Tag Archives: Idi Amin

The Vice President Calls for Ugandan Asians to Return


It was reported some time ago about the trip that the Vice President of Uganda made to Canada to try to invite former Ugandan Asians back to the country.  Disgruntled Asians felt that they were not always recognised as the essential ingredients of the engine of commerce and as investors in the economic development of Uganda. The Asians still feel that there was ample evidence that most of the time they were held in fair amount disconcerting suspicion.  Idi Amin capitalised on that popular dislike of the Ugandan Asian.

The Vice President’s call for the Asians to return to Uganda was flattering.  It seemed to have taken a long time to realise that Asians had significant part in lubricating the economy. Some sources even claimed that the GDP of the country fell by 40% when the Asians finally vacated their key positions in the economy.  There are no figures available to confirm this claim.

What was it about the Asian community that made them so special in commercial terms?  Can they not be replaced by other very successful and often shrewder operators such as the Lebanese, the Chinese or even the Nigerians?  I was amazed to see Nigerians at Hong Kong airport taking goods for sale to various parts of Africa. Now that is commerce.

There were divided opinions on how the Asians secured a grip, if not a stranglehold, on the East and Central African economies. The Asians became the more notable producers of wealth when their main “rivals”, the multinational corporations (the MNCs) were detested by many African governments. Large MNCs representing the trading houses and producers of household goods that became famous brand names- soaps, washing powders, off the counter medicines also became dominant. But they had to externalise their profits to meet the needs of international investors and shareholders. They were also mostly the producers who added more value than the growing numbers of Asian traders but who made up for low value addition by sheer numbers.

The Asians had rooted themselves in the countries of their adoption, namely Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania but also Zambia and Malawi where their presence was probably more acceptable than the MNCs. The Asians were noted for creating highly effective distribution chains, taking goods from the main cities to the villages. The Dalgetys and Motor Marts had no compunctions either. They were the mega-traders who wanted to move profits out of Africa to satisfy the appetites of shareholders.

The Asians were also investing more and more, in the main, but they were involved in creating baseline infrastructure – low cost local shops and housing for the lower paid where as the MNCs, driven by the quest for larger profits were investing in 5 Star hotels, office blocks and manufacturing plants.

However, some of the innovative examples of diversified investment came from the Asians, who were good at spotting niches – fishnets, plastics, furniture to meet local needs.

Since independence, African entrepreneurs have taken over the low cost import substitution industries (toothpaste, matches, writing pens, notebooks) where as the Asians started to move into high cost investment – medicines, telecoms, banks and computers.

So why did the Vice President of Uganda want the Asians to go back to Uganda?  Idi Amin had removed the low cost baseline commerce that the Asians were traditionally good at.  But they also provided informal loans and working capital to each other, a market that major commercial banks did not break into.

In East Africa, the loans that ‘lubricated’ Asian commerce and trade were guaranteed by the Asian mega-trader and not the commercial banks. The Asians had access to private sources of commercial lending or trade subsidies- many an Asian importer or manufacturer was willing to give credit to their own kith and kin; sometimes families and relations who had been set up to share the risks and rewards  through the ownership of the supply chain….

An interesting example of the impact of this form of intra-Asian finance was the building construction industry, which was dominated by the Sikhs. The more successful Sikh owned building firms were also informal money-lenders. They provided trade guarantees and working capital to the subsidiary companies in the food chain, thereby tightening their grip over the entire sector.  It suited the rich Sikh builders to fund the baseline providers of services– the less well-off but highly skilled plumbers, electricians, painters and carpenters in return for guaranteed access to cashflow. In the same way the Gujarati traders at the top of the pyramid were prepared to fund the dukawalla who was willing to work in the villages. By providing trade credit, perhaps goods on 60 days credit, the top Gujarati trader was a) expanding his own trading influence, b) taking lower levels of risk by funding trusted borrowers and c) ensuring loyalty of the trader in the charo, who would not normally switch suppliers. The Ismaili community also had internally sponsored ‘banking practices’. The Ismaili ethic of sustaining the whole community was partly funded by the internal but informal money sources.

