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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 January, 2005, 07:02 GMT
Despot planned 'Save Britain Fund'
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News at the National Archives

Idi Amin
Idi Amin: Reigned with terror, ruled by decree
International offers of help often prove a diplomatic quagmire for governments.

When the donor in question is an unpredictable dictator of a poor African country who considers himself the king of Scotland, the potential for embarrassment is enormous.

And so it was in December 1973 when Her Majesty's diplomatic staff in the Ugandan capital of Kampala telegrammed London to pass on an offer to save the UK from financial ruin from General Idi Amin Dada.

By the end of his reign Amin had fallen out with Britain and given himself the title of Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.

But in 1973 he was still trying to ingratiate himself with the former imperial power.

Idi Amin in a swimming pool
Born in 1925
Seized power Jan 1971
Expelled Asian community 1972
Overthrown and exiled 1979
Died in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 2003

Not content with offering to save Britain's economy, he later suggested he could broker peace in Northern Ireland.

The UK was certainly in a spot of bother. The oil crisis had sent the economy into freefall, unemployment was rising and industrial strife was worsening.

The Conservative government of Edward Heath would soon fall and the incoming Labour ministers would eventually ask the International Monetary Fund to bail out Britain.

Documents disclosed at the National Archives show that at the beginning of the crisis, Britain's plight was on Amin's agenda.

Amin had come to be on the UK's least wanted list. The UK initially supported his seizing of power - but he quickly caused international uproar by expelling the country's Asian citizens - many of whom resettled in the UK amid government fears of race riots.

By the time of his 1979 overthrow he had been responsible for 300,000 deaths and the economic ruin of his own country. So savage was Amin's rule that the former British foreign secretary Lord Owen suggested assassinating the dictator.

Save Britain appeal

But Amin also had a fondness for stunts designed to wind up the British government, such as declaring himself the king of Scotland and taking to wearing a kilt. Britain's growing economic crisis presented such an opportunity - so he urgently penned telegrams to London.

The people of Kigezi District donated one lorry load of vegetables and wheat - send an aircraft to collect this donation urgently before it goes bad
Idi Amin's food aid for the UK
In the telegram he wrote: "In the past months the people of Uganda have been following with sorrow the alarming economic crisis befalling on Britain.

"The sad fact is that it is the ordinary British citizen who is suffering most. I am today appealing to all the people of Uganda who have all along been traditional friends of the British people to come forward and help their former colonial masters."

Amin declared he had started a Save Britain Fund with 10,000 Ugandan Shillings (not as much as it sounds). A month later he declared the response from ordinary folk had been overwhelming.

Amin said Ugandans were willing to send food aid to Britain, even though this was not actually needed.

'Send planes'

He excitedly informed Whitehall: "Today, 21 January 1974, the people of Kigezi District donated one lorry load of vegetables and wheat.

"I am now requesting you to send an aircraft to collect this donation urgently before it goes bad. I hope you will react quickly so as not to discourage Ugandans from donating more."

Amin may be piqued at the lack of a response and the still chilly atmosphere...He probably hopes to get a little of his own back by rubbing this point in
Civil servant
Advising foreign secretary
The Whitehall mandarins were not amused. When they failed to reply, Amin attempted to telegram the Queen directly, but it is not recorded whether she read the message.

"Amin may be piqued at the lack of a response and the still chilly atmosphere," a civil servant advised Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the then foreign secretary.

"He probably hopes to get a little of his own back by rubbing this point in," he added.

Sir Alec agreed with the analysis and asked officials there to decline the offer, as diplomatically as they possibly could, in the hope Amin would get bored and drop it.

Peace broker

But he did not and went on national radio in Uganda to denounce the British government for spurning his offer.

A month later he had a change of heart and came up with a new idea - that he could help out over Northern Ireland.

"This serious and regrettable development calls for Britain's best and sincere friends to come to her assistance. Consequently, I avail my good offices at the disposal of the opposing sides in Northern Ireland," said the dictator.

This time, Downing Street officials decided it would be politic to be more gracious in the refusal, without encouraging "delusions of statesmanship".

"As the general's messages go, this is one of his more lucid and, although it is as preposterous as one might expect, the acting high commissioner believes that it was sent with the best of intentions," the prime minister was informed.

"It would therefore seem appropriate and courteous to return some acknowledgement," he added.

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