Inside final days of Idi Amin’s chaotic expulsion of Asians

Ugandan Asians arrive in the UK after being expelled by Idi Amin (inset) in 1972. More than 50,000 Asians were expelled at the time, part of their ‘crime’ being monopolising trade at the expense of native Ugandans. PHOTO/ FILE

What you need to know:

  • Anniversary. In the initial stages of the 1972 economic war, Asians were in denial. They believed such mass expulsion was not possible. But not to the president Idi Amin.
  • A survey from the previous year had recorded some 20,000 Asian-Ugandans. But under Amin’s orders, such Asians were soon pronounced illegal, writes Felix Ocen.

On August 4, 1972, exactly 49 years last month, then president Idi Amin ordered all members of the Asian community to leave Uganda within three months, accusing them of economic sabotage, including acts such as tax evasion, corruption, and illegal dealings, among others.

It all started in April 1972 when some 12,000 Asians applying for Ugandan citizenship had their applications suddenly cancelled. The authorities were said to be mulling over new nationalisation conditions believed to be targeting the 50,000-strong Asian community, a large portion of whom held dual Ugandan-British nationalities.

According to the book, To Those Who Have Died, Amin’s government took a census of the Asians in April 1972, resulting in the issuing of a special identity pass known as the Green Pass, without which any Asians movement was restricted. 

Amin convened a special conference of Asian leaders and criticised them over the business malpractices. By the beginning of 1972, having stayed in power for one year, according to the book, Amin’s popularity had faded and he thought the best solution to redeem his image would be to offer goods and money to both his soldiers and civilians.

Uganda was moving towards an economic crisis caused partially by the transitions under Amin’s military rule, which included increased spending on military hardware.

The economic situation worsened when Emmanuel Wakhweya, an experienced economist and fiscal administrator, quit as Amin’s Finance minister, complaining that all his advice and planning had been rejected.

The Asians soon provided Amin with a scapegoat. Foreign exchange reserves had fallen and public spending dropped. The annual army budget soared from $20 million under former president Milton Obote to nearly $100 million under the new military rule.

After the Green Pass had been issued, Asians lived under uncertainty for another six months. Then on August 4, 1972, Amin called together troops at Tororo barracks and announced he had been instructed by God, through a dream, to throw out the Asian population.

Dubbing his expulsion as “economic war”, Amin gave the Asians 90 days to “pack up and go”. 
 “The Asians came to Uganda to build railway. The railway is now finished. They must leave now,” he said. “…you have milked the cow but you did not feed it.” 

Describing the Asians as “blood suckers and parasites,” Amin claimed that the Asians were wealthy, had exploited the economy, discriminated against Africans and kept their account books in Hindi and Gujarati languages to hide irregularities from government.

According to To Those Who Have Died, at Independence in 1962, as much as 18 per cent of Uganda’s small businesses were owned and ran by Asians.

The entrenched position of Asian traders, artisans and clerks had been the cause of resentment by aspirant Africans not only in Uganda but also in independent Kenya and Tanzania.

For decades, Asians had settled on the East African coast, rarely venturing inland until the Europeans opened up the interior in the late 1800s. For their part, the British found indigenous Africans either unwilling or unable to make up the construction gangs needed to build the Kenya-Uganda railway which had started in 1895.
Consequently, the British brought the first batch of 350 Indian Coolies as hired workers after which they would be free to return to India or settle in East Africa. The Asians that stayed in East Africa, about 10,000 of them, had by 1910 quickly adapted and were enterprising.

At first, the British were careful to exclude the Asians from their political hierarchy, but encouraged them to do small trading. Africans, with little or no economic influence, inevitably developed hatred of the prosperous traders.

As East African countries attained independence in the early 1960s, Asians were faced with the choice of taking up citizenship of the independent territories, or retaining the British nationality. It later turned out that neither option was advantageous.

Fate of dejected Asians
In the initial stages of the 1972 economic war, Asians were in denial. They believed such mass expulsion was not possible. But not to Amin.

State-broadcasters Radio Uganda and UTV began media campaigns. News broadcasts were framed by new tunes and songs. 

“Farewell Asians. You have milked the economy for too long,” went some songs, according to the book. 
However, the broadcasts also contained a string of the decrees, which were sometimes contradictory. 

One asserted that only Asians holding British, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi passports would be forced out, and the Ugandan-Asians would be spared. Yet another broadcast indicated that even those holding Kenyan and Tanzanian passports were supposed to go.

Another said professional Asians were exempted, yet another broadcast screamed “there will be no exemption”.

A survey from the previous year had recorded some 20,000 Asian-Ugandans. But the group was instructed to report to the immigration department and produce documentary evidence confirming their citizenship.

But under Amin’s orders, thousands of passports held by such Asians were soon pronounced illegal, their rights to citizenship were withdrawn on dubious excuses or invalidated by hastily enacted conditions of residence, family relationship and birth.

Some Asians whose citizenship could not be blocked by the technicalities became officially stateless when their papers were deliberately torn up by vindictive officials.

In the end, only about 6,000 were deemed bona fide citizens. Even then, it wasn’t the end of their woes. Amin ordered that all Asians, regardless of their citizenship, would be expelled.

Chaotic events
The expelled Asians were received by different countries, with Britain absorbing the bulk. Canada and India took 6,000 each while the United States took 1,000. Others went to Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, among others.

The United Nations (UN) promised to look after Asians with nowhere to go, and indeed within 24 hours of Amin’s deadline, the UN had organised 12 special flights to the hastily established transit camps in Europe.

The book records that the first group of several hundreds of Asians bound for Karachi, Pakistan, left Kampala by train for Mombasa port in October 1972 to board SS Karanja ship that would carry them out of Africa.