The  financing and co-financing practices of the mafia come to mind, except that the Asians were not  ruthless. This is not to say that they did not make their fellow traders suffer; there was anecdotal evidence of traders and suppliers being pushed to the edge where the ‘patriarch’ of the business line was occasionally offended. There was a further factor at work here. Where business was funded through caste-based “clans”, there was also intermarriage. The sponsor of working capital would not fund a business if the owner’s son was not minded to marry sponsor’s daughter. Let us leave it at that….so as to protect confidential information.

Returning to the Uganda Vice President’s visit to Canada to woo the Asians, it is not generally understood that the Asian community’s commercial dominance  in Uganda had been secured by living in the country for over a century, by accepting a subservient role in business compared to the British multinationals that eventually bore the brunt of Ugandan President Milton Obote’s and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda’s “watershed speeches” when they nationalised British multinationals and in the case of the latter also drove them into the ground by failing to run them profitably. The only stable element in the commerce of these countries was the Asians; they were too small to be nationalised and too intricately connected to allow African governments to dismantle them…  Only Idi Amin had the brutal force to evict them lock, stock and barrel.

But there was a further tragedy. Asians who had progressed through trading were looking at other opportunities. They had amassed considerable wealth but the younger generation was not always interested in retailing. They were more interested in making inroads into high value added industries in manufacturing and technology. Their parents had created the financial leverage through success  in retailing but it was the younger generation which was going to move into the higher levels of investment opportunities. Idi Amin booted out potential entrepreneurs who were going to create thousands of jobs through industrial development.

It is no longer a case of replacing one group of departing Asians with another group of Asian people. What may be missing in Uganda today is the cultural and economic cohesiveness which held Asian trade and commerce together but more importantly the delicate interdependencies and the informal funding mechanisms which created access to internal sources of low cost finance and also guarantees for accessing growing local markets for higher value goods. It had taken a generation of Asians to secure that. The next generation is looking at new and vastly different arenas.


The Asian weltanschauung 2:

How did the Africans see the Asian émigrés?


My thoughts are turning to the forthcoming 40th anniversary of the Asian expulsion from Uganda. September 2012 will see the completion of four decades of life after Amin, an initial period of adjustment, but then onwards as hard work, reward and reflection for many Asians like me who arrived in the UK, and others in US and Canada as young graduates.

My title reflects on how the East African Africans saw the predicament of the departing Asians. The popular view was that the Africans were delighted beyond their wildest beliefs. It was a windfall, a lottery and a goldmine for people who always envied the Asian for their prosperity and accumulated wealth which came from ‘two centuries’ of hard work. There was also a great deal of sadness in the minds of the departing Asians. The vast majority of working class Asians had never planned to leave and had always seen their future in Uganda even though their plans did not reflect a real stakeholder status as citizens and nationals with a long-term commitment. Many took the world for granted in which the bus would wait for them at the bus stop until they were ready to climb in. However, the vast majority had no choices to make; they were working class Asians disguised as shopkeepers and artisans. What the African saw in the well stocked Asian shops was the affluent shopkeeper who often practiced unfair trade practices such as price discrimination. Did they know that the people who fronted the rich shops were actually poor people like themselves who were also being exploited by their richer relations?

There is a view that a vast majority of retailers used family members to subsidise labour costs; a practice which also earned the Asian shopkeeper extensive competitive advantage in the corner stores of United Kingdom, the US and Canada! Rich Asian ‘magnates’ have been accused of using labour from the extended family as a ‘competitive weapon’ but also sometimes as a device for  dodging taxes. Most importantly, they used family labour as a protection against industrial action and loss of stock through pilferage. These views actually distract the debate even if there was some truth behind these assertions. The vast majority of under qualified shop assistants would not have been able to compete in the real market place. It is arguable whether they had any more to offer than the ordinary African customers that they served in the shops. The practice of employing the family clan and the extended family to support the Asian entrepreneurs has also been responsible for their success in the countries to which they migrated. There is nothing wrong with this practice; only that it created an artificial labour market that subsidised potentially unprofitable Asian businesses which could not survive in a free market. The same has been attributed to Asian success in retailing in the UK’s high streets. Why does a shopkeeper have to employ staff if his wife, her mother and her sister as well his mother and his sister were able to offer help at a rate below the market rate? Besides, many hundreds of young women have been able to start families and look after their children in the ‘back room’ while the husband and father was working in the shop front?

After the Asians left and large retailing outlets were taken over by enterprising Ugandans, they also recruited family and clan connections to run their businesses and to subsidise costs. This is the nature of successful retailing all over the world; only that the Asians in East Africa were singled out for their success and for not offering jobs in retailing to African labour.


