East African countries enacted law to restrict Asian migration

Ugandan Asian refugees arrive at Stansted Airport in Essex, Britain, on September 18, 1972, after their expulsion by the Idi Amin government. Photo | File

What you need to know:

  • This month, 50 years ago, hundreds of Asians expelled by Idi Amin’s government flew out from Entebbe International Airport to seek new opportunities mainly in the United Kingdom and Canada.  In this 16th instalment of our series marking the golden jubilee of the expulsion, Faustin Mugabe analyses how East African countries under the British colonialists mooted laws to restrict Asian migration into the region.

When a few Ugandan soldiers returned from the ruins of the devastating Second World War, they were aroused by the degree of oppression that the rest of Europe had been subjected to by the Nazis in Germany and Fascists in Italy.

This sense of injustice became the spark for the Buganda riots in 1945 where among others the protesters demanded the right to gin cotton and to sell agricultural produce without going through middlemen as well as exporting cotton and coffee, which was a preserve of the Europeans and Indian businessmen, who served as the middlemen for the British trading firms.

There was antipathy towards the privileged Ugandan Asians as they were accused of demeaning Ugandan workers and traders. Ugandans demanded the Ugandan Asians viewed as interlopers alongside their puppet masters—the British imperialists to leave immediately. Because the British colonialists also feared competition from the Asians merchants, the colonial governments in the Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika (Tanzania) began mulling plans to enact a law to restrict the immigration of Asians into the three East African countries. 

 The Immigration Bills 1946 was also meant to expel Indians in East Africa, a decision, which worried the Indian government. The Indian government sent a delegation to probe the matter and halt the expulsion as well as implore the East African leaders to continue allowing Indian immigrants into their countries. The delegation left Delhi, the capital of India by air on August 21, 1946 and reached Nairobi, Kenya on August 27, 1946. The delegation started the enquiry work on September 1, 1946, and returned to India on September 24, 1946 after 22 days in East Africa. The report was published in India on October 13, 1946.

On page 13 of the report, it observes: “The governments of Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, and Zanzibar have now introduced Bills in their respective legislatures to impose permanent restrictions of a drastic nature on immigration into these territories. The Bills are identical for all the territories with but one or two minor details.”

As the justification to enforce the new restrictions, the report further stated, “The danger of an influx of displaced persons from southern Europe and consequent risk of introducing an alien element as well as of lowering standards of living, the need for protection of Africans and of existing non-African residents of the territories from unemployment, the growing hostility of Africans towards Indians, the large increase of Indian population and the high birth rate amongst them.”

Commenting about the Indo-African relations, on page 19, the report states: “As regards Indo-African relations generally, we were told that certain interested parties were carrying out a campaign of vilification against Indians with the objective of setting Africans up against Indians. We do not know how far this is true…”

On the same page, the report also quotes Mr Creech Jones, the Under Secretary of State of Colonies, to have said: “It has become significant to me as I have gone round the country that the Africans are beginning to appreciate that the Indians are becoming a menace to them.”

The report further observed that “Africans are becoming politically conscious, especially in Uganda and Kenya and are naturally suspicious of outside influence. There is some economic conflict between Africans and Indians particularly in the sphere of petty trade in Kenya”.

Although the report mentions the trend to be largely in Kenya, it was perhaps in the same proportion in Uganda.

The report concluded: “We hope that full weight is given by the governments of East Africa to the considerations that have been put forward by us against the Bills. This is all the more necessary in view of the assurances given to us by those governments that they do not desire to discriminate unfairly against Indians.” While the law was enacted, it was toned down through amendments after the Indian delegation met with Ugandan government officials.