Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Idi Amin in Cardiff

A history teacher at my old comprehensive school used to boast that he was the man who taught Ugandan dictator Idi Amin how to box. Presumably this was while Mr Tim “bend over boy!” Harris was stationed in East Africa. Amin had joined the Kings African Rifles (part of the British Colonial Army) as a cook in 1946 and then worked his way through the ranks. In 1952 he helped the British colonists put down the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. Amin was a keen athlete and with a bit of pugilistic tuition from Mr Harris went on to become Ugandan light heavyweight boxing champion. He was also an excellent swimmer and an accomplished rugby player. In the 1950s he played for Nile RFC.

Amin staged a military coup in Uganda in 1971, seizing power from Milton Obote. Almost immediately he declared himself President. His dictatorship was characterised by the brutal repression of his own people (he was responsible for 300,000 deaths in the 1970s) and the bizarre, often comical, threats and demands he aimed at foreign powers. In 1974, for example, he sent a message to Queenie urging her to lend her support to the catholics in Northern Ireland, Welsh and Scottish nationalists, and the Palestinian Liberation Movement. Strangely enough, she did none of the above.

In 1975 Englishman Dennis Hills, a lecturer in Kampala, was arrested by Amin's henchmen on a trumped up espionage charge. Hills had referred to Amin as a "black Nero" and a "village tyrant" and therefore faced execution. The then British Foreign Secretary (and MP for Cardiff South) Jim Callaghan flew to Kampala to plead for clemency. Callaghan later revealed on a BBC radio show that he and Amin had quickly found something in common: 'Pretty much his first words to me were, "When I knew you came from Cardiff I decided to release Hills." I asked why. "Well," he said, "you have the olympic swimming pool in Cardiff and when I was training for the Olympics I used to come from London every weekend and swim there." And I thought, well that's as good a reason as any.' Hills was indeed released without harm soon afterwards.

The swimming pool Amin referred to was the Empire Pool in Cardiff which has since been demolished.