I Knew Idi Amin

An insight into the life of one of Africa’s most notorious leaders through the eyes of people who knew him and met him.

To some, he was a strong, decisive leader, at his core an African nationalist. To others, he was simply an ignorant, vicious buffoon, the “butcher of Africa” who sent hundreds of thousands to horrifying deaths.

So who was Idi Amin, Uganda’s former president and one of Africa’s most notorious leaders?

He'd feed his enemies to the crocodiles. He'd have the husbands of women he fancied murdered and shot on his own orders. He had people incarcerated by the secret police and tortured before being bludgeoned to death ... It's impossible for me to minimise just how bad this man was.

by Brian Barron

He began his career in the British Colonial Army and with virtually no education, rose from chef’s assistant to the most powerful position in the country.

Through a combination of brute force and the encouragement of countries like Britain, he became the president of Uganda in 1971.

“I think everyone, especially the British, who had run the place for decades, breathed such a sigh of relief when Milton Obote [the president who led Uganda to independence in 1962] was overthrown … in 1971 [and] when Idi stepped in and took over, everybody said ‘thank God, it’s over nothing could be worse than Milton Obote, the corruption’…,” the late BBC foreign correspondent Brian Barron who was one of the few to interview Amin, told Al Jazeera in 2007.

“They [the international community] allowed him to get away with things, they gave him too much leash, but it took a while before the penny dropped. Before they realised how awful things really were,” said Barron. 

Amin promoted an image of a benevolent ruler who at heart was just a family man and a father to around 50 children.

“He was such a lovely man, so good, so loving, he never beats any children. When he’s at home he just wanted us all to be on him. He’s like a mother, a father, a sister, a brother in one. He loved music and he’s always on his accordion, singing…,” said Mainmuna Amin, Idi Amin’s daughter.

But soon, Amin’s ruthlessness earned him the nickname, the ‘killer of Kampala’, and over time the international support he once had, evaporated.

Amin’s rule was marred by human rights abuses, political oppression, ethnic persecution and the expulsion of the country’s entire Asian population.

To his political opponents, he was ruthless and unforgiving, and many of those who spoke up against him eventually turned up dead in the streets.

“People were killed… executed in cold blood… picked up … never to be seen again. Literally, hundreds of thousands of people were taken in that way. This river, I could see bodies floating on that river every time you drove past,” said Henry Kyemba, Idi Amin’s former health minister.

In April 1979, Amin’s presidency came to an inglorious end and he was exiled to Saudi Arabia, where he died in 2003.

But even in death, Amin’s ghost still hovers over Uganda, and his life was immortalised in the 2006 Hollywood blockbuster The Last King of Scotland.

“It will take many many years to rebuild what he destroyed. That’s the legacy [of Idi Amin] as far as I am concerned… He got away with murder,” said Kyemba.

Al Jazeera interviewed those closest to the Ugandan leader, including his son and daughter as well as his former health minister, who witnessed some of Amin’s most heinous acts.

UPDATE: Since gaining independence in 1962, Uganda has not seen a peaceful transition of political power.

When President Yoweri Museveni fought his way to power in Uganda in 1986 he said he would only need five years to clean up Uganda.

In January 2018, Museveni, who is one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, has signed a bill into law that removes a presidential age limit of 75 from the country’s constitution. The move allows the 73-year-old president to run for a sixth term in 2021. 

Yoweri Museveni is surrounded by controversies related to freedom of speech, human rights, allegations of nepotism, and even the killing of Ugandan citizens. But Museveni claims Uganda is one of the most democratic countries in the world and that he is leading his people out of poverty and to an even better future.

I Knew Idi Amin was first broadcast on Al Jazeera English in 2008. This article has been updated.