The Nadir of the Indian Diaspora’s History in East Africa

The sudden expulsion decree issued to the Asian population of Uganda by President Idi Amin in August 1972 triggered an immense humanitarian tragedy.  The forced exodus also was a poignant reminder of the entwined fates of East Africa’s long-settled diasporas of South Asian descent.  To an Indian living in Tanzania, regardless of citizenship status, the events that transpired in Uganda in late 1972 portended ominous days ahead.     

General Amin’s military coup ousted Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere’s ally in socialism and African unity, Ugandan independence leader Milton Obote.  Nyerere was categorical in his opposition to Amin’s legitimacy, referring to him as a murderer at a public rally shortly after the overthrow.  In September 1972, Nyerere’s personal assistant wrote in a fiery private letter to a colleague that if provoked they would respond forcefully to Amin’s language of war, adding ‘sumu ya moto ni moto’: we will fight fire with fire.  Protesting the Organisation of African Unity’s decision to hold its 1975 summit in Uganda, Nyerere refused to attend in the ‘headquarters of…a black fascist and self-confessed admirer of Hitler’.  After Amin recklessly sent his army to invade northwestern Tanzania in late 1978, Nyerere’s speech on Radio Tanzania exhorted his countrymates to crush the mshenzi (barbarian).  Seven years after he precipitated the flight of Uganda’s Asians, Amin fled Kampala into his own exile as Tanzanian troops captured the city of Kampala in April 1979. 

In contrast with the trenchant government line in Tanzania, there were discordant emotions on the streets in response to the tense politics of race that boiled over with the dramatic expulsion.  After the Minister for Home Affairs declared that Uganda Asians would not be permitted to settle in the country, the government Daily News editorialized on 11 August: ‘It is only human that sympathies should be extended to them.  But it is necessary that these sympathies should be moderated.  Hopes are one thing, realities another matter’.  The following week, the columnist Chenge wa Chenge sought to lay ultimate blame for their removal at the feet of Ugandan Indians themselves: ‘They are more worried about British passports than their real roots… Why can’t they rediscover themselves, renounce British citizenship and go back to the land of their forefathers?… For how long are they going to be dogged in other parts of the world when they have a whole subcontinent where they could settle and be respected’?   

Ordinary Tanzanians could be even more blunt when discussing the crisis.  One letter appeared in a 22 August newspaper with the threatening title of ‘Asians Must Change Or…’  It contended that Indians thought it was still 1952, ‘when they were being treated [as] very important people and we, Africans, as common, value-less and as their slaves… They must not keep hiding in their big shops waiting for us to cultivate necessary food for them to eat in relative comfort… If they don’t change, Tanzania might take a serious action same as Uganda’s Idi Amin recently took against them’.  On 4 September, another letter read, ‘I very much appreciate General Amin’s action and his firm stand… The Asians themselves have so far abused the privileges of being given a home in Uganda… Which government on earth will allow a group of foreigners to take her wealth out?’

          Other Tanzanians expressed empathy for the fraught condition of the Asian evictees.  One wrote from Arusha to the Daily News, ‘We all know that these people’s (Asians’) aim wherever they stay is to make money for their own benefit like buying luxurious cars, owning very big farm estates and erecting huge buildings… All of these are obtained from the sweat of true wananchi [citizens]… Amin’s decision to stop these smugglers, as I call them, is good, but the act to expel them from the country is not only bad but also brutal… Is this humanity?… I call on everybody to sympathise with the affected people and feel free to speak out the truth’.

 Nyerere’s castigations of General Amin did have support in the nation.  One Bukoba letter-writer called Amin ‘on the lunatic fringe’ and ‘the most irresponsible leader in independent Africa’, adding, ‘the filthy language used by General Amin befits someone brought up in the gutters’.  A Dar es Salaam resident claimed that Amin needed a psychiatrist.  Another letter vented, ‘Amin is a dangerous snake in the midst of Africa.  His poison will slow down our liberation efforts.’  Tanzanians continued to pile on criticisms of General Amin as the Asian airlift accelerated.  One commented in a newspaper letter, ‘I sympathise with Ugandans who have to put up with his embarrassing, contradictory effusions’, while another offered that no leader in the twentieth century should possess only two years of primary education.  The Daily News on 20 September wrote in support of Tanzania’s refusal to recognize Amin’s regime and remarked simply, ‘This man is evil’.

