Idi Amin was born in the Kakwa tribe, near Koboko in the West Nile Arua district. The year is not known, due to a lack of birth records (sources suggest anything from 1923 to 1928). Some sources suggest he may have celebrated his birthday on January 1. He was brought up by his mother, who was thought to be a witch doctor, and received little formal education.
Amin joined the King's African Rifles of the British colonial army as a private in 1946, rising to the rank of lieutenant after seeing action during the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya. He was considered a skilled, but somewhat overeager, soldier, and developed a reputation for cruelty. He rose through the ranks, reaching sergeant-major before being made an effendi, the highest rank possible for a Black African in the British army. Amin was also an accomplished sportsman, besides being a champion swimmer he held Uganda's light heavyweight boxing championship from 1951 to 1960.
After independence in 1962, Milton Obote, Uganda's first prime minister, rewarded his loyalty by promoting him to captain in 1963 and deputy commander of the army in 1964. In 1965 Obote and Amin were implicated in a deal to smuggle gold, coffee, and ivory out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A parliamentary investigation demanded by President Frederick Walugembe Mutesa II (also the Kabaka (King) of Buganda, popularly known as King Freddie), put Obote on the defensive; he promoted Amin to general and made him Chief-of-Staff, had five ministers arrested, suspended the 1962 constitution, and declared himself as the new president. King Freddie was forced into exile in Britain in 1969, and died the same year.
Amin began recruiting members of his own tribe into the army, and relations with Obote began to sour. Obote first responded by putting Amin under house arrest, and when this failed, Amin was given a non-executive position in the army.
Seizure of power
After hearing that Obote was planning to arrest him for misappropriating army funds, he seized power in a coup on January 25, 1971, when Obote was attending a Commonwealth meeting in Singapore. Obote stayed in exile, and Amin declared himself the new President.
Idi Amin was initially welcomed both within Uganda and by the international community. He gave King Freddie a state burial, freed many political prisoners, and disbanded the Secret Police. He promised to hold elections within months. Many foreign journalists considered him a somewhat comical and eccentric figure. He was fond of racing cars (of which he owned several), boxing, and Disney cartoons.
His light-hearted and often childish public persona hid an inner brutality, however. Shortly after taking power Amin established 'killer squads' to hunt down and murder Obote's supporters as well as much of the intelligentsia, whom he distrusted. Military leaders who had not supported the coup were executed, many by beheading. "By 1974 his regime was murdering hundreds of thousands of its own people, and Amin fed the heads of opponents to crocodiles and boasted of eating human flesh, keeping human heads in the freezer as his nation starved." 
Obote took refuge in Tanzania, from where he attempted to regain the country through a military coup in 1972, without success. Obote supporters within the Ugandan army, mainly from the Acholi and Lango tribes, were also involved in the coup. Amin answered by bombing Tanzanian towns, and purging the army of Acholi and Lango officers. The ethnic violence grew to include the whole of the army, and then Ugandan civilians, Amin becoming more and more paranoid. The Nile Mansions Hotel in Kampala became infamous as Amin's interrogation and torture centre. Amin's killer squads were responsible for tens of thousands of abductions, tortures, rapes and murders, and Amin himself ordered the execution of the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda, Janani Luwum, the chief justice, Benedicto Kiwanuka , the chancellor of Makerere University, Frank Kalimuzo , the governor of the Bank of Uganda, Joseph Mubiru , and several of his own ministers.
On August 9, 1972, Amin gave Uganda's 50-70,000 South Asian inhabitants (whether Ugandan citizens or not) 90 days to leave the country, following an alleged dream in which, he claimed, God told him to expel them. Those who remained were deported from the cities to the countryside. The same year he severed diplomatic relations with Israel, and in 1976 with Britain, and turned to Moammar Al Qadhafi of Libya and the Soviet Union for support.
Amin had strong links to the Palestine Liberation Organisation, (PLO). The Israeli embassy was offered to them as headquarters; and Flight 139, the Air France A-300B Airbus hijacked from Athens on the 27th June 1976, was invited by Amin to stop at Entebbe. The hijackers demanded the release of 53 PLO prisoners in return for the 256 hostages, and were assisted by Amin's troops. Amin visited the hostages more than once. On July 3, 1976, Israeli paratroopers attacked the airport and freed almost all of the hostages. Uganda's air force was badly crippled as its fighter jets were destroyed in the action.
See also Operation Entebbe.
Partly on the basis of his "visions" and this behaviour, Idi Amin is often believed to have suffered from neurosyphilis: Deborah Hayden makes the case for this hypothesis in her Pox: Genius, Madness and the Mysteries of Syphilis.
As the years went on, Amin's eccentricities slowly descended into childlike madness. He began wearing so many medals his shirts would often tear from the weight. As his ego swelled, he granted himself a series of increasingly grand titles, including President for Life, "Conqueror of the British Empire," and even "King of Scotland." In 1975 he was elected president of the Organisation of African Unity. By the end of his reign, his full title was: "His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular."
In October 1978, with between 100,000 and 500,000 dead at the hands of his regime, and no other nation maintaining diplomatic ties with his country, Amin ordered the invasion of Tanzania, at the same time attempting to cover up an army mutiny. With help of Libyan troops, Amin tried to annex Kagera, the northern province of Tanzania. Tanzania formally declared war on Uganda in response. The Tanzanian armed forces swiftly expelled Ugandan forces from Tanzania and invaded Uganda itself, enlisting Ugandan exiles who had fled into Tanzania. By April 1979 Tanzania, under president Julius Nyerere, had driven out Amin, taking the Ugandan capital Kampala with the help of the Ugandan guerrillas, and subsequently restoring Obote.
Amin fled to exile, first in Libya, where sources are divided on whether he remained until December 1979, or 1989, before finding final asylum in Saudi Arabia. He opened a bank account in Jeddah in 1979, and resided there with his four wives until his death, subsisting on a government stipend. The new Ugandan government chose to keep him exiled, saying that Amin would face warcrimes charges if he ever returned.
On July 20, 2003, it was reported by his favorite wife that he was near-death in a coma at the King Faisal specialist hospital in Jeddah. She pleaded with Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni that he might return to die in Uganda. The reply was that if he returned, he would have to "answer for his sins". Idi Amin died in Saudi Arabia on August 16, 2003, and was buried in Jeddah.
On August 17, 2003 David Owen told an interviewer for BBC Radio 4 that while he was British Foreign Secretary (1977-1979) he had suggested to have Amin assassinated to end his terror regime. His idea was directly rejected. Owen said "Amin's regime was the worst of all. It's a shame that we allowed him to keep in power for so long".
- Biography of Amin
- Another biography of Amin
- Film about Amin/Uganda