Far From Thought: Tanzania And Idi Amin’s Asian Expulsions, August/September 1972

When news first arrived in Tanzania on 5 August 1972 that Idi Amin had given all Indians holding British passports ninety days to leave Uganda, it was met with a strange mixture of popular approval and official detachment. Many admired Amin’s actions, and openly hoped that similar steps would be taken in Tanzania. Regions such as Tabora that had been hostile to the intrusions of the ujamaa village program in particular had already compared Julius Nyerere unfavorably to the more laissez-faire Amin, and met the expulsion announcement with jubilation.[1] One supportive Dar es Salaam resident explained that Asians in Tanzania ‘still think that 1972 is the same with 1952, when they were being treated the second very important people and we, Africans, as common, valueless and as slaves.’[2] Yet the rank racialism of Amin’s expulsions—which progressed to include Asians holding Tanzanian, Kenyan, Rwandan, and Zairean passports on 14 August; and most notoriously to include Asians holding Ugandan passports on 19 August (though this was rescinded three days later)—posed a grave ideological and political challenge to Nyerere’s anti-racialist vision of East Africa.

In the previous year, Nyerere had approved legislation that nationalized all unoccupied residential housing valued at over 100,000 shillings, which overwhelmingly affected Asian landlords and property investors. Designed to lance the boil of popular anti-Asian sentiment that had been building during Tanzania’s first decade of independence, the plainly racialist effects of housing nationalization could be justified by its colour-blind, socialist motives of ending the exploitative capitalist practice of ‘landlordism’.[3] Yet Amin had also tried, albeit in far more desultory and crude fashion, to justify his Asian expulsions on grounds of economic justice, fighting the saboteurs and hoarders who had for too long held Uganda’s economy hostage.

Revisiting Tanzania’s official reactions fifty years later, what is most striking is the silence and evasiveness that initially met Amin’s outrageous pronouncements. Nyerere, along with his ally Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, then remained the lone African heads of state who still refused to recognize Amin’s government, which had come to power through a coup over eighteen months earlier and quickly established a record of outlandish human rights abuses. Nyerere’s public denouncements of Amin were a weekly and sometimes daily occurrence. When the Asian expulsions were first announced, Nyerere was in the north touring villages in Lake Region near Mwanza, extoling both modern agricultural methods as well as ujamaa villages, having earlier visited the west of the country to inaugurate ‘Operation Kigoma’, a villagization project that would relocate 14,000 families to 35 ujamaa villages.[4] Employing state power to relocate people in the national interest was not among the principles in dispute. Yet Amin’s expulsion orders created specific policy decisions that Tanzania would soon have to face.

Events quickly followed. On 8 August, Kenya declared that it would seal its frontier and bar entry to expelled Ugandan Asians, as Vice President Daniel Arap Moi promised to mount ‘maximum border patrols’ to ensure that Kenya would not become a ‘dumping ground’.[5] Fearing that it too might become a destination, the following day Tanzania’s Minister of Home Affairs, Saidi Maswanya, declared that Ugandan Asians ‘are not our responsibility, and therefore allowing them to settle or giving them refuge was far from thought’.  [6] While letters to the Daily News debated the moral merits of Amin’s decision and the plight of Ugandan Asian refugees, Tanzania’s Swahili-language press limited itself to straight news reporting and offered no editorial commentary. Tanzania continued to follow Kenya’s lead in policy if not in rhetoric. Several days after Amin’s proclamation, the Indian liner Mozzafri arrived at Mombasa with 83 British passport-carrying Asians destined for Uganda. After a brief stand-off, the Kenyan government turned the ship away. When the ship arrived in Dar es Salaam on 17 August, the Uganda-bound Asians were once again refused entry to even temporarily disembark.[7] The event was repeated nearly two weeks later, when the Karanja, another Indian ship carrying Ugandan-bound Asians, was refused permission to land in Mombasa and, subsequently again, in Dar es Salaam.[8]

The racial populism unleashed by Amin was happily taken up in Kenya. Martin Shikuku, Kenya’s Minister of Home Affairs, celebrated Amin’s ‘timely and wise decision to give the Ugandans the right to control their economy,’ and used the occasion to warn Kenyan Asians to stop ‘sabotaging the country’s economy’.[9] Speaking in more measured terms without mentioning Amin, President Jomo Kenyatta similarly warned Asians to stop their ‘economic sabotage’ at a mass assembly in Mombasa. He received the most raucous applause when he stated that if Asians did not know how to pack up their belongings, ‘we will help them to pack and put them in the ships or aircraft’.[10] The Tanzanian government’s public statements, by contrast, were rare and evasive. It was left to a spokesperson at the Ministry of Home Affairs to announce that Tanzania would not receive the Ugandan Asian refugees aboard the Mozzafri, though it would accept Tanzanian residents.[11] After the Karanja was turned away, the government-owned Daily News could only report that an unnamed government official stated that Tanzania’s policy towards ‘Asians holding British passports was very clear.’[12]

