Short-sighted demagogue who played the race card: Idi Amin expelled the Asians 20 years ago. Richard Dowden, Africa Editor, explains why the decision was supported by Ugandans

Richard Dowden
Tuesday 04 August 1992 23:02

WHEN President Idi Amin stepped up to the podium to address his troops on the parade ground at Tororo Barracks in eastern Uganda on 4 August 1972, no one expected that he would announce a decision which would change the lives of tens of thousands of people.

'I am going to ask Britain,' he said, 'to take over responsibility for all the Asians in Uganda who are holding British passports because they are sabotaging the economy of the country.'

He accused the Asians of encouraging corruption and said there was no room in Uganda for them. The economy would be put in the hands of 'black Ugandans', he said. Geoffrey Rippon went out to Uganda as a special envoy for the Heath government to try to persuade Amin to reverse the decision but Amin became more and more irritable and obstinate. Yet he had obviously not thought through the expulsion, because it was not clear for days afterwards whether he meant to expel Asians holding British passports or all Asians living in Uganda.

There were between 70,000 and 80,000 Asians at that time: about 30,000 held British citzenship, about 23,000 held Ugandan citizenship and the rest held Indian or Pakistani. Amin first said British citizens must go, then all Asians and finally exempted those with Ugandan citizenship.

In the end they nearly all went. The government cancelled the 12,000 applications for Ugandan citizenship that were pending and withdrew the Ugandan passports of others. They were given 90 days to leave and allowed to take pounds 50 with them. The first flight left Entebbe airport for Stanstead on 18 September.

But Amin's decision was not such a shock to anyone who had read the mood of Uganda. In October the previous year he had harangued leaders of the Asian community, telling them that in the 70 years they had been in Uganda only six Asian women had married Ugandan men. He demanded that they integrate and criticised them for splitting the citizenship of their families and not trusting their future in Uganda. He accused them of corruption, currency racketeering and bribery.

It was a vicious circle. The Asians in Uganda kept themselves to themselves. The less they felt part of the country the more they sought to move their wealth to Europe. The more of them caught doing this the worse their image became, the greater the Ugandans' anger against them and the less they felt part of Uganda.

Many of their fathers and grandfathers had been brought by the British to East Africa to build the Ugandan railways. Almost all the families had turned to trade. Some, like the Mahdvanis and Mehta families, owned huge tea and sugar estates and were building up substantial industries. Others had become doctors, lawyers and teachers. But the area they dominated almost exlcusively was the retail trade. The shops in the centre of every town and trading post in Uganda were Asian-owned, as was the entire non-state owned import-export trade.

Even in the most remote rural areas they performed the simple function of bartering coffee and cotton from the African smallholders for cloth, corrugated iron and other manufactured goods. The coffee price was high at that time and new wealth was reaching poor parts of rural Uganda. But prices of imported goods were rising even faster, and so were prices in the Ugandans' shops.

Asians had a reputation for corruption and exploitation. They were scapegoats for the high prices but the aim of many of them was to make as much money as possible, get it out of the country by any means and then join it. Their methods were not legal. Some of them paid pitifully low wages to their African workers and bribed their way through the bureaucracy.

Although there were a few who saw themselves as Ugandan first and Asians second, for the most part they did not mix socially with Africans but lived in 'Asian' areas of towns, with their own schools and institutions. Even in bars and clubs frequented by professionals of all races, fights between Africans and Asians were by far the most common. They frequently resorted to racist abuse of their employees and customers.

Amin's decision to expel them was almost universally popular among Ugandans. Only a few realised the effect it would have on the economy and they argued that the expulsion should have been carried out gradually and not abruptly. On the roads to the border and the airport Asians were robbed by police and soldiers, jewellery ripped from the women, their few pathetic belongings picked over and pilfered.

Britain cut off aid to Uganda, withdrew British aid workers and cancelled a pounds 10m loan, hoping to bring down Amin. The Asian businesses were parcelled out to 'black Ugandans', mostly to Amin's military colleagues. After a short-lived bonanza they fell into bankruptcy and disuse. Amin continued to rule for another seven years.

(Photograph omitted)

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