On Point: Why Didn't Amin Rot and Die in Jail?

by Austin Bay
August 20, 2003

He's dead. That's good.

He died cheating the hangman, in exile bankrolled by autocratswith petrodollars. That's very bad.

Idi Amin, the sadist and mass murderer who ran Uganda from 1971to 1979, died in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, shortly after his son made a globalplea for a kidney transplant to save the old thug. What the elder Amindeserved was a transplant to a jail cell.

Amin left a despicable legacy. A Muslim convert, he murdered atleast 250,000 Ugandan Christians, most of them Anglicans, though he hatedCatholics with equal zeal. He also murdered Ugandans of Asian descent anddrove the rest into exile. Amin's "ethnic cleansing" of Asians severelydamaged Uganda's economy.

Amin allied with Libya's Muhammar Qaddaffi and buddied withother Arab radicals. He considered war with Kenya and fought neighboringTanzania. Tanzanian forces finally helped topple him.

He could also practice selective terror. In 1977, Amin's policearrested a Ugandan friend of mine. His crime? He was a Christian and anintellectual. They interrogated him for four days, assuring him he would bekilled -- and other prisoners were slain. Then my friend was abruptlyreleased. He isn't sure why, perhaps the whim of a jailer. I suspect Amin'spolice had a goal -- to terrorize an educated man. They succeeded.

Amin and his goons killed between 300,000 and 400,000 Ugandans,out of a 1970s population of around 10 million. Amin's raw homicidal tollexceeds that of ex-Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic's genocides in Bosniaand Kosovo. Milosevic is now on trial in the Hague.

Amin survived on shrewdness and showmanship buttressed bycold-blooded slaughter. Six feet four with a weight-lifter's chest, he couldplay to a movie image of an African dictator, especially when he draped hismilitary uniform with ribbons and gold medals the size of grapefruit. Hissmart mouth fed the press a line of sass that no reporter could ignore -- aline of anti-Western sass. Amin understood political theater. One day, heorganized an attack on apartheid South Africa. Well, not quite. He had aUgandan battalion stage a mock attack against a village flying Republic ofSouth Africa flags. It got him headlines.

Early on, Amin decided his political power -- like Mao Tse-Tungsaid -- grew from the barrel of a gun. Amin got his start in the colonialBritish Army. He joined the King's African Rifles -- though the date of hisenlistment is uncertain.

In 1981, after Amin had fled Uganda, I met a retired Britishofficer who had served in Uganda in the early 1950s. He knew Amin. Amin hadmilitary skill and was a good sergeant major, the colonel said, but "someonewho needed an officer watching him, you know." The colonel had heard storiesabout Amin's service with the British Army in Burma during World War II.Amin allegedly tortured and killed Japanese prisoners, but "nothing quiteever came of it" (i.e., no court martial).

In the last couple of days, I've read several obituaries ofAmin. They report that Amin may never have served in Burma and that therecords indicate he first enlisted in 1946, after World War II concluded.What's true? The colonel said the Burma story was hearsay. Perhaps Amin wasalready developing an image -- first fear by propaganda, later fear inpractice.

The tragedy of Amin is that he died in exile, not rotting in ajail or executed for his crimes. He spent much of his 24 year exile under "hotel arrest" in Jeddah or living in a Saudi-supplied villa.

Why no extradition and trial? One Ugandan theory argues that theSaudis simply will not let an African Muslim potentate be toppled, tried andconvicted by a predominantly Christian African state. That's an argumentloaded with religious and ethnic explosives, too hot and politicallyincorrect to touch. However, East Africans I know believe it. Post 9-11, itmay not seem so outlandish.

The usual "international human rights crowd" has been slow tocondemn the current horrors perpetrated by Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. Duringthe Cold War, Amin escaped their condemnation because he was"anti-colonialist."

What utter pish. He was a vicious brute who killed en masse andthen retired to a luxury hotel.

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To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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