Upon conducting a Twitter search on Idi Amin recently, I was amazed to come across a fight between Britain and itself. There were raging tweets against a British Asian lady, Yasmine Alhibai-Brown, a former Ugandan Asian. The tweets were vulgar, disturbingly furious and complete with Internet links to old news stories relevant to whatever accusations the persons were inferring on her. They were in reference to a stand she took in defence of British Muslims in an article in The Independent titled, ‘British Muslims Running Out Of Friends’. She had written about state-inspired oppression of British Muslims by British police, with the tacit approval of prominent UK politicians.
Then there was an attempt at exposing the bigotry of the English Defence League (EDL) by Huffington Post UK writer Will Black in his article, ‘EDL: Marchers and Strange Irrational Rituals’. He seemed to be condemning the English Defence League (a British nationalist group sometimes compared to neo-Nazis). He then attempts to white-wash Britain of any racism, and then finally, the writer throws the entire blame in former Ugandan president Idi Amin’s direction.
Britain, while socially fighting with itself in 2014, still refuses to acknowledge it’s political shortcomings (both historical and contemporary) and tries to find some distant individual to blame for its current social upheavals. Let’s face it. Native Britons can be understood for feeling overwhelmed by foreign cultures taking an increasingly larger portion of the physical, social and sadly, economic environment as well. Every culture is fundamentally protective of its roots.
However, Alhibai-Brown defending the rights and freedoms of British Muslims from harassment by police and the state is a message that says: “Hey! We are British now. Suck it up.” But is that a reason for Mr Will Black to blame Amin for British upheavals? Many Asians expelled from Uganda were British as they left. They abandoned dual nationality after being given the choice by Amin. He called himself ‘Conqueror of the British Empire’ exactly because he chased the British from Uganda. It is after the expulsion that it became clear to what extent Britain had still owned the Ugandan economy but through a proxy - Asians with British passports.
In today’s UK, the issue of Asians is an easy excuse for writers like Will Black to explain away British natives’ issues with British Asians; in part because of the 1972 mass deportation. But what is less understood by British natives, especially the many who quietly sympathise with the English Defence League, is that their feelings towards Asians was similar to what East Africans felt before and after independence in regard to Asians “taking over everything” as the EDL so angrily says.
And that is why I question the lack of any narrative on the genuine African concerns in any literature written by the British on the question of Asians in East Africa. It seems British historians and writers conveniently refuse to face the mirror to see themselves acting like little despots as they forced tough labour and stringent economic conditions on black Ugandans in the colonial and post-colonial era, leading to social tensions that culminated in the mass deportation from Uganda in a justified act of economic empowerment.
Records show that East Africa’s entire economy was handed to the Asian community by colonial Britain who, in a despicable policy of that deliberately confined the African native to remaining a third class citizen in his/her own country (with the white British at the political top, followed by the Asians on the economy, then the Africans as the workforce).
Having initially been brought to Africa by the UK under slave-like conditions, it would have been appropriate for the Asian economic migrants to maybe return home after their initial work contracts. In all fairness, wasn’t it for Britain to either offer them sanctuary or return them to India as colonialism ended in Africa? The African peoples had remained economically impoverished following a century of policies that didn’t allow them to be part of the economy except as labourers.
From 1962, and after all three East African countries had become independent, there was immense pressure from their people to correct this economic and social system. The sometimes harsh treatment Africans suffered at the hands of many Asian employers fueled the resulting social tensions. In one of her columns in UK’s Independent newspaper, Alibhai Brown, while recounting her childhood in Uganda, admitted that she, her family, and Ugandan Asians constantly expressed hostility and contempt for black Ugandans whose country they were living in.
And if I may put the matter in its proper historical context, all this was happening before Idi Amin. He wasn’t there in 1969 when East African leaders first decided on the expulsion. A decision that only came after Britain refused to discuss and resolve the matter through political dialogue.
Amin took over power in 1971, then did what he did best - take action. Basically, if you forget your wallet in my house after enjoying a lively dinner, the right thing for me to do would be to send you your property, right? I would, however, sympathise with Asians enduring the effects of a deportation. However, it was genuine celebrations for Ugandans regardless of what they did with their economy after. At least they now had a fair chance to take control of their economy and learn through trial and error.
And while we are quick to say that the country’s economy declined after Asians left Uganda, we are yet to hear one critic offer a solution that would have helped native Ugandans become major economic actors in their country. It’s as if to suggest that the British injustice where Asians deliberately held the entire economy was the only and best economic model for Uganda. That would have been an unacceptable recommendation!
In the meantime, let’s compare the plight of economic migrants who are summarily deported from the UK every day. If the numbers could be consolidated, xenophobia would be British. Her Majesty’s government first shipped Asian slaves to Africa in far worse conditions than when Idi Amin sent their grandchildren to the West. Britain is now confronted with the very issues it so conspicuously diverted away from herself after granting African independence.
Mr Lumumba Amin is son of former Ugandan president Idi Amin Dada.