On 8th August 1972 Idi Amin the then president of Uganda gave the Ugandan Asians 90 days to leave the country. So much has been written about this episode in Uganda’s history that to some folk in the West this is all they know about Uganda. But what is rarely discussed is the why, what became of those Asians or what was life like for the African Ugandans after the Asians left.
I was a child during Idi Amin’s rule but I have vague memories of what life was like and it is probably fair to say that some of what I know about that time has been handed down from my parents and relatives.
I, for instance, had a rare chance to meet the Governor of the Bank of Uganda in 2009 and learned that most African Ugandans were so appalled by Amin’s actions that they took to the streets. The Governor had been a university student at the time and he learned that Idi Amin had ordered his arrest for standing up for the Asians; such was the seriousness of his situation that his only option was to leave the country.
How did the Asians get to Uganda?
From my secondary school history lessons, I understood that the Asians were brought to East Africa to build the railway that would transport minerals from the interior to the coast. In Uganda the railway was built right across the country to the Kilembe mines in the west of country where copper was mined and transported by railway to the East African coast at Mombasa, Kenya.
What was Amin’s motivation in expelling the Asians?
As far as I can work out Amin felt that whilst the Asians were the minority, they held 90% of the wealth and the only way to ensure equality was to expel them.
The Asians were said to be racist and notorious for mistreating those who worked for them; often grown men were referred to as “boy.” There was also a clear segregation between the Asians and the Africans. Even from a child’s point of view it was clear that the Asians felt superior to the Africans
But it was not all bad and some Ugandans, including my father, benefited from the skills that the Asians had. My father’s education background was in Public Health and he worked as a government health inspector for a while. He, however, felt that he was never going to give his family a comfortable life from a civil service salary so he sought out an Indian man whom we only knew as Mr. Singh.
Mr. Singh was an architect and had his own firm so my father went to work for him as an apprentice and whilst there my father learned about drawing plans and urban planning law. Soon enough my father left and set up on his own and as they say the rest is history. This meant that although we were not wealthy we were very comfortable as a family.
But this was short lived as the expulsion of the Asians took hold on the country’s economy, which went into free fall, leading to great suffering. The railway that had been built by the Europeans and Asians fell apart and inflation rose to levels previously unheard of.
I understand that people’s property was confiscated, suddenly the shops were empty, and you could not buy even the basics like sugar, salt or soap. I remember being at a boarding school in central Uganda called Matale and some afternoons you could clearly hear gunfire. I must add that at the time, I didn’t know what it was. But in conversation with a relative I discovered that there was woodland not far from my school that may well have been used as a killing venue because it was out of the way.
Political turmoil followed and the country pretty much became a failed state for 20 years of my early years in Uganda, and often school was interrupted. But we got through it.
Museveni tells the Asians to come back home
Museveni has been President of Uganda for 26 years now and one of his government policies has been to ask the Asians to “come home” and on occasions he has done this in person. In September 2009 I was invited to such an event in Leicester, when he came to meet some of those Asians that were expelled. He apologized on behalf of the African Ugandans and formally invited them to return to Uganda. It was interesting to note that some of them were from his own village and he remembered them by name.
Some Ugandan Asians have indeed taken up this offer and returned to Uganda. Those who had property have reclaimed it, and before my father died he had the opportunity to meet an Asian friend of his and to hand over the property he had held for him when he had to leave the country.
The Asians who returned have settled in but it is fair to say that in part relations between the Africans and the Asians are still strained. As far as I can work out it is the inequality that sees wealth held by a few and the government policy of offering incentives such as tax exemption, land etc. to large investors most of whom are the returning Ugandan Asians. One such incident was the proposal to give a part of Mabila forest – a large ancient forest in central Uganda – to a family of Asian sugarcane growers.
A new player in town
As the Ugandan Asians return to Uganda, there is a new player in town: China. The Chinese seemingly have more money than the Asians and are competing for Uganda’s natural resources, it will therefore be interesting to see how this unfolds.
Back in 1995 my mother and I were shopping in Southall, London, when we got talking to a shop assistant. It transpired that she and I had in fact attended the same school in Uganda. The presence of Asians in Uganda influenced the Ugandan cuisine in a big way but they also took to Ugandan food and their expulsion to the UK has meant that I can access any type of Ugandan food that I want right here in the UK from places like Hounslow West, Southall, Tooting etc.
I am of the school of thought that says that the expulsion of Ugandan Asians was a misguided course of action as it does not appear that there was a plan B once the Asians left. One thing is for sure; we will never know what would have happened to Uganda both economically as well as politically had Amin not expelled the Asians 40 years ago.
This post was previously published on Birds on the blog