Then there was also the African houseboy, the cleaner, driver, and the gardener and in some families also the cook where religious beliefs about ‘purity of touch’ were disregarded and African chefs were allowed to cook. The concern about purity of touch worked something like this. Such was the concern of old Asian women in the Asian household that the African cook was either unclean or unsafe because he was a meat eater and a drunkard, or both rolled into one. Worse still the African cook could cough or spit into the clean food and render the entire cuisine unsuitable for human consumption.

Such worries about the unsuitability of the African labour in the vicinity of the Asian kitchen or even where they could touch their utensils also worked their way into how the Africans were sometimes offered food or drink. In many households in the compounds or ‘sakati’ where I grew up, the African ‘houseboy’ had been allocated an old tomato tin can to be used as a ‘cup’ for their water or tea. It was a multiuse cup; regardless of the contents and the temperature of the contents. The African staff  were offered old plates to eat leftovers of food. The African labourer had to wash their utensils away from the main Asian kitchen sink by using the tap which normally used for attaching the garden hose. Both sides, that is, the Asian family and their workers were pleased that the African was not hungry when they went to bed in a shack at the back of the affluent Asian household. Of course these practices were stemmed as the Africans asserted themselves through the power of their governments.

In other Asian households the long term African employee had won their respect and trust and they were even allowed to eat and drink from the same crockery as that used by the Asian family. I have to tell you this! Aloizio[1], our long-term African house worker became an ‘enemy’ of our mum when dad promoted him beyond her levels of tolerance and they often decided to have a beer or two to celebrate Uganda’s Independence Day on 9th October each year. Worse still, mum had to cook pakoras and bhaji which dad knew that both he and Aloizio really loved. Aloizio had come to our house as a young teenager and stayed for 60 years. However, he worked with our father on building sites for over 50 years and then was promoted to easier jobs in the house.

By the time we left Uganda, he had the freedom to ‘raid’ the kitchen (as his critics claimed) and to help himself with sugar, milk and tea leaves which he took to his purpose built home that our father had built for him at the back of our house. When we were expelled from Uganda, Aloizio was heartbroken and went back to his village. He knew that no one was going to offer him a job at his age. We never heard from Aloizio again. I do hope that he did not suffer too much.

[1] My spellchecker suggests Aloysius

New publication: ‘The Rise of Idi Amin 1971-72’

The Rise of Idi Amin 1971-72

Mark Curtis, the historian and journalist provides and interesting view of the rise of Idi Amin based on the release of official papers. This is one of the most interesting features of his blog, which can be accessed by using this link: http://markcurtis.wordpress.com/2007/02/13/the-rise-of-idi-amin-in-uganda-1971-72/#comment-15528

Idi Amin remains a central interest in the lives of Uganda Asians. They have always been attracted by the depiction of him as a rogue, moron, comedian and dictator; attributes which were confirmed by his actions and also the reactions to his style of management and the excesses that he heaped on Uganda. However, if he had not been a rogue dictator, would some of his ideals and aspirations met with support and even success? His arguments for divesting the control of the Ugandan economy away from the Asians was never supported by sustainable evidence based on economic data and analysis of Uganda’s real earnings or gross domestic product. But everyone knew what he seemed to have in mind – the dominance of trade and commerce by the Asian community and the visible impact it created as they drove around in their imported prestige cars and their much publicised lifestyles and often, their closed ceremonies and events which were dominated by Asian audiences.

Idi Amin certainly felt cut off from what he perceived as a ‘secret society’ and his speeches won support from his fellow Africans who shared the same quest for access and integration with the Asian community. But his methods were as brutal and horrendous as the results that he ‘achieved’ in his mission to make a name for himself and to win popular appeal.

However, most of the Ugandan Asians have recognised that he treated Ugandans with utmost brutality and left huge scars on their minds and communities. But very few have really understood or even cared for the intensity of Amin’s horrific campaign and the extensive damage that he delivered to races that he hated because he saw them as a threat to his grip on power. There is a need to understand the story of the other side of Amin’s regime, which, when compared with the lessons that have been learnt in recent histories of conflict caused by ‘ethnic cleansing’ puts Amin in the top five of dictators who punished their own people.

