Did Idi Amin really kill 300,000 people?
By Timothy Kalyegira

Jan 30 - Feb 5, 2005

On January 25, we were once again forced to remember the military coup that brought Idi Amin to power in 1971. Once again, the general summing up of Amin was made; he presided over a reign of terror from 1971 to 1979 in which ‘300,000 to 500,000 Ugandans perished.’

That is the general picture in one line of Amin’s rule. I have never seen any single article, watched TV or heard a single radio programme anywhere question the accuracy of this claim of 300,000 people killed.

First, I am in no way validating the regime that wounded the spirit of Uganda and making light of the Ugandans who lost family members and friends during Amin’s rule. I say this as someone whose family lost many friends and as such, I am not an apologist for Amin.

The military government mismanaged Uganda and set us back decades. It was brutal and many people died at the hands of the state. Amin was erratic and dangerous when he felt politically insecure. Because his English was faltering, much of what he said, even if he occasionally made sense, was lost to derision and he was dismissed as a buffoon (which he often was.)

MASS MURDERER? Idi Amin relaxes at a swimming pool, in Kampala, during his hey days in the 1970s.

I grew up in Entebbe town during the 1970s. I would like to mention something that never ceases to surprise me; the general figure given of the number of people killed by the Amin regime. The estimate of 300,000 to 500,000 strikes me these days as inaccurate. The Amin security services did not go on the sorts of rampages that many assume. They chose their targets and even where they had their excesses, I know for a fact that it would not have risen to 300,000 people.

The myths

First, let us dispense with the myths. The story that Amin killed his wife Kay Adroa and had her limbs sewn upside down was plainly false. So were many more stories, most of the grimmest ones created by Ugandan exiles to blemish the undoubtedly sordid regime further.

Another example is that of Archbishop Janan Luwum who was killed in February 1977. It has been the assumption worldwide that this was one of Amin’s most heinous crimes; the murder of an “innocent” religious cleric. However, we were stunned in 1979 after the Tanzanian-led war that deposed Amin when several former Ugandan exiles told their friends, including my parents, that the allegation by Amin that Luwum had been used by these exiles to smuggle arms into Uganda were actually correct.

West deceived

In June 1977 the International Court of Jurists supplied information from Western intelligence organisations and “estimates” by Ugandan exile groups. It became the first body to put a figure to the number of people killed by Amin: 300,000.

How those estimates were arrived at was never questioned. And anyway, the Ugandan dictator had so infuriated the west and the numbers of the dead were irrelevant; he was a killer, full stop. We must ask: did the Ugandan exile community manipulate the West in 1977 in order to stiffen the West’s resolve to oppose Amin and maybe hasten his downfall?

Where have we in recent years heard of a dictator who was painted much darker than he was by an exile group in whose interest it was to set off a western-led coup or invasion? Iraq. Of course. It might be instructive that a prominent Iraqi exile leader, Mr Ahmad Chalabi, working discreetly for the CIA, provided the US government with information on President Saddam Hussein’s acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and that influenced the March 2003 war.

Obviously, Chalabi exaggerated his information in order to mar the already tarnished reputation of Saddam. That’s the way the West is – its intelligence agencies are sophisticated; the governments and news media usually thorough; the embassies that cable back information on their host country efficient.

But, as many of us have discovered, the west is also quite impressionable and easily deceived. It is not too hard to deceive a Western embassy, as thousands of us do everyday, in order to get visas into their countries.

It does not take much to deceive, mislead, or manipulate the West because officials there do not know much about us and usually settle for sketchy information.

Back to Amin

The date of Amin’s birth has been lazily put at 1925 and accepted by most people, including world-famous and reputable encyclopedias like Britannica, meaning that he died at the age of 78. Amin was actually born on May 17, 1928.

Then as far as the figure of the dead goes, just think about this: for the 1994 Rwandan genocide that was wholly mass and at random, with practically every man’s hand against his neighbour, the total deaths are estimated at 800,000.

How could the victims of Amin’s regime, which mainly targeted its political opponents or people from the Acholi and Langi tribes, total 500,000 or even 300,000? I was in Uganda all those years and I would have felt something about that overwhelming number.

It has been estimated that the number of Ugandans who have died of HIV/Aids since it was first clearly identified in 1984 is one million. I don’t have to be persuaded about that figure. It is something you feel everywhere – in the obituaries in newspapers, death announcements on radio stations, and feel at a personal level with relatives, friends, office colleagues, and classmates dying.

If something as devastating as Aids can kill one million Ugandans over a 20-year period with hardly a Ugandan family that cannot claim to have lost a relative, how much more would we have felt the great bereavement of people killed by Amin’s regime (when you bear in mind that Uganda’s population in the mid 1970s was only 9 million?)

