1972 + Fifty

That makes 2022, and here we are looking back, from diverse angles, on what happened fifty years ago, principally in Uganda and Britain.  I remember the events of that year well. Professionally I was very busy at the time and had to postpone a planned visit to Canada. That aside, when on August 4, Idi Amin announced his order expelling the Asians, giving them 90 days to leave the country, my fellow lawyers and I didn`t quite know what to make of it, but soon realised that unlike some of his other public utterances, often laced with a touch of buffoonish joviality, this was no laughing matter.

We discussed its political fallout, and wondered how the British government was going to react, considering that the largest group of people affected were British nationals.  Amin`s pronouncement had been in headline terms; a lot of clarification and detail was needed. The UK was thrust into a major national crisis, faced with the prospect of dealing with thousands of people who were going to be expelled. Suffice it to say that what followed was intense diplomatic activity on its part (and by India and Pakistan).  A senior cabinet member, Geoffrey Rippon, was despatched to Uganda to plead with Amin but it was of no avail: Amin reiterated his demand that Britain take back its citizens and that there would be no extension of his deadline.

While preparations were hastily being made for reception of the `refugees` (commonly so described), the British government was mindful of visceral opposition to immigration at the grassroots level across the country. The British Foreign Secretary Sir Alec Douglas Home even raised the issue at the UN General Assembly, with a plea that the President of Uganda be urged to ‘extend his arbitrary and inhumane deadline of 90 days’.  He also asked member states to show their ‘good neighbourliness by sharing some of the practical problems of resettling these unhappy people’.   We do not know what the response was, but that was not all. In 2002, when British government records were released under its 30-year rule, we learned that their ministers had searched for some island territory on which to basically dump the Asian refugees. They were also warned that if the Ugandan action were to be replicated in other neighbouring countries, then they had to be prepared to force a one-clause bill through Parliament stripping a second wave of expelled East African Asians of their British nationality ‘as a matter of the greatest urgency’!

At that time our attention was focused on the day-to-day developments. The countless individual and collective stories of the trauma suffered by the refugees (among them the distinguished academic Mahmood Mamdani, whose account is contained in his book From Citizen to Refugee: Ugandan Asians Come to Britain), the learned critiques, the long view and other studies – all that was to follow, now being reappraised as we reflect on the expulsion. For my part, I was interested in its legal and historical ramifications. How come?

Just under five years previously, we in Kenya had gone through the ‘Asian Exodus’ experience.  The background to it is best understood in a wider East African context. During the lead up to independence, all East African leaders had wrestled with the problem of granting full citizenship status to the economically more advanced, socially aloof and culturally alien Asian minorities at the expense of the legitimate aspirations and long-term interests of the indigenous majority, and while a wholesale immediate removal of them was not on the cards then, a distant possibility of it was not inconceivable.  The UK government therefore had no alternative but to accept responsibility for those British Asians who did not qualify for automatic local citizenship.  The legal mechanism for this was woven into a complex set of laws of the departing colonial power and the newly independent states, on the shrewd expectation that a certain number would stay on and the remainder would leave, if not at once then over a period of time.

In Kenya, the pace of societal change that had already begun in anticipation of independence accelerated thereafter by leaps and bounds.  The constant cry was for greater local participation across the whole socio-economic spectrum and the pressure for Africanisation was becoming irresistible. Other factors were at play too, including Jomo Kenyatta’s habitual hectoring and insulting remarks about wahindis at his mass rallies likening them to prostitutes – see below for his ‘wise leadership’!

Asian small traders, artisans, workers in service industries, clerks and non-technical or middle level administrative staff in the civil service and others in low paid jobs all felt vulnerable and began to emigrate – those with UK passports to Britain.  In the first three to four years after independence, this was happening in a low key and unhurried fashion.  But after the passing of the Trade Licensing and Immigration Acts in 1967, the numbers began to rise and to cause alarm in Britain.  It led to a clamour for a ban on the entry of Asians to Britain by leading politicians and the government caved in, by enacting the Commonwealth Immigrants Act (CIA) 1968, in the record time of one week. It barred the free entry of British Asians from Kenya (and elsewhere) and brought them under a strict ‘quota voucher’ system (limited to 1500 households annually) which resulted in indefinite waits and countless instances of grave hardship and injustice.  Their treatment was subsequently (in 1973 and 1978) characterised as inhuman and degrading by reason of their race by the European Commission of Human Rights in cases brought by a number of East African Asians against the UK government. 

I was involved in the fight against the measure right from the start, first in Kenya and later in Britain, and have written extensively about it (‘The Exodus Revisited’, AwaaZ, Issue 1, 2007; ‘A wrong righted: full status for Britain`s “other” citizens’, IANL Journal, Vol 17, No 1, 2003). The 1968 ‘wrong’ was ‘righted’ 34 years later in 2002, though that could not redress all the hurt and damage it had caused in its wake.

So, when the Ugandan expulsion order was issued, my first thought was about its nationality implications, in view of the fact that the Asian British passport holders in question would not have technically qualified for entry into the UK under the CIA 1968, but then it was confirmed that the UK had agreed, having no other choice really, to receive them on its soil. The formula adopted was to process them exceptionally, under Entry Certificates designated simply as for ‘Settlement (UG)’ – note, not as ‘refugees’, because in effect they were being repatriated to the country of their nationality.

Legalities apart, what about the moral justification for the expulsion?  In his rambling press conference on 8 August 1972, in the wake of the expulsion order, Idi Amin had railed against the visible presence of Indian shopkeepers on the streets of Kampala. His main grievance was that Uganda was not yet fully independent because its economy was controlled by non-Ugandans, though he failed to mention that (as in the rest of East Africa) a substantial part of it was actually in the hands of European owned corporations, farms, banks, agencies and other entities, whether controlled locally or from overseas, nor did he acknowledge the contribution of many Asian manufacturing and other business enterprises employing large numbers of Ugandans. His was an echo of Kenyatta’s speeches and a familiar sentiment heard all over East Africa that made Asians an easy target. That said, things of course had to change; what Amin did was to boot the Asians out without thinking too hard about the past or the likely consequences.

The difference between the Kenyan Exodus and the Ugandan Expulsion was that the latter was under a specific deadline, whereas the Kenya Asians were trying to get into the UK before the commencement date of the CIA 1968. From a global perspective however, the impact of the 1972 Expulsion was much greater, as it caught the imagination of the world at large as a singular dramatic episode. It sparked a flurry of international comings and goings of journalists and other interested parties in and out of Kampala.  From there, the media circus moved to Nairobi, and I was interviewed by Richard Lindley of British ITN Network for ‘News at 10’. I never saw the clip, in those pre-cable/internet days, but was told it had been broadcast. According to my recollection, what I said was that what was happening in Uganda had unsettled the Kenya Asians, that they were fearful of their position, but that under Kenyatta’s wise leadership it was unlikely they would suffer the same fate. Even now however other East African Asians in Britain are often confused with refugees from Uganda. 

At the end of 1972, I set off on my delayed trip to Canada, at the height of a bleak winter, and guess what? When I landed in Montreal on 2 January 1973, an airport official greeted me with joined hands, mouthing ‘Namaste’! This was the result, as I discovered on my travel across the country, of the arrival of the Ugandan refugees. I met quite a few of them – lawyers, doctors and other professionals – who were already feeling at home there.  It was a new beginning for them, but the Expulsion did happen and the rest is history.

Ramnik Shah
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  • Born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. His first book Empire’s Child has just been published. See also www.ramnikshah.blogspot.com

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