and are very appreciative of Idi’s performance. They eventually promoted him to top sergeant.

Then comes independence….The new government says that it can’t continue to have its army commanded by British officers. It wants its own officers to command its own troops. Decolonization happened very rapidly. The process of transition was expedited and rather than establishing a long term, slow program of officers’ training, the Ugandans promoted their senior non-commissioned officers–there may have been some African officers already by that time, but certainly not enough to fill the gap left by the British.

The logical candidates for promotion were people like Idi Amin. He was promoted to the officers’ ranks. He then worked his way to the top. People who have studied Amin’s history have found that he advanced by eliminating his rivals in one fashion or another — either physically or by discrediting them or by scaring them or some way or other. His promotions came frequently.

My conclusion is that Idi Amin had proven, as some people would describe it, the “Peter Principle.” When he was the top sergeant, keeping order in the barracks, that was his strength; he should have stopped or been stopped there. He performed in that role very ably and well. Had the British remained, all would have been well; that is, Amin would have remained in the barracks. Unfortunately, he was suddenly put in a command position.

Psychologically, he probably felt inadequate; he was not dumb. He must have known that he was getting in over his head. On the other hand, this did not necessarily depress him that much because a lot of other people were getting out of their depth. Some of the other lieutenants and captains were no more qualified than he was; on the contrary, he must have known that he was bigger and tougher and stronger and more ruthless.

So he decided to move ahead as rapidly as possible. The problem was that with each promotion he became increasingly incompetent. Finally, he became the chief of the army. Now he was in real trouble. An army chief has to be something more than just rough and tough and brutal. He should have some understanding, some “smarts”–not necessarily education, but a realistic understanding of the world around.

“He applied all the brutal boxing lessons he had learned against his rivals”

I don’t point to Amin’s lack of education; but he was promoted out of his depth. He had learned to use his fists and translated that into how you hold your position, how you protect yourself. He applied all the brutal boxing lessons he had learned against his rivals.

When he became the chief of the army, he became involved in the Congo rebellion. He participated in some shady deals; there have been accusations of thefts of gold, ivory, etc. That history is very complex and I won’t tell the details here.

But at the end, Amin took over the government out of fear that Obote would do him in. He did what he had done throughout his career; he said that he was in charge and that Obote was done with.

Obote was out of the country attending some conference in Singapore …when the coup took place. As he was flying back, crossing India, he was told that he had been thrown out and that Amin had just taken over.

Amin’s behavior after that follows a similar pattern. As head of state, and as head of the government, he was really out of his depth. Not only was he incompetent, but the title and perks really went to his head. He became much more irrational; he viewed himself in megalomaniacal fashion.

He thought he could take on the world; he thought he could star on the international stage; he thought he could go to the U.N. and give an address that would make everyone take notice; he thought he could grand-stand anywhere and give speeches. He did become the head of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). He did say ridiculous things.

He had T-shirts with his picture on them printed up, saying “Conqueror of the British Empire.” He had British businessmen carry him to a meeting in a sedan chair. He gave Nixon advice on “Watergate.” He offered to marry Princess Anne of Great Britain. He saw himself as a world class statesman.

In the meantime he was making a fool of himself. But he was so vicious and brutal that no one opposed him or laughed at him because they feared for their lives. His goons would have taken any opposition out and cut them into four pieces. So you learned not to laugh, at least within his ear-shot. He became a buffoon-statesman in his own style–a ridiculous figure who caused all sorts of grief abroad and at home.

“In eight years plus of rule, Amin left the country in an absolutely deplorable condition

The world grand-standing was not that harmful. It was more a waste of time and tended to bring down ridicule onto organizations that might have done serious work if they didn’t have to deal with people like Amin.

The real crime was what he did to the Ugandans and his country. In eight years plus of rule, Amin left the country in an absolutely deplorable condition. The number of people he had killed was almost unbelievable. Many of the educated elite who survived fled into exile.

He destroyed Uganda’s economy, which had been a well-balanced one with a very productive agricultural base. Uganda has never had a famine; you can just stick something in the ground and it grows. It has a wonderful combination of soil, sun, rain-fall throughout the year. From that point of view, it was and is a marvelous country.

It has few minerals–a little copper–but it is ideal for some cash crops like coffee and sugar which have been grown there for a long time. These crops were primarily introduced by the British and gave Uganda a great future…

I have painted a somewhat idyllic picture. Uganda was a marvelous country. Amin destroyed it completely. As I said earlier, he should never have been put in charge of anything, except perhaps a few barracks.