2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the Ugandan expulsion in 1972 when Idi Amin gave the country’s Asian minority community 90 days to leave or face dire consequences. At first, the Asians were incredulous and dismissed his edict as the ranting of a deranged megalomaniac, oblivious to their critical role in the country’s economy. But as the 90 days unfolded, torture, disappearances, death by firing squad and the discovery of thousands of corpses (almost entirely black Africans) in the crocodile-infested Nile became a daily occurrence and an ominous harbinger of things to come. The rest is history.
Celebrations under the aegis of the British Ugandan Asians at 50 Committee (BUA@50) have begun in many countries with Canada and the UK playing a major role. The narratives, however, are to a large extent replays of earlier recollections, now related by the younger generations many of whom came to new countries as teenagers, and are today playing an important role there. The stories focus on the perilous journey from Kampala town to Entebbe airport some 22 miles away, the multitude of roadblocks, soldiers at roadblocks bent on looting and the anxiety faced by the departing Asians who had a legal limit on what they could take with them.
What is sorely lacking in the narrative today is some background on the experiences of many of the elders themselves. As one young woman, Sophie Kanabar commented in one of the many interviews conducted — her parents never talked about the Expulsion. She has no doubt that they must have experienced the trauma but afterwards they must have suffered in silence. Narratives also abound about the first flight to arrive at Stansted airport on 17 September 1972 and the speedy establishment of the Uganda Resettlement Board. Within a month, 63 civil society organisations were mobilised across the country and 16 disused military barracks were requisitioned in England, Scotland, and Wales as transit camps for some 28,606 refugees.
There are also the narratives of the children and grandchildren of white Britons involved in the resettlement process. Many of these are very heart-warming and BUA@50 is committed to using these interviews for a broader educational purpose in the schools of the United Kingdom. With a clear curricular vision and a sound pedagogic strategy, the oral materials will contribute to today’s youth gaining a deeper understanding of the complexities of migration and may inculcate in them a sense of compassion for other refugees.
Some narratives capture the racism they faced as children in Britain. Ironically, Leicester placed an advert in a Ugandan daily warning Asians not to think of settling there, as that city’s resources were severely over-stretched. The current mayor, Peter Soulsby has apologised to the Ugandan Asians for that distasteful action.
Glaringly absent is mention of the kindness of some Ugandan Africans who had worked in Indian households for years and their pain over this exodus. Nor do the narratives speak of Amin’s slaughter of thousands of Africans.
Amin’s arrival on the political scene in Uganda had been preceded by a breakdown of law and order and a gross mismanagement of the economy.
The particularity of the Asian situation in East Africa has been little discussed. Neither is there any reference to those African leaders who spoke up against Amin’s brutality. Interestingly enough, Malawi of all places, under Dr Kamuzu Banda, offered asylum to Ugandan Asians and set up a small committee of three, including a leading Indian jurist, Krishna Savjani OBE SC, who had been to Kenya a year earlier and was aware of the East African Asian predicament. With this dimension, I feel the narrative will have more meaning and may become part of the education of our youth today.
While the narrative encompasses exilic memories and also touch on the racism experienced in the UK through the National Front and their skinhead supporters — very little is mentioned about the Asian-African racial tensions that existed in Uganda. We have yet to interrogate ourselves as to how we treated our African domestic servants and what were our views of miscegenation, etc. Mira Nair, leading Indian film director, addresses this issue in her film, ‘Mississippi Masala’ and challenges the Indian assumed openness on racism, very much on the lines of Stanley Kramer’s 1967 masterpiece ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’, which questions the very soul of white liberal America on the issue of mixed marriages.
The BUA@50 commemoration collaborated with a group in Leicester which had produced three plays to mark the date of Amin’s declaration. ‘90 Days’, written by a local playwright, Ashok Patel, raises some thorny issues of race. According to Patel, ‘many British Asians brought up and educated in this country have a strong belief in equality and are very much against racism’. Iqbal Asaria, scion of a very large mercantile family that was also expelled, feels that such [awkward] conversations had begun in some families back in the 1970s. ‘But Amin’s expulsion derailed the process.’
This is where I feel the voices of some other leading intellectual thinkers of that era would have been of great value, I would still make the pitch that their voices be captured before we lose vital oral history. The compilation Portrait of a Minority, written some 60 years ago, still remains that era’s foundational text. Questions of this nature will continue to arise not only in the diaspora but also in many African countries.
This then leads me to the type of reflection this article calls for. What have we learned over the past 50 years and how can we elevate our grievance-saturated narrative on this seminal event of 20th century Africa and address global issues — those beyond the expellees’ perilous drive to Entebbe.
