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Last Updated: Sunday, 24 August, 2003, 00:33 GMT 01:33 UK
My experience of Idi Amin
By Paul Martin
BBC

Idi Amin
Amin was renowned for brutally snuffing out "troublemakers"
The recent death in exile of Idi Amin - the former Ugandan dictator and self-styled "Conqueror of the British Empire" - has brought back memories of a bloody era in Uganda's recent history.

He seized power in 1971 and subjected Uganda to a reign of terror, ordering the killing of hundreds of thousands of people and expelling the country's Asian community.

Amin was finally forced to flee Uganda in 1979 and spent the rest of his life in Libya and Saudi Arabia.

I first met the Ugandan dictator in 1978 - the year Amin declared to be "a year of love, peace and reconciliation" - as a young researcher with BBC Television.

On the manicured lawns of the palatial Nile mansions close to Africa's longest river, Idi Amin was finally giving us our long awaited interview, after keeping us in suspense for days.

Fear

It was a gorgeous, sunny day but we feared it could be our last.

Amin's guards had stopped lolling about and as the interview progressed with tougher and tougher questions, like "Why do you keep murdering people?", the Ugandan leader's features grew more angry, and the guards were standing stiffly, clutching their guns firmly, and glancing around as if awaiting orders.

Idi Amin promoted himself as the
We feared being subjected to either the 'hammer treatment', the 'river treatment' or the 'helicopter treatment'
"Tell me," barked Amin to our reporter David Lomax, "are you not afraid to be talking to the Conqueror of the British Empire?"

Conqueror of the British Empire was a title Amin had given himself, along with the Victoria Cross and the Military Cross, part of his obsession with showing himself equal or superior to Queen Elizabeth II - who had failed to accept his invitation to visit him in Uganda.

But while all this may have seemed amusing in some ways, we (the small BBC television team) were not amused.

We were, as Amin had suggested we should be, afraid.

A British car salesman in Uganda, Robert Scanlon, had been accused by Amin the year before of being a British spy - he disappeared and I had reported he had been sledge-hammered to death in a secret prison.

So I was just contemplating whether we were going to meet the same fate - the so-called "hammer treatment", or perhaps, I wondered, the river treatment - being dropped into the Nile tied to a cement block.

Or even I thought, the helicopter treatment, when people were dropped out from a fatal height.

If David answered: "Yes, I am afraid", Amin I feared, would say: "Well, you've every reason to be afraid".

And if David said he was not afraid, I could just hear Idi saying: "Well, I'll make you afraid".

What David then did, I'm convinced, saved our skins.

He simply fired an innocuous question. Amin's eyes darted to his henchmen, he glowered.

Then to my intense relief, he answered the new question.

Strained humour

During each change of film (every 10 minutes), the reporter would try to keep Amin calm by explaining: "Well, I'm only asking you these things because that's what our listeners want to hear your responses to."

By the end of the interview, Amin was back to his benign, childishly humorous persona.

From his huge frame, he shook hands powerfully with each of us and declared: "It seems to me the people of Great Britain are getting smaller and smaller".

Idi Amin
Amin seized power in a coup
"Ha, ha, ha Mr President, very funny," I recall myself saying, embarrassingly sycophantic.

He was now on a roll - and looking at my beard Amin added: "It also seems me to that the people of Great Britain are getting hairier and hairier."

It had been a tense visit from the start. I had flown in first, clearly, as a low level researcher. I was a sort of expendable human guinea pig, by the reckoning of our editor back in London.

I had been taken to the office of Amin's security chief, who, amazingly, turned out to be an Asian, even though Amin had expelled almost all 50,000 Indians and Pakistanis (the country's main businessmen) in 1972.

The rest of the team arrived and after two days we were summoned to a particular location.

Film surprise

Cameras rolling, we entered a room expecting to be filming Idi Amin.

We saw instead two lines of suited gentlemen across a large table.

We called our Kenyan private plane compay, gave them the pre-arranged code and literally did a midnight flit
The jaws of the men on one side dropped open.

They were a team of cabinet ministers from neighbouring Kenya, involved in what was supposed to be top secret talks to re-establish diplomatic relations after several, tense years.

Amin himself walked in, and made a short speech.

The head of the Kenyan delegation then responded, saying it was an honour to have the president come in person.

"As unexpected", he said, "as the arrival of the international media."

Round one, it seemed, to Amin.

Next day we had our exclusive and nearly disastrous interview.

Next stop was Idi Amin Dada Sea - as Amin had renamed Africa's largest expanse of water, Lake Victoria.

It was, on its shores at Cape Town Villas, that Amin would often relax as he was served tea and gargantuan meals by another of his security chiefs, Major Bob Astles, who, in reality, had once been a sergeant in the British army, then a road gang leader in Uganda, before Amin's coup.

Idi Amin
Some marked Amin's death with sorrow, others regarded it as closure
Astles certainly knew he had to satisfy his master's every need.

We saw him rushing across the lakeside lawn with a tea tray, breathlessly exclaiming "H. E." which stood for the colonial title by which Amin was to be addressed: His Excellency.

While Astles was serving his master, I surreptitiously used his phone inside the house and called a private aircraft company in Kenya, giving them a pre-arranged code phrase.

Sure enough, a light plane flew in that evening to a disused airstrip and we literally did a midnight flit.

We had got the last TV interview with Uganda's most notorious leader before he was overthrown, and, perhaps more importantly, we had just got away in one piece.



SEE ALSO:
Ugandan relatives mourn Amin
21 Aug 03  |  Africa


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