Amin Regime Terrorizes Uganda Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The military coup that brought Idi Amin to power in Uganda led to the creation of one of the bloodiest regimes in African history.

Summary of Event

Like many Third World states, Uganda, a former British colony in East Africa, was an arbitrary creation of British economic, strategic, and political interests and late nineteenth century intra-European conflicts and compromises. It incorporated dozens of different linguistic and cultural groups that had previously lived separately, although some of them maintained various types of commercial as well as belligerent relationships. The indigenous political and social institutions included centralized monarchies in the southern part of the country, of which Buganda was the most important, when the area that became Uganda was declared a British protectorate (1894). Uganda also had small-scale, clan-based social and political systems. In some parts of the territory, a nomadic, pastoral style of life was predominant. Uganda;government Revolutions and coups;Uganda [kw]Amin Regime Terrorizes Uganda (Jan., 1971-Apr., 1979) [kw]Uganda, Amin Regime Terrorizes (Jan., 1971-Apr., 1979) Uganda;government Revolutions and coups;Uganda [g]Africa;Jan., 1971-Apr., 1979: Amin Regime Terrorizes Uganda[00150] [g]Uganda;Jan., 1971-Apr., 1979: Amin Regime Terrorizes Uganda[00150] [c]Government and politics;Jan., 1971-Apr., 1979: Amin Regime Terrorizes Uganda[00150] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Jan., 1971-Apr., 1979: Amin Regime Terrorizes Uganda[00150] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Jan., 1971-Apr., 1979: Amin Regime Terrorizes Uganda[00150] Amin, Idi Obote, Milton Mutesa II

By the 1950’s, elite groups that had emerged in various parts of the country were demanding the right to self-determination in the form of independent statehood. The anti-imperialist movement, however, was not unified. In Buganda and, to a lesser extent, in other kingdoms, there were strong autonomist and even secessionist sentiments arising from a desire to maintain special cultural institutions and distinct identities. Throughout the colony, the emerging African elites were divided by religious rivalry, especially that between the Roman Catholics, who were underrepresented in bureaucratic and politico-administrative positions, and the dominant Protestant Anglicans, who were overrepresented. The minority Muslims were also underrepresented but were somewhat peripheral to the rivalry within the Christian community.

On October 9, 1962, the British government granted political independence to the new state of Uganda. The government that acceded to power was a coalition dominated by the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), which was composed of elites from various parts of the country who shared a number of common aspirations and beliefs. They were mostly members of the Protestant Anglican Church, many of them secular in outlook and seeking to eliminate the socioeconomic inequalities that had emerged over the years of colonial rule among their home districts and the more prosperous southern kingdoms, especially Buganda.

The UPC’s coalition partner was the all-Buganda Kabaka Yekka (the king above all) movement, whose primary goal was the preservation of the monarchy and the political autonomy of Buganda. The only common element between this movement and the UPC was the Anglican religious identity of the leaders and most of the followers of the two organizations. The opposition Democratic Party essentially represented the aggrieved Roman Catholics.

Uganda started independent statehood under what was in essence a parliamentary democratic system of government. There was a directly elected parliament, a cabinet headed by a prime minister responsible to parliament and, after 1963, a ceremonial president elected by parliament. The first president was Mutesa II, who was also the kabaka (king) of Buganda. The administrative system provided for a large degree of autonomy for the four kingdom areas and a more centralized system for most of the country. The judiciary was independent, and the military and police forces were initially nonpartisan and not directly involved in politics.

Within four years, rivalries and tensions within the ruling coalition had led the country to the brink of civil war. In early 1966, Milton Obote, the prime minister, ordered the arrest of five of his ministers on charges of plotting against him. He subsequently accused Mutesa II of participating in the alleged conspiracy and deposed him from the office of president. Obote later assumed the post. In May, he ordered the Ugandan army, then commanded by Idi Amin, to attack the king’s palace.

Idi Amin (far right) gives his first news conference as Uganda’s new leader in Kampala on January 27, 1971, two days after the coup that ousted Milton Obote.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The events of 1966 had several significant consequences that were to lay the foundation for the Amin regime. First, the military was used to intervene in the political process for the first time, thus brushing aside established constitutional procedures. Second, a large number of people lost their lives in the course of indiscriminate attacks by soldiers on unarmed civilians who were identified with the ethnic group of the kabaka. This established a precedent for selective military repression of civilians, which was to be one of the more sanguinary aspects of the Amin regime. Third, from this time onward, maintaining the loyalty of the army was to be the most important determinant of the exercise of political power by Ugandan leaders.

Between 1966 and 1971, Milton Obote tried to create a one-party regime. He centralized administrative and political power in his hands and forced all opposition underground or into exile through imprisonment or denial of positions of influence in the state. In the process, the military, especially army commander Idi Amin, became more prominent on the Ugandan political scene. At the same time, personal and ethnic conflict between Idi Amin and Obote developed, culminating in efforts by Obote to remove Amin from control of the army in 1970. Amin successfully resisted and in January, 1971, pushed his resistance to the point of a coup d’état while Obote was out of the country.

