Kibedi: Story of a man who was misunderstood

Wanume Kibedi (left) with His Highness the Aga Khan in Kampala in February 1972. COURTESY PHOTO

At his office at the National Citizenship and Immigration Board, ministry of Immigration, in January/February 2012, I felt myself to be in the presence of one of the great post-independence generation of Uganda’s leaders – so educated, sophisticated and humane.

He credited his faith, family, and friends for his survival. He recalled several leaders from the Asian community – Abdul Shamji Gomba, Jayant Madhvani, Malik Kassim-Lakha, Sadru Jamal, Asger Manek at Hunter and Grieg’s.

He showed particular pride in meeting the Aga Khan in February 1972 and gave me a picture with him, as also with the Giant of industrialisation in Uganda, Jayant Madhvani. He said my book should qualify for national and academic awards. The draft below was fully cleared with him:

In his own words
“I was in Guyana for a Non-Aligned conference when the expulsion was announced. Guyana is like eight hours behind Uganda. When I woke up, I was swarmed by reporters asking me ‘what was this announcement from your president a few hours ago about expelling the Asians?’

So that’s how I heard about the president’s expulsion order. I learnt later his explanation that he had had a dream in which God had instructed him to expel the Asians. Possibly, but Amin was clear in his mind that the British were never going to hasten up the voucher backlogs and Asian domination of the economy was something he was not going to tolerate.
I was at that time 18 months into being Uganda’s Foreign Affairs minister, at only 30-years-old.

The cabinet was very professional, with only one soldier in it – Lt Col Obiter Gama, as the minister of Internal Affairs. The cabinet discussions were casual. The “Asian Question” was often brought up in the context of the negotiations with the UK government on their voucher system and Uganda’s efforts to bring Africans into the business sector.

In December 1971, Amin had called the Asian conference as a part of his consultations. Defence minister Oboth-Ofumbi presided. Asian leaders presented several memoranda. Amin hosted a lunch and then in the closing session just lashed out at them for their deplorable business ethics.
It fell on me as the Foreign minister to explain Amin’s expulsion policy to the outside world. I said from day one that British Asians were Britain’s responsibility and Britain had been foot-dragging.

When their papers accused us of racism, I shot back to them that the whole crisis was triggered in the first place by their refusal to admit Asians to their shores because they were brown, while they coddle up to Rhodesia and South Africa. I did advise Amin that expelling citizens was not legal, so he called the verification exercise. It was in some cases a sham exercise, yet at the last week of the deadline there were around 5-6,000 Asians whose citizenship was granted.

Things began to get out of hand in Uganda after the Asians left. Lots of my close friends began to disappear. I discussed my chances with my two best friends – Engineer Zikusoka and Edward Rugumayo.

In effect, they were in the same boat. I was on the horns of a dilemma: If I absconded, my family would be victimised; if I stayed and worked with Amin I would be tainted by his deeds forever. Had I stayed I could have asked for any Asian property that I wanted – the Nile Brewery, for example, where I was a director, the best Asian home on Kololo, the Asian limousines which were being distributed to all and sundry. It was a free-for-all. You just asked and Amin gave. He himself wasn’t interested in those properties.

I was at Nairobi in January 1973 when I just stayed put. I managed to get my wife and two children across and then I sent in my resignation. Amin took reprisals against my mother and my sister, his wife Maria (also known as Sarah).

He put her under house arrest for three years and didn’t allow even her children to visit her. My brother who was a pilot in the air force was dismissed from his job, so was another brother who was the managing director of the State Trading Board. A third brother managed to escape to Norway.

I spent a whole year looking for a country to settle in. I went to Somalia where the president himself, Siad Barre, was a friend. Barre called up Amin. The story got out on Radio Uganda and I had to leave Somalia.

Kenya wouldn’t take me as they wanted to maintain good relations with Amin. After all, Amin was a hero in the region for snubbing the British by expelling the Asians.

I ended up in France. Ambassador Paulo Muwanga got me into Britain through the British ambassador. I obtained a teaching job at the College of Law at Lancaster Gate. My salary was 3,000 pounds per annum of which I paid 1,000 pounds in taxes and social security. It was a “dying wage.”

Still I was lucky: In those days advertisements for jobs in UK came with a final note: Non-Whites need not apply. I contacted Abdul Shamji (Gomba) at his office in Park Lane. Abdul said I could come and work for him, but I said I wanted to set up my own law practice.

He wrote me a note to his bank manager introducing me. I convinced the bank manager to make me a loan: One 1,000 pounds. So Abdul came to my rescue twice. The first time was when he sold me my first car when I returned to Uganda from studies. It was a Toyota Corolla.

I took great satisfaction at the fall of Amin and Obote II. President Museveni assigned me as Uganda’s representative to the UN. I finally returned to Uganda in 2009 after resuming my legal practice in London. I was appointed to this office. Implementing the new Uganda’s immigration policies falls in my docket.

How ironical that some Uganda Asians think I did the expulsion, when now I am in charge of admitting every month hundreds of Indians to Uganda! I’d be very happy if the incomers included more original Uganda Asians whom (laughs) I had expelled!”

Dr Jamal Vali is a Ugandan of Asian origin and an economist