Amin Is the Clown Prince of African Despots, but Nobody Smiles
By nearly every civilized standard, Uganda’s hot-tempered strong man, Maj. Gen. Idi “Big Daddy” Amin, is the bully of black Africa. Since seizing control of the landlocked African nation of 10 million inhabitants in a 1971 coup, the brawny (6’4″, 280 lbs.) Amin has been responsible for the slaughter of at least 50,000 of his countrymen. A favorite method of execution has been a blow on the skull with a 20-pound sledgehammer. Uganda’s 50,000-member Asian minority were more fortunate; they were simply expelled. Amin has failed to halt an 85 percent annual inflation rate, causing the prices of sugar, bananas, soap and cooking oil to soar up to 10 times above normal—when they can be found. He also has quarreled repeatedly with neighboring black rulers—many of whom consider him an embarrassment to the cause of African unity.
Even so, Big Daddy watchers were hardly prepared for his latest skirmish with Uganda’s former colonial masters, the British. In a bizarre display of power, Amin arrested two Britons and condemned them to death. One was 38-year-old Stanley Smolen, charged with hoarding, and then released. The other was Denis Hills, 61, a resident of Uganda since 1964, who was charged with treason for calling Amin a “village tyrant” in a forthcoming book. In a game of cat and mouse, Amin teased and bullied the British with announcements of Hills’ impending execution, until finally pardoning him.
While some observers viewed Amin’s outbursts as the ravings of a madman, others credited him with a peasant shrewdness for distracting his increasingly dissatisfied public. An ex-sergeant-major in the King’s African Rifles, who was once Uganda’s heavyweight boxing champion, Amin rose through the ranks and won the affection of Ugandan soldiers. Now with the Ugandan army’s loyalty suspect, Amin has turned cautious. No longer roaming the countryside in an unguarded Land Rover, or wheeling around the capital of Kampala in a sports car, he favors a bulletproof Jeep with armed escorts.
Sometimes his bodyguard is made up of six Amazonian women with pistols strapped to their thighs. (Another Ugandan woman, American-trained, pilots his Bell helicopter.)
In Kampala, if he turns up at all for public functions, it is usually unannounced. He moves around secretly for amorous reasons as well as security. He reportedly shares his affections with at least a dozen women, dropping in after soldiers have searched their houses, and afterwards hurrying off with the apology that “as leader of the nation, I am a busy man.” He has had 19 children, in and out of wedlock.
Amin has had four wives and divorced three of them simultaneously in March 1974—Mariam, Nota and Kay. Kay’s dismembered body was found in the trunk of a car in August, 1974, and the official version is that she died from a bungled abortion. Amin brought her four children to the morgue and said: “Pray to Allah for your mother who died in sin.” Amin now lives with his fourth wife, the comely Madina, who is the mother of his 3-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter. Madina, smiling and gracious, was given to Amin in 1971 by her father, a member of the powerful Buganda tribe.
The couple lives in a suburb of Kampala in a rambling two-story, five-bedroom villa. Amin has an office there, a wood-paneled, blue-carpeted room decorated with portraits of Nasser, Muhammad Ali, Queen Elizabeth and newspaper cartoons of himself. The home is guarded by soldiers with orders to shoot intruders on sight.
Amin is a Muslim and does not smoke or drink, at least in public. At official receptions he sometimes sips a Coke. In the morning, on rising, he will face Mecca, say his prayers, have a breakfast of tea and scrambled eggs and dandle one of his wide-eyed daughters on his knee. A typical Amin lunch, prepared by Madina, is a vegetable curry with baked bananas.
In the evening Amin, often dressed in a London-tailored suit, likes to watch soccer or boxing. At the fights he has been known to leap into the ring, throw a mock punch or two at the astonished fighters and then show off his footwork. The crowd loves it.
They know that reticence has never been Big Daddy’s style. Readers of Uganda’s captive press are subjected to a daily diet of Amin—dressing up in billowing Arab robes, donning an incongruous Scottish glengarry bonnet or inspecting a new consignment of Russian-made tanks. On ceremonial occasions, his broad, uniformed chest glitters with an array of skillet-sized medals, and a pistol sits at his waist. In or out of uniform, he carries a revolver at all times.
Amin has survived seven known assassination attempts in the last two years. As a result, he has taken to using decoys to foil would-be killers. He has said his idol is Adolf Hitler (to whom he has vowed to erect a monument in Uganda), and like his hero, Amin regards even his closest intimates, including former wives, as potential enemies. Outwardly he remains not merely confident, but cocky. “God is on my side,” Big Daddy says, “even the most powerful witchcraft cannot harm me.”