‘Amin’s economic war was popular, dramatic’

Some of the Asians expelled from Uganda arrive in Britain in 1972. PHOTO/COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • The moral disconnect of the Indians could be seen in their effort to bribe Amin from implementing the Economic War.

Prof Samwiri Lwanga Lunyiigo is among Uganda’s foremost scholars, who is keen to interrogate contentious subjects with candour.  As a historian of the present, Lunyiigo’s books wade into combustible subjects in the country, including land in Buganda, the position of Kabaka Mwanga and the sacrosanct subject of the Uganda Martyrs that many authors prefer to keep off. 

Lunyiigo’s latest book—Uganda: An Indian Colony 1897-1972—offers historical lessons that shape our reference and identity by placing some of these subjects at the centre of the national narrative through personal anecdotes. In the process, the author not only guides discourse, he also challenges present actors to beware of the conditions in which they act.

This new book is a historicised commentary to be offered by a local historian on Idi Amin, and the decolonisation question in Uganda. Lunyiigo starts from the point that the British created two main problems in Uganda. These were ceding Bunyoro territory to Buganda in 1894 (Lost Counties) and the Indian problem.

While Obote would successfully solve the Lost Counties question, the Indian problem remains unanswered to this day.

Indian colonisers

Lunyiigo takes a bold position and postulates that Indians as interlopers stood to gain after their puppet masters—the British imperialists—left. The Indians and other Asians acquired a privileged status as sub-imperialists and as the British colonial project receded in the background after independence, the Asians took their place.

But before Amin executed the expulsion of the real colonisers, Obote was the first Ugandan leader to moot the idea across East Africa, which had already gained traction in Kenya.

Speaking at the ceremony of opening Parliament April 20, 1970, President Obote, in his communication from the chair of the National Assembly, remarked: “…I wish to emphasise that as far as Uganda is concerned, these people [Asians holding British passports] are not Uganda citizens and are not entitled to remain in our country at their own will or because they cannot be admitted into any other country.  They have never shown any commitment to the cause of Uganda…  Their interest is to make money, which money they exported to various capitals of the world on the eve of independence … Government … will arrange for a systematic manner through which these persons are to disengage themselves from their hold and continued residence in our country”.

Elsewhere in East Africa, political actors were up in arms against what they viewed as the remnants of colonialism. In Kenya, President Jomo Kenyatta, at public rallies throughout the 1960s, but especially after he set the Kenyanisation programme in motion in 1967, Africanising the civil service and through the Trade Licensing Act, trade, urged Indians to “pack up and go”.  

In 1968, 20,000 British Indians were compelled to leave Kenya.  They established temporary homes in India, with the promise that they may go to Britain later if they wished.  By 1972, Kenya had sent 60,000 British passport-holding Asians away from its territory. Tanzania did the same, and Madagascar also expelled its Indians.

Indians-Native relations

Telling the context in which the expulsions happened, Lunyiigo devotes considerable time on the nature of relations Indians had with the Natives. (He insists on writing Natives with capital N).  Lunyiigo notes that having come to East Africa on the coattails of European colonisers either as workers or fighting mercenaries, Indians embodied a colonial spirit and approach. They considered themselves as deputy colonisers and the British facilitated their elevation and dominance.

“There was virtually no social interaction between Natives and Indians, the only relationship was that of servant and master,” Lunyiigo writes, adding, “There was, therefore, a pent-up resentment against Indian behaviour towards the Native.”  

Natives were only units of labour and exploitation.  This is corroborated by Peter Marris in his journal paper titled Ambiguity and Commitment. The Crisis of Asian Nairobi Businessmen where he records an African subject talking about their interaction with Indian businessmen.

“They are liars, robbers, cunning as hares, crooks, always everywhere,” Marris writes. 
In Uganda, the songs of artiste Christopher Sebadduka after the expulsions of the Asians captures the public reaction at that moment. Just the same way the novels of Ngugi wa Thiongo and Meja Mwangi do.  The insults of the masters did not stop.  “Native male adults, for example, continued to be ‘boys’ and Native women, ‘Malaaya’.” This was absolute dehumanisation of Natives.

Quoting Ramkrishna Mukherjee, an Indian intellectual and author, Lunyiigo notes thus: “The tragedy of the Indians in Uganda is that throughout their long connection with the country, they have never played a progressive role in its life… As a community, the Indians are awaiting the hour to evacuate this country, and in the meantime, enriching themselves as best as they can … without regard to anybody else.”

The moral disconnect of the Indians could be seen in their effort to bribe Amin from implementing the Economic War, which Lunyiigo calls “a very popular project.” 

He adds: “When Indian leaders met Amin on December 7, 1971, they offered him a ‘gift’ of Shs100,000 (around $14,300), a tidy sum those days and thought that they had him under wraps.” While Amin “accepted” the bribe, money which he “donated to families of soldiers who had died at the takeover in January 1971,” he went ahead and executed his economic war. 

72 yeara of independence

Lunyiigo writes that while Amin’s move against Ugandan Asians was popular, the man was not in the business of simply seeking popularity from his fellow Natives. He, in fact, describes Amin as a “raw peasant in uniform, who had suffered like the other Native peasants the indignities of exploitation.” 

Banks have always been at the heart of any economy.  The banking sector, much like today, “was dominated by British banks. Barclays, National and Grindlays and Standard Bank of South Africa controlled 80 percent of the commercial bank assets in Uganda” as per Lunyiigo.  And these banks also made sure they gave most of their credit to Asian businesspeople, who were in sectors hitherto protected from the Natives.  

Lunyiigo notes that by “1966, 43.5 percent of these banks’ loans were advanced to commerce, 28 percent to industry and 8 percent to agriculture. The rest, around 18 percent, went to other sectors… 80 percent of the loans were drawn by Indians who were the ones mainly in Commerce and Industry.”  

Sadly, Lunyiigo adds, even when the “the Natives had Uganda Commercial Bank, Uganda Co-operatives Bank, and Uganda Development Bank, their share in the banking field was less than 10 percent and even, these also lent to Indians.”

Economic pillage 

Through several ordinances and direct British support, Indian monopolies had been created in Uganda. These ended up controlling the entire Ugandan economy, as can be seen from the banking sector.

Lunyiigo writes that “fifty Indian families controlled the economy of Uganda during the colonial period and over 10 years into independence.” And because of this, the drain of resources was mind-boggling.  

“Between 1955 and 1972, there was an outflow of capital from Uganda, averaging around £12 million a year. It reached a peak of £17.2 million in 1958,” Lunyiigo writes, adding that this was “largely due to the non-African business community (largely Indian) preferring to send their earnings out of Uganda rather than reinvesting in Uganda.” 

To put this haemorrhage in perspective, Lunyiigo adds that “by 1972, one of the British banks had £240 million belonging to East African Asians and yet there was an acute shortage of development funds in East Africa.”

As Uganda continues to debate the repossession of “Indian properties”, Lunyiigo demonstrates that President Amin compensated Asians for their properties with money he received from King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, who had become his newest ally. The other East African countries never compensated anyone. 

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