Julius Nyerere made no public comment on the expulsion for over two weeks, and instead busied himself with a subsequent rural tour in which he exhorted villagers to work hard in nation-building while condemning laziness and loitering.[13] Only after Amin ordered the expulsion of Asians bearing Ugandan passports did Nyerere publicly address the matter. Speaking at the opening of the ‘House of Revolution’, a room recently constructed with North Korean assistance at the College of National Education in Dar es Salaam, Nyerere regretted ‘the hesitation often demonstrated by Africans when inhumanities were perpetrated against people whose races were different from theirs’, and called Amin’s decision indefensible. He cautioned that Amin’s ‘blind measures could easily result in the massacre of those stranded in the country after the deadline’.[14] It was at once uplifting and absurd—reaffirming Tanzania’s longtime stance against the corrosiveness of racial populism, while giving the impression that Nyerere was powerless to challenge the ‘decisions’ of his officials in the Ministry of Home Affairs regarding Tanzania’s refusal to support newly-stateless Asian refugees.

Tanzania’s Swahili press closely followed Nyerere’s lead. Miye, a Swahili everyman persona in the newspaper Uhuru who was typically eager to exploit anti-Asian stereotypes, instead barely mentioned the Ugandan Asian expulsions in his fictionalized interview with a decisively dullard Idi Amin.[15] A semi-official statement by a ‘special correspondent’ stressed that while Asian businessmen certainly indulged in exploitation, it was exploitation itself, rather than race, that was to be excoriated and removed from the country—for it was not only Indians who indulged in exploitation, but ‘also black Africans, even those more black than charcoal who also exploited others (Wako Wabantu, tena weusi kuliko mkaa ambao pia wananyonya)’.[16] For its part, the Indian High Commission reported that while Nyerere is looked upon as ‘a safeguard against similar action’ in Tanzania, there was ‘evidence of sneaking admiration for Amin’s crusade against the Asians’, and that ‘as far as the Asians are concerned, they seemed to have become more convinced that they have no future’.[17]

Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians in 1972 revealed the limits of colour-blind progressive politics in East Africa’s most progressive state. Appetites for racial leveling were simply too great to dismiss in unambiguously consistent policy terms. The fullest articulation of Tanzania’s position came not from Nyerere but instead the young journalist Jenerali Ulimwengu, who astutely observed the genuine dangers that lie beneath Amin’s buffoonish, laughingstock persona. Ulimwengu called upon Africans to dispense with racialist thinking, and upon Asians to drop ‘these myths about religions forbidding integration,’ and concluded with the exhortation to ‘seek ye economic power first, and racial harmony will be given to you’.[18] The search for both continues.

[1] ‘Popular Attitudes in Tabora, February 1972,’ Ross to Department of State, 13 March 1972, Pol 2 Tanzan, Box 2626, Record Group 59, US National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; Philip Ochieng, I Accuse the Press: an insider’s view of the media and politics in Africa (Nairobi: Initiatives Publishers, 1992), 130.

[2] Letter of Peter Mwitta, Jr, Daily News, 22 August 1972.

[3] See James R Brennan, Taifa: Making Nation and Race in Urban Tanzania (Athens OH: Ohio University Press, 2012), chapter 5.

[4] ‘Nyerere visits Geita Ujamaa villages’ Daily News, 5 August 1972; ‘Operesheni Kigoma’ Yakolea, Uhuru, 7 August 1972.

[5] ‘Kenya to bar Asians expelled from Uganda,’ Daily News, 9 August 1972.

[6] ‘Asians from Uganda can’t settle here – Maswanya,’ Daily News, 10 August 1972.

[7] Daily News, 17 & 18 August 1972.

[8] Daily News, 29 August 1972.

[9] ‘Stop sabotaging Kenya or quit, Asians warned,’ Daily News, 22 August 1972.

[10] Daily News, 23 August 1972.

[11] ‘Tanzania turns away 83 Asians,’ Daily News, 18 August 1972.

[12] Daily News, 29 August 1972.

[13] Daily News, 17 August 1972.

[14] ‘Don’t hesitate to defend human rights – Mwalimu’ by Jenerali Ulimwengu, Daily News, 22 August 1972.

[15] ‘Miye’, Uhuru, 6 September 1972.

[16] ‘Hatua ya Amin yatokana na fikara za kibaguzi,’ Uhuru, 7 September 1972.

[17] ‘Political Report for August 1972,’ JS Mehta, High Commissioner for India in Dar es Salaam, 12 September 1972, in Political Reports 1972, INA HI-1012-62-72, Indian National Archives, New Delhi.

[18] ‘Need to Re-examine mentality on race’ by Jenerali Ulimwengu, Daily News, 25 August 1972.


  • Associate Professor of History at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He holds a PhD from Northwestern University, and is author of the book Taifa: Making Nation and Race in Urban Tanzania (Ohio University Press, 2012). He is author of numerous articles, and is currently working on a biography of the Tanzanian politician Oscar Kambona.

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