The Asians left with mainly household items that survived rigorous searches by customs officials. Some Asians were slapped and hit with rifle butts as soldiers stripped them of valuables such as jewellery, watches and money. Children too were searched in case they were hiding valuables.

Terrified girls and women were robbed of jewelleries worn as part of their traditional costumes.
The book records that a Shs100 note was found hidden under a Sikh’s turban and it led to him being stripped and made to crawl naked through the train.

Arriving in Kenya, three young Asian girls told the horrifying story of their abduction from the train and how they were kept at the military barracks for days before being helped by a kind-hearted soldier. 

In Kampala, Amin’s soldiers went on rampage. According to the book, several Asians, including a young family of four, were shot dead in the city. In the streets they were stopped and manhandled and in most cases left with varying degrees of injuries. Several cases of soldiers cutting the Asians’ hair and beards with broken bottles were reported.

Four checkpoints were reportedly manned over the first 40 miles of the main east-bound route to Kenyan boarder from the capital by the army. At each, the story was much alike; “The travellers were roughed up and their personal belonging plundered”.

For the Asians who were still in the country, news spread to Kampala from the countryside that the individuals had been kidnapped, only to be returned to their families on payment of large sums in ransom. Traders winding up their businesses were accused of hoarding money by the soldiers who then snatched any money they could find on the premises. The most unfortunate Asians would be thrown into the boots of the army car sand driven off into the bushes for severe beatings or to be shot.

Such was the intensity of the racial witch-hunting, it was no surprise that the Asians still fulfilling provision of Amin’s erratic decrees enabling them to stay in Uganda changed their minds to get out of the country too. 
Some chose to tear up their citizenship papers, and decided to throw themselves at the mercy of the British and the UN instead of facing the uncertainties in Amin’s Uganda

Further Actions
In the meantime, president Amin ordered the Uganda security forces to ensure that the Asians cleared for departure did not remain into the country for more than two days. 

He visited the army training camps in mid-September and the Uganda Argues, the government newspaper of the time, reported that Amin had directed his army to examine possible areas where the camps could be located to accommodate the non-citizens Asians who without specific exemption, would not have left by the deadline of November 8, 1972.
Amin then issued another decree ordering the so-called citizen Asians staying in the country to leave towns and go to the villages and mix up with other Ugandans.

Asian passengers board the SS Karanja ship in Mombasa, Kenya, in October 1972 after being expelled from Uganda. PHOTO/ COURTESY

Around the same time, the president felt that British officials were not processing the displaced Asians fast enough. The British High Commission had kept to its normal working office hours, open to public five hours a day. Amin forced it to increase its working hours to 12 hours a day.

Allocation of Asians properties
In December 1972, president Amin appointed a committee headed by four ministers, Charles Oboth Ofumbi, Emmanuel Wakweya, Justus Byagagayire and Erinayo Oryema, all of whom he directed to supervise the distribution of the properties of the departed Asians. They were to be assisted by army officers. 

By all standards, these ministers were educated men who could do all the documentations of the beneficiaries. However, Amin had directed them to do the work as quickly as they could and waste no time with the registration.
According to the book, To Those Who Have Died, the whole exercise soon turned out to be a chaotic business. There was no list of the applicants and the committee just moved from one building to another with the applicants lining up outside in the crowd to be interviewed verbally. 

One’s ability to convince the allocating officer mattered and the property was allocated right away. However, a few weeks after the work had started, Amin ordered the four ministers to go back to their respective ministries and hand over the entire tasks to the army. 

In effect, Amin’s illiterate friends who led the army at the time got everything in the exercise from then. The people of no education and no knowledge of business practices got big firms.

The businesses were allocated to totally wrong people. For instance, pharmacies were given to unqualified people who sold the drugs whose medical prescription they could not read. Dairy farms were allocated to butchers who slaughtered the milked animals and sold off the meat. 

Most of the beneficiaries had no much interest in the future of their newly acquired businesses and as such, it was not important to restock the shops. They simply sold off the commodities and squandered the money as they pleased.

Throughout 1973, Amin’s administration was preoccupied with chaos resulting from the allocation of the Asian properties. Far from being a cure for Uganda economic ill as Amin had thought, the 1972 economic war’s immediate effect was closing down of many thriving businesses, resulting in acute urban unemployment. 

Amin’s idea was that the Asian businesses should be immediately transferred to Black Ugandans there by creating “Black Petals” in Uganda.
Streets and roads in Kampala suddenly lost their bustle. Shops once well-stocked with goods had been shuttered. Schools staffed by Asian teachers were closing as about 700 Asian teachers were leaving the country and Asian children were to vacate about 15,000 school places. Asian staff at Makerere University resigned and left.

Asian residential areas, frequently nicknamed Bombay by Africans emptied. Garages ran short of spare parts and servicing became difficult to get. The mechanics, electricians, engineers, plumbers, accountants, doctors, photographers, pharmacists and other professionals became few resulting into a steady collapse of the economy and  tremendous social and economic suffering of the people..

The newly formed State Trading Corporation battled to reorganise Uganda’s import trade while Uganda Development Corporation, already riddled with bureaucracy and inefficiency, took over the abandoned Asian enterprises, including a Rayon Textile Mill, Engineering Firm, Soap Work, Biscuit Factories, all of which had perfectly failed by late 1973. 

It is recorded by the end of 1973, commodities such as salt, sugar, soap, bread, cheese as well as household goods and other essentials of the civilian life had disappeared virtually. In some villages, the option was to crush pawpaw leaves and its green fruit as alternative for soap.

Many shops were abandoned by the new owners for fear of being killed by Amin over failing business. The book records that Amin was amazed at what was happening but he had forgotten that businesses needed educated people to keep them running.

To save his image he instructed his ministers to blame the economic chaos on the old machinery left behind by the Asians.