Idi Amin, the unquestionably evil and perversely fascinating dictator of the east central African nation of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, died Aug. 16 at a hospital in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, where he was admitted July 18 in a coma. He reportedly had hypertension and kidney failure and was believed to be 80.
Mr. Amin took power in a military coup that overthrew the government of President Milton Obote. Mr. Amin, a gregarious and popular Army chief and onetime heavyweight boxing champion of Uganda, promised to abolish Obote's secret police, institute economic reforms and quickly return the nation to civilian rule.
Instead, he destroyed the Ugandan economy by expelling the country's ethnic Asians, slashed domestic spending to fund the armed forces and his own police and security details, made enemies of most of his neighbors and instituted a reign of terror in which more than 200,000 Ugandans were tortured to death or executed.
During his rule, his atrocities horrified the world, but some found his buffoonish antics and pronouncements fascinating. In this country, he became probably sub-Saharan Africa's best-known ruler. He was a staple of late-night television talk show monologues. Punch, Britain's legendary humor magazine, ran a mock weekly column as if written by Mr. Amin. The columns were compiled in a best-selling book.
In his early days in power, Mr. Amin could seem a charismatic man of the people. Something of a national celebrity since his reign as the country's heavyweight champion from 1951 to 1960, the athletic 6-foot-4-inch, 250-pound ruler would dance in the streets in public festivals and was known to dive into pools while wearing his bemedaled uniform. In those days, he could play the clown and gregariously entertain westerners.
But Godfrey Lule, Mr. Amin's onetime attorney general, was quoted as saying: "For too long, Amin has been considered a clown. Indeed, he is a clown when he chooses. Face to face, he is relaxed, simple and charming. He seems incapable of wrongdoing or of sanctioning any crime. But this is no more than a facade. He is at heart a manipulator."
Lule concluded, "He kills rationally and coolly."
As Mr. Amin's rule wore on, he became increasingly irrational. He added such titles as field marshal, president for life, conqueror of the British Empire and king of Scotland. His uniforms often tore from the weight of the medals hanging from them.
Stories about atrocities appeared. Some of the first involved officers who had not supported Mr. Amin in his coup. Flying squads of executioners arrived at bases across the country, slaughtering untold numbers of officers and soldiers.
Most victims were shot, but prominent ones were beheaded and their heads reportedly stored in a freezer in Mr. Amin's residence. Mr. Amin would periodically remove them from the freezer, place them around his dinner table and hold "conversations" with them.
He once had Kenyan students in Uganda executed to show his displeasure with actions taken by the Kenyan government. He expelled Indians and others of Asian descent (and executed those who did not leave quickly enough) after he supposedly received a message from God in a dream.
He fought coup attempts, both real and imagined, with mass executions of groups and people he came to mistrust. Among those who died were an Anglican archbishop and nearly the entire pre-coup officer corps. Most of their bodies were fed to Nile reptiles.
In 1978, Mr. Amin sought to take attention from an attempted coup by invading Tanzania's western province of Kagera. Three thousand Ugandan infantry and the Ugandan air force devastated the region, executing civilians and destroying all property and animals.
The Tanzanian army, along with Ugandan exiles, launched a counterattack that brought an end to his regime the next year. Mr. Amin, with his four wives, several of his 30 mistresses and about 20 of his children, fled to Libya, where Mr. Amin, who was said to be a Muslim convert, was offered sanctuary.
He was asked to leave after a violent dispute between his bodyguards and Libyan authorities. He lived for a time in Iraq before settling in Saudi Arabia, where he was given asylum "in the name of Islamic charity."
Idi Amin Dada was born in Uganda's west Nile province of Koboko. His father, a Muslim, was a member of the Kakwa tribe. His mother was a member of the Lugbara tribe. Mr. Amin spoke Kiswahili, gained a fourth-grade education and became an accomplished swimmer, boxer and rugby player.
In 1946, with Uganda a British protectorate, he joined the King's African Rifles as a cook. He won rapid promotion in the regiment, whose officers were British. Promoted to corporal in 1948, he was a sergeant-major and platoon commander by 1958. The following year, he was made a warrant officer with the rank of effendi, the highest rank held by Africans.
In 1961, with Ugandan independence two years away, he was one of the first two Ugandans to become commissioned officers. With independence, he made a rapid rise to major general and then was chief of the general staff before leading the 1971 coup.
Superficially, he seemed a popular, skilled and charismatic leader. He had passed the Israeli paratroop course and led troops in Kenya during the bloody Mau Mau rebellion. But the all-but-illiterate officer had marks against him for atrocities in Kenya, where British and African soldiers had also questioned his courage.
His dislike of most foreigners became evident when he took power. His expulsion of 50,000 Asians, whose ancestors had come to Uganda generations earlier as laborers for the British and became Uganda's premier traders and businessmen, ruined the economy. Both foreign and domestic trade became crippled, which led to problems with the currency, the balance of payments and unemployment.
He gave the homes and businesses of the Asians to favored military officers to ensure their loyalty. Salaries and perks for officers and security officials from favored tribes increased enormously. Those from less-favored ethnic groups were executed or died in mysterious "traffic accidents."
The British and the Israelis refused to sell Uganda more arms as Uganda's business and financial reserves plunged and it became obvious that Mr. Amin was far from a benevolent dictator.
Mr. Amin's response was to turn to Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi. He pledged that he would turn Uganda, where about 16 percent of the population was Muslim, into a Muslim state. Money and arms began to pour in.
Mr. Amin, who gave speeches on the glories of Adolf Hitler's war against the Jews, at one time announced plans to build a statue in Hitler's honor in the capital, Kampala. Mr. Amin also became a close friend to Palestinian extremist groups and soon had the aid of more than 400 Palestinian military advisers and staffed his bodyguard corps with Palestinians.
In 1976, pro-Palestinian guerrillas hijacked an Air France passenger jet over Greece and flew the plane and 91 Jewish hostages to Entebbe airport in Uganda. Mr. Amin, who may or may not have known of the plans for the hijacking, agreed to guard the hostages at the airport while negotiations for their release dragged on.
Israeli troops flew to Entebbe, and, in a brilliant action, overpowered the Ugandan soldiers and rescued the hostages. Mr. Amin was furious. Learning that many of the officers and men had been drunk, he had more than 200 senior officers and civilian officials executed.
Things began to go from bad to worse for Mr. Amin. The price of coffee, the country's leading cash crop, plummeted. Armed rebellion swept the southwest, and coup attempts multiplied even as his executioners kept up a hectic pace.
Even the Libyans began to cause trouble, dramatically cutting aid back while asking for an accounting of money they had already given Mr. Amin. They also questioned the success of his efforts to transform Uganda into a Muslim nation.
In 1975, Mr. Amin served as head of the Organization for African Unity but, before his presidency ended, he was reduced to trying to crash international gatherings to which he had pointedly not been invited.