As national debates swirled around the evolving situation across Lake Victoria, Mwalimu Nyerere continued his fusillades against Amin in defense of the Asians of Uganda.  At a public appearance in later August, he exhorted Tanzanians to ‘defend human rights’, and ‘regretted the hesitation often demonstrated by Africans when inhumanities were perpetuated against people whose races were different from theirs’.  He stated that the expulsion was ‘impossible to argue for’, ‘clearly racialist’, and ‘had the effect of rendering whole sectors of the population stateless overnight… Mwalimu cautioned that such blind measures could easily result in the massacre of those stranded in the country after the deadline’.  Despite efforts to sway public opinion, Nyerere could not bring everyone on board in a region fractured by a history of colonial and nationalist racial discourses.  Christopher Mwesiga, in an early September column, offered little sympathy to those in exodus given his sentiment that, ‘Asians even to this date…look down upon Africans’.  He noted that some ‘chose to remain “British subjects”.  Now then, that the British Government turns them down whose bargain is this?  The Asian has to have it one way or the other.  You cannot eat your cake and still have it!’  In a rejoinder, Chenge’s column of 16 September lamented that Tanzanians were confused by Amin’s rhetoric into believing he was dealing a blow to the exploitation of Africans, when the reality was that ‘The Indians have been exploiting the Africans not because they were brown or yellow.  The Indians have been exploiting because historically they have been in a much stronger position’.  Chenge argued that to end African humiliations, the solution was not to fix the Indians but to fix the system. 

          Reverberations of the turmoil in Uganda were not on a distant horizon for Tanzanians.  The Daily News reported that 100 British Asians of Ugandan domicile were stranded in Tanzania.  When the Indian ship the Mozzafri – carrying 83 Ugandan residents, including ‘some young girls travelling to meet fiancés and arrange weddings’ – approached East Africa in mid-August, both Mombasa and Dar es Salaam turned away the vessel, one of several to be rebuffed during the uncertain days of late 1972.  After the Mozzafri had waited in the harbour for five hours, a Tanzanian immigration official declared that ‘those affected by the expulsion order of Maj. Gen. Amin of Uganda would not be given entry, passage or sanctuary in Tanzania’.  Rasiklal Shukla told the press that he worked for a bus service in Uganda and was shocked he could no longer enter his country of residence after returning from a visit to see his mother in India.  Hasmuk Patel, 23, was heading home on the pariah ship after studying in India the past four years.  He claimed that he had submitted papers to register for Ugandan citizenship but his application was later cancelled.  In effect, Patel said, he was rendered stateless overnight by Amin’s pronouncement. 

          Amidst the dire circumstances for many Ugandan Asians and the bitter public debate in Tanzania over their situation, a 24-year-old Jenerali Ulimwengu – who would go on to a career as a prominent journalist and politician – published a powerful plea for racial cooperation in a Daily News column of 25 August.  Labelling support for Amin as evidence of ‘a crisis of racially diseased mentality’, he insisted that colour had nothing to do with exploitation: ‘let us put an end to this nonsense of equating Asians with thieves… I know many of them who are much more serious socialists than the shouters of ‘saboteur’… To my Asian friends, I would like to say: Be Tanzanians and live, speak, think it… To the black Tanzanians, I would like to say: the answer to racialism is not racialism… We want an economic revolution and not a lot of racialist jazz.  Seek ye economic power first and racial harmony will be given unto you.’  While revealing the naïveté of a young university student, Ulimwengu’s words were a beacon of optimism shining at a time when the region was witnessing racial anxieties and atrocities that marked the nadir of the Indian diaspora’s history in East Africa.  They deserve to be recalled fifty years on from the tragedies of 1972.  


  • An Associate Professor of History at the University of Hawai’i. He is the author of Diaspora and Nation in the Indian Ocean (2015), about the history of Indian communities in Tanzania, and is working on a project studying decolonization in East Africa and South Asia.

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