Idi Amin’s Reign of Terror, Trial and Error

News & SocietyPolitics

  • Author Dr. Vincent Womujuni
  • Published March 4, 2017
  • Word count 1,642


Whenever the name "Idi Amin" is invoked, it denotes elements of brutality, bloodshed and dictatorship--the leadership techniques that made him famous for being infamous. Amin was arguably one of the most polarizing political leaders of the 20Th century. His mental stability has been a subject of contentious debate across the globe because of the cruelty with which he ruled Uganda from 1971 to 1979. In an attempt to understand his disastrous regime, some geniuses have dramatize it through theatrical satire. The snippets of comic episodes in the movies "The Last King of Scotland" and "The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin," give us a glimpse of what looks like his clinical insanity--Idi Amin was unable to discern fantasy and reality. His narcissistic character and dictatorial style of leadership are known. What has not been explored extensively, however, is how his lack of qualities of a good leader played a role in his downfall, which is the main focus of this article.

Amin's Rise to Power

Believed to have been born of a Kakwa father and a Lugbara mother between 1923 and 1925, Idi Amin was the third president of the republic of Uganda. What made him a fascinating figure of the 20th century was his ability to rise quickly through the ranks: assistant cook with the King's African Rifle (1947); army private with the infant division of KAR (1947); commissioned officer (1949); lieutenant (1959); captain (1962); deputy commander of army (1964); army commander (1965); colonel (1967); commander of all armed forces (1970); and president of the republic of Uganda (1971-1979). In 1965, Amin and Prime Minister Obote were accused by the Democratic Republic of Congo of smuggling and trading in ivory and gold with the rebels fighting the government of Patrice Lumumba. This controversial trade in exchange for guns to aid the rebels engendered an investigation into the matter by the Ugandan Parliament--at that time the ceremonial presidential position was being held by King Mutesa III. To obstruct justice and block their possible indictment, Obote initiated a constitutional amendment that abolished kingdoms. He then connived with Amin to attack Mutesa's palace and force him into exile. After King Mutesa had been deposed, Obote declared himself the executive president with full presidential powers. Following Amin's suspicious recruitment into the Ugandan army of mostly people from his tribe and from Southern Sudan, Obote demoted him from being in charge of all armed forces to commander of the army. When Amin learned that the government was planning to arrest him for embezzlement of public funds, he staged a coup that toppled Obote's government in 1971.

Reign of Terror

One of the qualities of a good leader is his ability to instill confidence in his followers. To the contrary, Amin created doubt, suspicion, anxiety and fear in his people. He is believed to have murdered over 500,000 people. He carried out public executions of his opponents and suspected criminals in broad-day light; murdered religious leaders, judges, and intellectuals; massacred over 5,000 Acholi and Lang soldiers loyal to former president Obote; and butchered prominent and public figures he suspected to pose a threat to his presidency such as Benedicto Kiwanuka, Janani Luwum, Joseph Muburu, Frank Kalimuzo, Byron Kawandwa, Erinayo Wilson Oryemo, and Charles Oboth. His reign of terror led to his loss of support, not only from his army loyalists, but also from the world leaders.

His inability to hold himself and his close associates to higher standards suggests that Amin did not have strong values that are characteristic of a strong leader. His authorization and facilitation of the hijackers loyal to a Palestinian terror organization, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine External Operation (PFLP-EO), to hijack the plane carrying Israeli nationals in 1976 indicated that he was the terrorists' sympathizer. This led to Israeli commandos' seizure of Entebbe Airport and the eventual rescue of most of their hostages in a matter of hours. The ride on Entebbe embarrassed his presidency and exposed the weaknesses of his army. His alliance with a terror organization estranged his former allies, in turn Israel and Britain started withdrawing their presence in Uganda, which continued to isolate him further.

Amin was emotionally unintelligent--a recipe for disastrous leadership. Neither did he have the ability to manage his own emotions, nor did he have the understanding of what his emotions meant and how they affected others. When Archbishop Ben Kiwanuka delivered a note of protest to his policies of arbitrary killings, he murdered him together with his two ministers in a staged car accident. This brutal action continued to reveal that his regime was a human-rights violator and diminished his international support.

In order for a good leader to succeed at fulfilling his vision, he needs to build a network of valuable people around him who have the ability and the necessary experience to implement and manage his or her change efforts. Idi Amin's reign presented a unique contradiction. He oppressed not only the poor, the intellectual and the religious; he also persecuted his close associates. The incident in which his Vice president Idris was injured in a suspicious accident led to the beginning of the end of his presidency. When Idris got injured in the motor vehicle accident, his bodyguards suspected foul play and mutinied and ran into exile in Tanzania. Amin pursued them and annexed Kagera, one of the regions of Tanzania, falsely accusing Tanzania of creating hostilities against his country. Tanzanian defense forces responded militarily, chased Amin out of their country and orchestrated his ouster in Uganda in 1979.

