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Editorial: An agent of death dies / Idi Amin's infamous rule hurt Uganda and Africa

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Former President of Uganda Idi Amin Dada died in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, apparently of natural causes. Although perhaps not the worst of all African presidents, Mr. Amin nonetheless rendered extensive damage not only to Uganda but also to the East African region, Africa and the developing world as well during his career.

Here are the bad results of the work of what has to be considered a true low-life of a leader.

Idi Amin, who had had a reasonable military record in a British colonial army and was put in charge of an independent Uganda's armed forces, carried out a coup d'etat in 1971 that ended constitutional civilian rule in his country. He was among many military leaders in African countries who did that. No reasonable observer considers the phenomenon to have been to Africa's advantage.

Mr. Amin kicked the Asians out of Uganda in 1972. His argument was that they were blocking the advancement of black Ugandans into entrepreneurial and middle-class jobs in the country's economy. What he did, in fact, was an act of xenophobia that set his country on a course during his rule that cut directly counter to the general world trend of globalization, steering it into the morass of international tribalism.

Mr. Amin destroyed what had been a positive heritage of British colonialism in East Africa, the East African Community, a common market and a pooling of infrastructure services that included Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania and was considering membership for neighboring countries such as Rwanda and Burundi. Not only were Kenya and Tanzania not able to work in community with Mr. Amin's Uganda, in the end it was Tanzania under the normally peaceable leadership of Julius Nyerere that finally invaded Uganda and toppled Mr. Amin in 1979.

Mr. Amin's notable human rights violations and responsibility for ravages on the Ugandan population that resulted in an estimated 300,000 deaths were terrible for the reputation of his country and, unfairly but understandably, of Africa in general.

He also blew millions of dollars of external aid that had been provided to Uganda over the years, some of it to build up Makerere University, one of the best institutions of higher learning in sub-Saharan Africa. His behavior has also made it easier to this day for people who do not want to see Africa receive international assistance to feel somehow justified in their approach, while Africa continues to sink deeper into economic despair.

Finally, Idi Amin's end was no better than his life in its implications for Africa and for the world. Idi Amin went into exile in Saudi Arabia, lived there for 24 years with his large family in presumably comfortable circumstances and died in a hospital there under competent medical care, after a long life.

He faced no trial for the human rights abuses afflicted on Ugandans under his rule and, in effect, faced no accountability whatsoever -- apart from exile -- for all the evil that he did. Current Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has said that his family may bring his body back to Uganda for burial if they wish.

Saudi Arabia should have sent him back for trial. Africa should have reviled him instead of remaining silent to the impunity. Letting Mr. Amin be buried in Uganda is probably the decent thing to do, but no one owes him any honor.

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