Uganda serves as a memory of the worst nightmare of the Asians in Africa, with implications not only for Indians in Africa but in countries such as Malaysia, Guyana, Trinidad, Fiji, Mauritius and Madagsacar. Questions to ponder include: does the Indian entrepreneurial role in any country safeguard them from being disenfranchised and asked to leave? Are South Asian minorities invulnerable just because of their commercial skills? Will Asians survive in many of these countries at the lower levels of the economy? Can Asians look to South Asia as a place of final settlement? Are South Asians in Africa ‘South Asians’, ‘Asians’ or ‘Asian Africans’? And what do each of these terms mean in everyday relations with the indigenous people? What do Indians feel about intermarriage? Most importantly what safeguards do they have as a racial minority at a time of massive global changes and the growing dissatisfaction of indigenous people?
The Ugandan expulsion clearly shows that in the absence of long-term thinking, Asians inevitably become hostages of fortune and the demagoguery of unscrupulous political leaders, military or civilian. Populist movements in the West recently have shown that to enlist mob frenzy, a military uniform is not required. Sadly, the military has to be called in to protect people who become victims of such violence. South Asians may need to explore concepts such as public private partnerships and how their commercial endeavours could be more informed with social justice principles. They need to be more engaged in civil society, to take a more active role in democratic politics and to be democratically engaged. One area worth reflecting on is how South Asians can help aspiring Africans learn the intricacies of the distributive trade and make space for Africans within the economy. Asians have a developed commercial acumen and they are able to leverage themselves into the higher rungs while helping those below them.
Second, how can South Asians living in the West leverage their entrepreneurial skills to help the countries of their origin by trading with them but in a more equitable way. Many UK and Canadian ex-Ugandans are precisely doing this today. Greater diversification could be very valuable given Indian family networks and family members working from different cosmopolitan centres of the world. This is what President Museveni envisaged when he invited them back to Uganda to help Uganda in its economic recovery.
Thirdly, what have African governments learned from this experience? Undoubtedly, Uganda lost much when the Asians left. It took years to recover economically. Asian entrepreneurs like the Mehtas and the Madhvanis have gone back and continue to serve the country but at a much higher level of economic activity and with greater foresight of how to protect their economic interests. Some African countries today may still toy with the idea of Africanisation and try to restrict Asian enterprise, but one apparent result in East Africa of the Ugandan expulsion has been that the daily rhetoric of branding the Asians as ‘economic saboteurs’ and ‘unwanted pariahs’ seems to have abated considerably, and as for the Asians, their sense of utter helplessness has dissipated too. They have globalised their contacts economically, have diversified and today are not an unwanted commodity but in fact are viewed as an integral part of the citizenry of Western democracies.
Fourthly, what did the Western countries learn from the expulsion.
To quote Ambassador Mike Molloy the Canadian diplomat who was intimately involved with the Ugandan evacuation, Canada was able to deal better with immigrants from non-European countries. Most importantly, the HH The Aga Khan National Ismaili Council for Canada in the late 1980s partnered with the Quebec Government to help resettle thousands of Afghan refugees in the country. The Council ensured that newly arrived immigrants learned English and French, acquired employment and reduced as much as possible any burden on the state.
At a different level, Ugandan Ismailis who had arrived some 25 years earlier retooled themselves with assistance received from the Aga Khan Development Network and began to play an important entrepreneurial role in the Canadian economy. Given Imamat support at various levels it is no wonder that within some 50 years of their arrival, Ugandan expellees in Canada have produced a Senator in the government, a very successful ex-mayor and a Lieutenant Governor in one of the provinces – not to mention that one of the leading globally recognised brain surgeons in the world, Amin Kassam, is the son of a Ugandan expellee.
Fifthly, what role did national governments play at the time. Sadly, the Asian predicament in Uganda lay at the faultline of mutual abrogation of responsibility for their wellbeing and security by Britain, Uganda and South Asia. Britain tried to renege on its responsibility. African governments by and large did not want these Asians in their countries, and India, based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s philosophy, saw the African Asians’ destiny with the African countries and not in India. Britain to the credit of Prime Minister Edward Heath eventually accepted responsibility and admitted 28,000 refugees. Canada to its credit took 6,000 and this was also due to the negotiations that took place between His Highness the Aga Khan and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
What is abundantly clear is that, in the autumn of 1972, the Asians of Uganda in the words of Yash Tandon clearly saw themselves as the ‘stepchildren of the colonial empire’. They belonged nowhere!
What of the future.
In 1968, when the Kenyan Asians were flocking to the UK to beat the ban to be imposed on them by the new Immigration Act that was being promulgated by the British Government, Barney Desai, a South African political activist then working with the PAC of South Africa in exile remarked:
‘If a political movement in its inception is not also a socialistic one, a minority that is perceived to have all the wealth will always become the scape goat for attack.’
No doubt, he was echoing the sentiment of the leading political theorist of the time, Frantz Fanon, from his famous book The Wretched of the Earth. While socialism may be dead and capitalism in the form of neo liberalism may not be the answer, might it be time for the South Asians of Africa to pay heed to Fanon’s reflections?