Idi Amin dies in Saudi hospital

Idi Amin called himself “a pure son of Africa,” but his bizarre and murderous eight years as president of Uganda typified the worst of the continent’s military dictatorships.

Amin, who died Saturday, was 80, Ugandan officials said, though other sources had him born in 1925.

Amin, who had lived for years in exile in this Saudi port city, had been hospitalised on life-support since July 18. He was in a coma and suffering from high blood pressure when he was first admitted to the King Faisal Specialist Hospital. Later, hospital staff said he suffered kidney failure.

He died at 8:20am., the hospital official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A one-time heavyweight boxing champ and soldier in the British colonial army, Amin seized power on January 25, 1971, overthrowing President Milton Obote while Obote was abroad.

What followed was a reign of terror laced with buffoonery and a flirtation with Palestinian terrorism that led to the daring 1976 Israeli raid to rescue hijack hostages in his country.

Obote once called Amin “the greatest brute an African mother has ever brought to life.” President Jimmy Carter said events in Uganda during Amin’s rule “disgusted the entire civilised world.”

Ugandans initially welcomed Amin’s rise to power, and his frequent taunting of Britain, former colonial ruler of much of Africa, often played well on the continent.

But his penchant for the cruel and extravagant became evident in 1972, when he expelled tens of thousands of Asians who had controlled the country’s economy.
Suddenly deprived of its business class, the East African nation plummeted into economic chaos.

Amin declared himself president-for-life of his landlocked country of 24-million, awarded himself an array of medals and ran the country with an iron fist, killing real and imagined enemies.

Human rights groups say from 100 000 to 500 000 people were killed during his eight-year rule. Bodies were dumped into the Nile River because graves couldn’t be dug fast enough. At one point, so many bodies were fed to crocodiles that the remains occasionally clogged intake ducts at Uganda’s main hydroelectric plant at Jinja.

“Even Amin does not know how many people he has ordered to be executed ... The country is littered with bodies,” said Henry Kyemba, Amin’s longtime friend and a former health minister, when he defected to Britain in 1977.

Amin was born into the small Kakwa tribe in Koboko, a village in northwestern Uganda. His mother was a self-proclaimed sorceress of the Lugbara tribe and he was in his 30s before he had regular contact with his peasant father.

A semiliterate school dropout, Amin boasted that he knew “more than doctors of philosophy because as a military man I know how to act.”

“I am a man of action,” he said.

And words. He said Hitler “was right to burn six-million Jews,” and offered to be king of Scotland if asked. He challenged his neighbour and frequent critic, Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, to a boxing match, and wrote to Richard Nixon wishing him “a speedy recovery” from Watergate.

Amin was a well-regarded officer at the time of Uganda’s independence from Britain in 1962, and Obote made him military chief of staff in 1966.

The 112-kilogramme president called himself Dada, or Big Daddy, and in 1975 was even chosen as for the one-year rotating chairmanship of the Organisation of African Unity despite objections from some member states.

But mismanagement and corruption of his entourage drove Uganda into an abyss and its economy tumbled toward subsistence levels.

The United States and Britain severed ties during Amin’s rule.

Israel went from staunch military and economic ally to hated enemy for refusing to support his aggressive military ambitions.

In 1976 a Palestinian group hijacked an Air France airliner to Entebbe Airport in Uganda and kept its Israeli passengers as hostages. Israeli commandos flew to Entebbe under cover of darkness and rescued the captives. Amin claimed he had been trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution, but there was plenty of evidence

that he was in league with the hijackers.

Amin’s overreaching designs led to his downfall after his troops failed in their attempt to annex parts of Tanzania in October, 1978. Tanzanian troops counter-invaded, routed Amin’s Soviet and Arab-equipped army and reached the Ugandan capital, Kampala, in April 1979.

Amin, a convert to Islam, fled to Libya, then Iraq and finally Saudi Arabia, where he was allowed to settle provided he stayed out of politics. In later months, he was joined by one of his two wives and his 22 children.

Obote returned to power in 1980 elections and unleashed what many felt was repression even worse than that of Amin’s. Since 1986 Uganda has been ruled by President Yoweri Museveni. Uganda remains a one-party state but has gradually returned to relative peace and normality.

Amin, meanwhile, moved into a luxury house in the Red Sea port city of Jiddah, with cars, drivers, cooks and maids paid for by the Saudi government. He would occasionally telephone journalists abroad to announce fantastical schemes to reconquer Uganda, or to protest against cuts in his gasoline allowance. But the Saudis got angry and made him stop.

In a rare interview in 1999, Amin told a Ugandan newspaper he liked to play the accordion, fish, swim, recite from the Quran and read. He said most of his food—including fresh cassava, cassava flour and millet flour—still came from Uganda.

He was sometimes spotted on evening walks along the coast or attending Friday prayers in a nearby mosque. - Sapa-AP

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