The Ugandan Asian exodus appeared to take the focus away from death and destruction in Uganda as emigrating Asians embarked on rebuilding their lives and healing the wounds caused by Idi Amin. But the people who suffered the PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder were the native Ugandans. It is almost certain that most of them may have been able to verbalise their emotional injuries which were easily accessible in their recall of Idi Amin’s horrors, but has any work been carried out to assist hundreds of people who may still be struggling with the deep feelings of trauma which may be only accessible in their unconscious minds?

Returning to Mark Curtis, readers with wider interest in Africa and how historians will reflect on these issues and their parallels in other parts of the world will find Mark Curtis’s list of documents which were originally secret but now declassified.  Please see http://markcurtis.wordpress.com/uk-declassified-documents/

Leadership at the time of need -2

I am going back to my views on Asian leadership at the time of expulsion. Let’s revisit the second question which was:

  • Did the Asian leaders fulfill the implied obligations that the departing Asian community had expected?

On reflection, why was there an ‘implied’ need or obligation? Leaders are appointed as leaders because they are expected to lead. Are they? Really? It really depended on the interpretation of their role by the leaders themselves. In the absence of a politically affiliated framework, Asian leaders in East Africa saw themselves as religious or faith leaders most of the time when they were elected in faith- based organisations. It was also a role which many performed extremely well – making arrangements for regular events according to the cultural calendar, such As Diwali, Gurpurb, Eid and New Year celebrations. Arrangements for marriages, deaths and other functions connected to the rites of passage were also well managed considering that many volunteers were involved. Even the cleaning of the food halls and the communal kitchens was carried out by volunteers – in most cases the paid African workers were not particularly welcome in the communal kitchens, where ‘kosher’ food was prepared under vigilance. This policy reflected more the puritanical outlooks of the management and the members of the organisation.

Were the Asians fully aware of the implications of African independence on their status as non-citizens? It would seem that they understood the meaning of independence more in relation to concerns for work permits, jobs and trading licenses than in the context of self-determination of a people who were taking control of their own destiny. Besides, independence was not altogether a new experience! One did not need to be reminded that it was India that had first attained independence! A few farsighted leaders arranged the odd talk or advisory session during the period immediately before independence of Uganda. One that I went to attend dealt with ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ after the country became independent.  There was no mention to the people they would do well to have valid travel documents for the whole family. It must be granted that if the briefing process was not carefully managed, the leaders could be exposed to risk and accused of creating a panic during the run up to independence.

However, when the Asian expulsion was announced, there was no advice given to people who had been caught unprepared. Most of the leaders did not organise meetings to discuss the situation with the communities that they were leading. There was very little mention of support that could be arranged or really, needed to be arranged to help the departing families prepare themselves for the ordeals ahead of them. It seems that the leaders either failed to rise to the challenge or did not recognise that they had a responsibility. This is the reason for describing their leadership role as real and ‘implied’ roles.

One of our friends, Ranjit (not his real name) was caught in a situation where his British passport had been replaced by his newly acquired Ugandan Citizenship. He did not wish to stay in Uganda. The best option for him was to queue outside the British High Commission and to seek support for his application to go to the UK, a nationality which he had only recently given up. It had become known that the average waiting time before one could see an officer in the British High Commission (BHC) was twenty four hours. So about six of us went to offer moral support and also to queue for Ranjit…and give him breaks.  We arrived at the BHC at around 9 am hoping for the best. A long queue had already formed and people who were joining it the back could not even see the BHC building. The queue was moving at snail’s pace but people were talking, comparing their passport ‘situations’ and reasons for being in the queue, their family needs and how they were facing immense challenges. There was some humour from time to time and also commotion when the queue became unruly. The policemen would walk over to the queue and ordered the people to sort themselves out. The queue itself was very vigilant; making sure that no one was jumping the queue by performing a number of ingenious tricks backed by spurious explanations.