The Amin regime arose from a bloody revolt in which a number of the senior officers were either killed or forced to flee the country. During the first year, a number of purges were carried out against soldiers suspected of loyalty to the deposed regime. The most significant criterion used was ethnic identity; thus, from the beginning, the Amin regime had genocidal tendencies.

In 1972, following an abortive invasion mounted by Obote loyalists from across the border in Tanzania, killings of opponents or suspected opponents of the regime spilled over into the civilian sector. People who had been senior officials of the UPC or belonged to the same ethnic group as Obote and his former military supporters became victims of brutal torture and murder. In the same year, Amin ordered the mass expulsion of citizens as well as resident aliens of Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi origin. Many of them had been born in the country, and some families had lived there for several generations. Their property was taken from them without compensation and given to Amin’s supporters and other Ugandans.

During Amin’s eight-year rule, thousands of Ugandans were killed for suspected opposition to the regime or because soldiers and members of other armed elements of the regime sought to dispossess them. Among the more prominent victims was the country’s chief justice, Benedicto Kiwanuka, who was dragged from his chambers and never seen again. Other victims included numerous journalists, university professors, physicians, playwrights, military officers, police officers, senior civil servants, and members or former members of the regime who had fallen out of favor.

Millions of Ugandans suffered a drastic decline in their economic and social conditions. The economy rapidly deteriorated as a result of the disruption caused by the expulsion of the Asians, who had dominated commerce, and the climate of terror that discouraged investment and normal economic activities. Medical and educational services were hit hard as personnel fled the country to save their lives. Thousands of refugees fled to neighboring countries and beyond, some going as far as Europe and North America.

In late 1978, Amin sent units of his army across the border into Tanzania on the pretext that he was repelling an invasion. They killed and kidnapped civilians and looted property, thus spreading the violence and pain beyond the country’s borders. The Tanzanian government decided to use this opportunity to rid Uganda and the region of the bloody tyrant. Beginning in December, 1978, the Tanzanian army, assisted by armed Ugandan exiles, steadily drove Amin’s army out of Tanzania. They continued the pursuit until April, 1979, when Idi Amin and his regime were expelled from Uganda.

Significance

The impact of the eight-year rule of Idi Amin went beyond Uganda. The East African region and the African continent as a whole were affected. Apart from the thousands of lives lost or ruined, the Amin regime highlighted the enormity of the task facing countries like Uganda in creating stable, prosperous democratic states. At the regional level, Amin’s often belligerent attitude toward neighboring states led to the end of an attempt to create an East African common market linking Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.

At the continental level, the Amin regime became an embarrassment for African leaders, whose campaign against the apartheid regime in South Africa was robbed of some of its moral force by the excesses of one of their colleagues.

After the downfall of the Amin regime, precipitated by the intervention of Tanzanian forces, Ugandans attempted to re-create civilian political institutions through multiparty elections in 1980 and a broad-based regime based on grassroots organizations. Obote was returned to the presidency in the 1980 elections. The lessons of the Amin regime will undoubtedly continue to influence Ugandans as they look for solutions to their intricate political, economic, and social problems. Uganda;government Revolutions and coups;Uganda

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Armstrong, Sara. The Shattered Pearl: An Odyssey of Service, Savagery, and Survival. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford, 2001. Personal account of the ten years the author spent in Uganda during Idi Amin’s regime.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gwyn, David. Idi Amin: Death-Light of Africa. Boston: Little, Brown, 1977. Written under a pseudonym by a European or North American who worked in Uganda and gained intimate knowledge of the country and its people. Combines careful analysis of the political background to the rise of the Amin regime with a passionate condemnation of its human rights outrages. One of the best works on the subject. Includes historical chronology from the nineteenth century, maps, and appendix.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karugire, Samwiri Rubaraza. A Political History of Uganda. Nairobi, Kenya: Heinemann Educational Books, 1980. Good political history of Uganda emphasizes the divisions and conflicts plaguing the country at the time of independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kasfir, Nelson. The Shrinking Political Arena. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. Scholarly work focuses on the problem of interethnic and regional conflict in the period just before and following the attainment of political independence. Includes maps, selected bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kyemba, Henry. A State of Blood: The Inside Story of Idi Amin. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1977. One of few firsthand accounts of Amin’s behavior and style by an individual who served in both Obote’s and Amin’s governments. Includes maps, photographs, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mamdani, Mahmood. Politics and Class Formation in Uganda. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976. Addresses the political history of Uganda up to and including the Amin regime, from a Marxist class perspective. Provides excellent analysis of the colonial period, but a rather rigid class framework renders the discussion of the postcolonial period unconvincing in many respects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Measures, Bob, and Tony Walker. Amin’s Uganda. Atlanta: Minerva Press, 1998. European telecommunications workers recount their experiences living through Idi Amin’s reign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ofcansky, Thomas P. Uganda: Tarnished Pearl of Africa. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996. Examines the government and politics of Uganda from 1962 to 1994, with a focus on the disintegration of Ugandan society after Idi Amin seized power in 1971. Includes bibliography and index.

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