Since Akii-Bua in 1972, Uganda took 40 years to win another Olympic gold medal, another 40 to play in the African Nations Cup, 36 to return to the Netball World Cup. It is no coincidence that such milestones had become the norm under Gen Idi Amin, albeit Uganda’s most demonised president. He created the fertile ground.
Amin was a swimmer, rugger, basketballer, rally driver and a national heavyweight boxing champion throughout the 1950s. Even when he assumed presidency, he kept close ties with Peter Grace Sseruwagi, the only man who knocked him out, revered sports managers Tom Kawere, the father of boxing, Maj Francis Nyangweso and Capt Muhammed Sseruwagi, which greatly paid off.
Settling political scores through sports
In 1978, Vicky Byarugaba was at the peak of his punching powers and his gold medals at the All-Africa Games in Algiers and the King’s Cup in Bangkok, Thailand, were just some of the major accolades he targeted that year. Ironically, Amin, the man he so much cherished, accidentally shattered his dreams.
At the 1978 World Boxing Championship in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, Byarugaba, John Munduga and Adron Butambaki, were among coach Sseruwagi’s boys nearing the medal bracket. Byarugaba had beaten a Polish fighter. But his second victory against an Israeli boxer turned tables.
Back home, Amin celebrated Byarugaba’s conquest of a Jewish fighter in sheer madness, declaring “Uganda’s revenge mission against Israel accomplished”. In Amin’s view, Uganda had finally avenged the 1976 Operation Thunderbolt, in which Israeli commandos humiliated Amin’s army to rescue hostages at Entebbe airport.
“I didn’t care about his [Jewish] race. I even hugged him after the fight…all I wanted was a win,” Byarugaba recalls.
But Amin had other ideas. He ordered the team to return home immediately. Delegation head Capt Kimuli laboured to convince Amin that the tournament had just begun but the Field Marshal insisted “Uganda’s mission in Belgrade is over.”
When Kimuli argued the plane could only return them in two weeks, Amin directed him to take the team to the Ugandan embassy in Paris, where they stayed for two weeks under the state’s care.
“I went to my room and had a silent cry but there was nothing I could do,” Byarugaba retells with vivid disappointment.
On return, as usual, the team dined with the president. Byarugaba was promoted to Warrant Officer II and recommended for more cadet courses. But in March, 1979, he and nine others failed to go to Omdurman, Sudan, for military courses as the anti-Amin war intensified. Amin was toppled the following month.
After the Belgrade heartbreak, Byarugaba won gold at the All-Africa Games in Algiers. But even there, Amin threw his long political jab at the Britons. Team Uganda left Kampala smartly clad in their national attire. But at the airport, Byarugaba remembers, an army officer gave each member 10 white T-shirts labelled ‘Conqueror of the British Empire’ with that picture in which Whites were carrying Amin. When Malawi’s British coach saw this, he stormed out of the dining room, never to have breakfast there again.
Amin wasn’t done. From Algiers, Byarugaba says, Amin cancelled Uganda’s trip to the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, misinformed that Israel — a non-Commonwealth nation — was to participate too. Perhaps he feared an immediate counterpunch by Israel.
Man of his word
But none of those misnomers can obstruct Byarugaba’s view of Amin’s gigantic contribution to sport.
“Amin’s contribution to sport was massive. First of all, he liked participating. He used to play basketball, swimming and rally driving. Even when Uganda hosted the All-Africa Boxing Championship in 1974, he was president but entered the ring and boxed with Sseruwagi, the national coach,” he says.
Facilitation is another area where Amin stood taller than his 6ft4. Byarugaba recalls when there was no money for the boxing team preparing for the 1977 King’s Cup in Bangkok.
“Coach Sseruwagi told Amin on phone. Amin asked the permanent secretary [Mary] Ssenkatuuka, ‘who said Uganda has no money?’ He picked the money from his drawer and gave Sseruwagi,” he recalls.
Yet this was not a one-off. Two years earlier, Byarugaba retells, Amin offered his presidential jet to fly the boxing team to East Berlin.
“We landed in West Germany, took a train to Berlin. The plane waited for us till the tournament ended. Such gestures meant a lot to us,” he says.
Amin did not wait for invitation. He was approachable, there was no bureaucracy. He would appear anytime, anywhere. Ahead of the inaugural 1974 World Boxing Championship in Havana, Cuba, Byarugaba remembers: “We were in this gym [Lugogo], Amin surprised us when he came in, did shadow boxing, and other exercises with us. He gave each $1000 [though we actually got $800] for allowances, on top of what the federation had provided.”
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