Trial and Error

A good leader is the one who is focused, personable, knowledgeable, good decision maker and visionary. Amin seemed to posses none of these leadership qualities. He made errors after errors--from the time he set foot into State House to the time of his overthrow. Nobody knew what exactly Amin's vision for his country was. As soon as he ascended to power, he promised to relinquish power and release prisoners of war. This changed in an instant as he suspended some provisions in the Ugandan constitution and placed military tribunal over the civil law. These new constitutional amendments meant that cabinet ministers would be subjected to military discipline. Consequently, many members of his cabinet ran into exile for fear of their lives. The manipulation of the Ugandan constitution also damaged his reputation and signaled to the world that he had ushered in an era of terror, which would go on to grip the country for the rest of his presidency.

Amin lacked the ability to recognize skill and develop those around him--one of the great qualities of an accomplished leader. Instead, he looked at intellectuals and the educated as his adversaries. He filled his army and his cabinet with sycophants--foreigners and people from his own tribe who had no leadership experience. His army was composed of 50% South Sudanese, 26% Congolese, and 24% Ugandans. His tribe occupied 60% of the 22 cabinet ministerial posts. Seventy-five percent of the ministerial posts were occupied by army generals, and 80% to 87% of the army generals in his cabinet were Muslims--despite the fact that Muslims constituted 5% of the Ugandan population. As a result, his stooges mismanaged his government, caused the destruction of the infrastructure and contributed to total economic collapse. It is ironic that his Libyan friends fought alone during Uganda's war with Tanzania while his own soldiers resorted to looting and packing their army trucks with their belongings to flee the country.

Open-mindedness and flexibility were in short supply in Amin's regime. Instead of investing, developing and maintaining relationships with investors and entrepreneurs who were a revenue stream for the country, he harassed them, destroyed their businesses and expropriated their properties. After the expulsion of the Asians and Indians, his relationships with Britain, India, and Israel got ruined. Britain reduced its presence in Uganda in 1973. India also severed its relationship with Uganda. And Israel cut its ties with the Ugandan army. In retaliation, Amin expelled Israeli military advisors and turned to Libya and Soviet Union for consolation. His continued isolation by the super powers affected Uganda economically and militarily. Furthermore, unemployment rose; sugar and cement factories collapsed; and Uganda's industries came to a standstill because of the failure to repair industrial machinery.

Instilling in his people a sense of belonging is another trait of an experienced leader. As I mentioned earlier, Amin's brutal and dictatorial regime caused massive movement of intellectuals into exile. One of the major defections was his Prime Minister Henry Kyemba in 1977; he wrote a book "State of Blood" while in exile that exposed the inner workings of Amin's regime. Amin underestimated the brain power of Ugandan intellectuals. It was through the intellectual alliance of Ugandan exile--working alongside Tanzanian defense forces--that expedited the collapse of Amina's regime. The intellectual alliance comprised of 28 military units including the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA); Kikosi Maalum, led by Milton Obote (former president of Uganda) together with Tito Okello (former president of Uganda) and David Oyite Ojok as commanders; FRONASA led by Yoweri Museveni (Current president of the Republic of Uganda); Save Uganda Movement (SUM) led by Akena p'Ojok, William Omaria and Ateker Ejaly; and Freedom Union lead by Godrey Binaisa, Andrew Kayiira and Olara Otunnu.


Idi Amin's regime (1971-1979) can best be described as a comedy of terror, trial and error: he carried out summary execution of his people; associated with, and sponsored terrorists; expelled investors and expropriated their properties; persecuted intellectuals; invaded Tanzania, a sovereign nation; surrounded himself with bowing henchmen with no leadership experience; alienated and isolated Uganda from the rest of the world because of his foreign policies; mismanaged the government; and orchestrated the total collapse of Uganda's economy. It is inconceivable and inexplicable that when all this was happening, the world was watching. As a saying goes, "the world is dangerous, not because of what people do, but because of those who sit and watch." I would appreciate it if someone told me a person who said those immortal words!

Dr. Vincent Womujuni is a former lecturer at Makerere University in Uganda

Article source:
This article has been viewed 1,136 times.

Rate article

Article comments

There are no posted comments.

Related articles