Fifty Years after the Uganda Asian Expulsion, a New ‘Invisible’ Crop Rises

Fifty years ago, on August 4, 1972, to be precise, Uganda’s military dictator Idi Amin, who had seized power earlier in a January 1971 coup, announced that God had spoken to him in his dream.

The good Lord, he claimed, had advised him to expel Asians from Uganda. And so he did. He gave them 90 days to leave. The next three months witnessed the largest expulsion of a people outside a war context in 20th century Africa. In all, almost 80,000 Ugandan South Asians were forced out of the country. It was also one of the largest property grabs in East Africa.

The stories have been told of how the South Asians were used by the British colonialists as a racial buffer between them and the ‘natives’; the resentment at the failure of the Asians to integrate, and the hostility engendered by their domination of the economy. Amin exploited these factors to turn the expulsion, and the seizure of their property, into a popular cause.

However, Uganda then was still a country where the indigenous populations didn’t integrate much either. By 1971 the number of Ugandans who had married across ethnic lines couldn’t fill half the pages of an exercise book. Today, there are still nationalities that have only a handful of their people married to someone from a community other than theirs. It was equally harder to marry across religious lines. It was well-nigh impossible for a Christian to marry a Muslim, who still faced discrimination then. A Catholic marrying a Protestant, or vice versa, would still need a dispensation from their church to do so – after overcoming great resistance. Even then, one of them had to convert.

In 2022, they are no longer compelled to convert, but the good old dispensation is still required, although today is almost always readily granted.

It all helped clarify that the expulsion was primarily about politics and economics. Beset by growing sanctions and isolation and an economy in crisis, the expulsion of the Asians allowed Amin to undertake a massive redistribution to the people, create a whole new ‘mafuta mingi’ class, and win significant political support.

Signs of complications came early. A large part of what was seen as ‘Asian wealth’, and ‘Asian capital’ was, really, money borrowed from banks. Bank signs went up outside Asian homes in the wealthy suburbs and business buildings. They had borrowed money, like business people everywhere do, to finance their homes and trades. Amin’s people simply pulled the bank signs down and took or allocated the homes and businesses.

A large part of the expropriation of the Ugandan Asians, then, was an expropriation of finance capital. To understand why the Ugandan economy collapsed three years later, one needs to appreciate the crisis that the expropriation of finance capital brought to the regime.

Fifty years later, some of the property that didn’t decay away has been returned to the owners, but most of it has been taken in the vast corrupt system that mushroomed around the return of properties, with unscrupulous Ugandan Asians working in cahoots with powerful political and economic interests, to claim them fraudulently.

Though these are the dominant stories about the Asian experience in Uganda, they aren’t the only ones. You will find the most intriguing ones in many towns outside Kampala.

Tororo is a town in eastern Uganda near the Kenya border. To the far west is Kabale, the largest city before the main Katuna border into Rwanda.

Fifteen years ago, there was no supermarket in Tororo or Kabale to speak of. Today there are a couple. Kabale even has a popular speciality sports store. The majority are owned by South Asians who have come into the country – legally and illegally – in the last 20 years. The owners are nothing like the polished bourgeoisie and middle-class Asians who were expelled in 1972. They are cut from the rough, tough working-class cloth of the Asians who came to East Africa at the end of the 19th century to build the Kenya-Uganda Railway.

 A few of them are relatives of the Asians who were expelled in the 1970s and returned after the restoration, but the majority have no such connections. You will find this ‘new Asian’ in other towns like Fort Portal in western Uganda and in the post-war northern Uganda region.

In Kampala, you don’t find them along the main streets but downtown, in the chaotic and frenzied parts of the city where big money is made from the multitudes who swarm the area.

In late 2019 I was in Tororo, which is my hometown, to pick up a fabrication from a metal workshop in the town. It wasn’t ready, and I was told to wait for a few minutes.

As I sat outside waiting, two vans carrying school children stopped in front of the houses across the street. Out of them stepped about 10 noisy Asian school children, and they disappeared through the gates.

You can walk for months along Tororo’s streets and never meet these children or their mothers. Their fathers are the new Asian small supermarket owners in the town. However, you will never see even them outside their stores. The story is the same in Kabale and in towns in the north like Gulu and Lira. It is a significant change from the Asian community of the pre-Amin period. These are the ‘invisible Asians’. Invisible they might be, but their numbers have grown several folds in the last 30 years.

Looking 28 years ahead, they will be many and a significant business class in these growing towns.

The important question, though, is not where they came from but why they came. The expulsion of the Asians didn’t erase nearly 80 years of their imprint at that point. Like the river that finds its dry course when it fills, perhaps this flow will never end.

In these towns away from the city, and industrial centres like Jinja, the Asian question presented differently. At the close of the 1960s and early 1970s, my father worked outside Fort Portal in western Uganda.

His very good friend was an Asian shopkeeper called Merali. The newspapers and magazines from Kampala used to be dropped by delivery cars as they headed to Fort Portal at Merali’s shop in the late mornings, and when we weren’t in school, riding to the nearby small town of Butiti to pick up our father’s subscriptions was a chore we siblings fought over. We got nearly everything else from Merali’s shop; our school uniforms, groceries, Christmas presents, you name it. Several other families around did the same.

There were about three other Asian shopkeepers in the town, but one of them was a wholesaler, and the other sold tools and other equipment. Merali was the retailer.

His shop had a long veranda with about three tailors. There would be several people getting measured or waiting to collect their tailored clothes. Others just milled around. In these small towns, shops like Merali’s served as the informal square and community ‘hall’.

Later in life, as grown-ups and wiser in the ways of the world, we talked about why the old man was such a close friend of Merali. On the surface, no two people could have been more different. We concluded that perhaps it was because they were both outsiders.

We were from eastern Uganda and the first family whose name started with ‘O’ to live in the area. This scenario played out in many small towns across Uganda. A fellowship always developed between the local Asian shopkeepers and the ‘outsiders’; the teacher from a far corner of Uganda teaching at the local school; the Town Clerk who didn’t speak the local language; the priest from a distant diocese posted to the local parish. The contention over domination of commerce, property, and cross-cultural marriage, was remote.

We left Butiti in 1973, a year after the expulsion. Merali had left at the end of 1972. I didn’t return again to Butiti until ten years later. I would never have been prepared enough for what I saw. The town had disappeared. There was hardly a building standing. Tall grass grew all over the place.

Today, Butiti is back. It is bigger, richer, and livelier, part of the renaissance that several places in Uganda have undergone since President Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) took power in 1986.

But there is no square or community ‘hall’. The people in the town don’t miss it because they aren’t aware it ever existed. Some things were lost forever in the expulsion.

I didn’t try to find out if one of the ‘new’ Asians had set up shop in Butiti. Even if they have, it will take a little effort to find them. Like the ones in Tororo, they are possibly invisible.


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