It was early evening and some of us had left our homes 12 hours earlier. There was a constant number of people coming to the queue and speaking to the person in front or behind. Almost all of these people were family members or friends who making sure that their relative was safe and comfortable. Then it was noticed that a particular man who was carrying a large bag with a strap over his shoulder was receiving quite a lot of visitors and all of them were very polite and formal towards him. Every conversation ended with      “So you’ve got everything, all the documents and everything will fine, Okay? Okay, yes? Yes.”And the man would reply with confidence that they would get their entry visas into the UK by noon the next day. He even said to some people that he had already spoken to a Mrs. K at the High Commission and ‘Kai Wandho nathi’ i.e. there was nothing to worry about. Then, a man came to check that the person in front of me was really the person who had his case to present to the High Commission. I asked him how many entry visa cases he was going to present to the BHC officers when he reached the desk. He ignored my question. “How many passports are you carrying?” I asked with some sternness which even surprised me. He replied “Not too many, don’t worry”. “How many passports are you carrying?” I asked loudly. He replied the number was 25 but most were for families with similar problems. I said that how I wished that his services were widely available and asked him how much did he charge per case? Maybe Ranjit, my friend should have asked for his help? He replied that he charged up to 1000 Ugandan shillings or more depending on the case, per passport. I suddenly told him very confidently that I estimated that he had 200 passports in his bag; which he contested with equal vigour. Then he said it was only 50 passports and it dawned on me that my friend Ranjit’s case would not even be heard as we would run of out of time. I asked him how many passports he was carrying for his own family. He replied, with considerable irritation that he was just acting for other people. I then told the person behind me that the man probably had 200 passports in his bag. The word started to spread and then someone shouted “Get rid of the Passport Agent, get rid of him”.


The policemen on guard suddenly realised that they had a worthwhile task to deal with and so they walked up to him, with me, aged 22, looking into his bag. “He is an agent and making money out of the needs of desperate people,” I spoke with great confidence, drawing on my investigations and feeling morally very superior but almost addressing the police. The policemen decided to deal with the easy issues first and said “Misita Seengh, you keepi quiet or I willi senda you home.” That was it. He had succeeded in silencing me with those few words. Then another man in the parallel queue said to the policeman,” Bwana, he is an agent and he is not here for his own family. He is making money…look at him, the evil bastard.” The policemen turned to him and said,” You! You willi not sweayar in thisi q, I am in chargi”. That brought the other man to silence. The policemen and the ‘agent’ were then involved in a conversation for quite some time. And then he turned around and summoned the Military Police van “He is an agent, take him away”. A loud cheer and hundreds of claps were followed by a sudden silence.


What were they going to do with him? It was too late. My intervention was probably going to lead the agent to prison and even death, I thought with increasing remorse. I spoke to the man in the parallel queue and he replied “Don’t worry, Sardarji, he will pay a few hundred bob and will be back in this queue tomorrow.” That sounded very reassuring. By this time it was dawn and in a few hours our friend Ranjit would be back from home and make a case for his entry into the UK. I moved out of the queue and someone else took my place to await Ranjit’s arrival. At exactly 9.36 am, Ranjit was called into the British High Commission by someone who said that she was Mrs. K. By 9.43am, Ranjit was out of the building. His case for an entry into the UK had been rejected. We had queued for over 24 hours and it took 7 minutes to dismiss his application.

How many hundreds or even thousands of people had a problem similar to Ranjit? Did the Asian leaders have a role if not a duty to help the very people who had donated small amounts of money to build the institutions that had given the leaders the power to lead?  Here are the scenarios that a proactive and problem solving leadership might have considered:

  1. Start negotiations with the British High Commission to try to agree some issues in principle. They could have tried to negotiate a simpler method for processing documents.
  2. Appoint a few lawyers with experience of immigration law to work urgently with families needing support. Once their documents had been validated, the lawyers could have been supported to work outside the queuing system since the principle of  ‘first-come first served’ did not apply.
  3. Seek collective guidance from the embassies of other countries to help arrange safe passage of Asian families to their countries.

 It is not known whether any such attempts were made by Sikh, Hindu and Gujarati community leaders. The Ismaili community stole the honours; they were well represented, supported and also funded by the community leaders and The Aga Khan, their spiritual leader. Having said this, it became known later that a few poor Sikh families were offered confidential help to buy air travel tickets.

It remains to be judged by posterity whether Asian leadership had failed to rise to the challenge of supporting their communities immediately after the expulsion. It is difficult to be conclusive at this stage because more reliable information and evidence is needed. However, it is unlikely that accurate information will be available for very much longer. The majority of the older leaders are no longer alive. In the absence of records, an issue to return to at another time, it is almost certain that Asian community leaders failed to lead conclusively and comprehensively. Their communities were on their own, with little or no support.