Aids has killed an average of five people per family, immediate or extended, in Uganda. The Amin regime tended to liquidate the man, the head of the family, who was suspected of subverting the regime or working with the armed exile groups.

The alleged 300,000 - 500,000 deaths would have been so much more noticeable, with whole families losing children and cousins to the State Research Bureau counterintelligence agency. Why were many more people not bitter with Amin in death? Has anyone stopped to ask why so many Ugandans, writing in our newspapers and speaking on radio just after the death of Amin in August 2003, were somewhat lenient to the dead former president - and the majority saying that his wish to be buried in Uganda should be granted?

Is it that Ugandans forget so fast? or that they do not and that the number of 300,000 or 500,000 people killed was a gross exaggeration? Would the bitterness over Amin not have been so evident in Uganda, even among children who were too young to have known his rule but who heard stories told to them by their relatives?

It was reported in several accounts that his fifth wife, Ms Sarah Kyolaba Amin, was a dancer with the army band and that her lover, Mr Jesse Gitta was murdered by Amin - and that his head was kept in a fridge. If that were true, what explains the glowing tribute that Sarah Amin – who now lives in London – gave her deceased husband?

On August 18, 2003, London’s The Mirror newspaper reported: “He was a brutal dictator who murdered more than 300,000 of his own people. Idi Amin will go down in history alongside Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot.” But, in an extraordinary interview on the weekend of his death, his ex-wife Sarah said the Butcher of Uganda was much misunderstood. Sarah, a mother of four of the 43 children Amin claimed to have fathered, called him a “true African hero” and a “wonderful father.”

She said: “He was just a normal person, not a monster. “He was a jolly person, very entertaining and kind. I think he was very kind to everybody.” Another interesting side to this story is the fact that when Amin died, a Makerere University researcher, Mr Fred Guweddeko, wrote a detailed obituary of Amin in The Monitor. Guweddeko’s father, Brig. Smutts Guweddeko, was at one time Uganda’s airforce commander under Amin and was subsequently murdered. Yet a few weeks before Amin’s death, the younger Guweddeko had been in contact with the former leader in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The two were working on a 400-page text of Amin’s own account of events during his rule.

It is nothing less than extraordinary that Guweddeko would write an unbiased account of Amin’s life or even be involved in any collaboration with Amin, bearing in mind that his father had been killed by Amin.

In 1995, Ms Violet Kajubiri, the younger sister of President Museveni, told me that while she was a student at Makerere University in the 1970s, Amin used to ask her why her brother was fighting him. This being the Amin that most of us supposedly know, Kajubiri would have been seized by the intelligence services and dumped into River Nile to be eaten by crocodiles.

On Monday, August 18, 2003, two days after Amin’s death, his former Vice President, Mustapha Adrisi told Radio France International that contrary to the general image of Amin, the dictator was not what most thought him to be. Adrisi said that Amin’s main problem was that he was a habitual liar. But, insisted Adrisi, Amin was an easygoing, friendly person who was loved by the general public.

The Adrisi angle

In 1978, the vice president was involved in a serious car accident and flown to Cairo for treatment. It was widely reported by commentators and Western intelligence services that this accident was actually an attempted assassination by Amin on Adrisi. For Adrisi not to bring this up, following Amin’s death, but rather seek to vindicate his legacy, starts raising serious questions about all that we have been told about one of the world’s most notorious men.

We need to get this history of Amin correct, even if we regret and protest the terror that he cast into our midst. We also need to get the history of Milton Obote’s rule correct. This is not to absolve these men of their misrule, but to guard against the dangers of history being constantly re-written.
In 1984, the Catholic-leaning Democratic Party newsletter Munansi “estimated” that 100,000 Ugandans had been killed by the second Obote government between 1980 and 1984. From where did Munansi get these numbers? The US newsmagazine Newsweek later picked up this figure of 100,000 and that henceforth became the “estimated” number quoted by the US State Department, human rights groups, and exploited by the guerrilla groups.

For all we know, Munansi, a party mouthpiece printed on A-4 bond paper and operating on a shoestring budget, might have lacked the means to determine how many people read it, let alone have the skills and capacity to “estimate” the numbers that had died under Obote’s regime.

How can we even be sure that the NRA rebel group did not cause anarchy in Luwero, maybe commit terror deliberately against the population in order to turn the Luwero population against Obote? Cynical manipulation of this sort is not uncommon in guerrilla warfare.

It would surprise many people to know that, as bloody as Idi Amin no doubt was, much of what is said about him started largely as a smear campaign in part by Ugandan exiles to hasten his downfall. Because we rarely read, much less think and scrutinise issues and events, rarely record our history, we are always subject to being deceived; to having people claim heroism for themselves or infamy for their political rivals, and we believe it all.

© 2005 The Monitor Publications.

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