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 sixth instalment of our series marking the golden jubilee of the expulsion, Faustin Mugabe writes that some observers postulate that the Obote I government may have planted the rhetoric that fed the nationalistic psyche leading to the expulsion of Asians.
President Milton Obote was a nationalist, whose rhetoric roused the raw passions of those who desired to see the country cut off the tendrils that fed the roots of imperialism.
He was able to sprinkle his speeches with cultural anecdotes, which he fused into a national identity. A populist figure whose crystal balls predicted the political times ahead of his rivals, he was the grandmaster at the political dais that he was able to knit alliances and isolate his rivals when it suited him.
Obote served as the first prime minister of Uganda after the country attained her independence in 1962.
On February 24, 1966, Obote announced the suspension of Kabaka Edward Mutesa from his duties as the president, citing his reaction to the Lost Counties’ referendum— ordering troop movements without ministerial consultation and seeking foreign military support.
Mutesa protested Obote’s actions, ordering Obote to leave Buganda lands and appealing to the United Nations Secretary-General to intervene.
Attack on Kabaka’s palace
On May 22, 1966, Obote convened a meeting at the presidential lodge in Kampala, and in attendance were the minister of Defence, the minister of Interior, and the Inspector General of Police. After discussion of the crisis, Obote declared that the situation necessitated military involvement. Following the meeting, Obote telephoned Amin and requested that he reports to the lodge. Once Amin arrived, Obote instructed him to launch an attack on Mutesa’s palace the following morning.
The Kabaka called for his subjects to defend him, and many responded by acts of sabotage throughout Buganda, while thousands of monarchists attempted to set up blockades to hinder Amin’s troops and engaged in running street skirmishes.
However, the Kabaka’s bodyguards were lightly armed with hunting rifles, especially as compared to the army units and, two days after the palace was surrounded, the palace was overrun and set alight. Kabaka Mutesa II himself escaped the compound during a cloudburst in the middle of the battle.
“When Obote sent his soldiers to bring Mutesa to him ‘dead or alive’, the king was unprepared. Out-numbered, with only 120 guards and facing the Uganda Army with its Lee–Enfield rifles, three carbines, six Sterling machine guns and six automatic rifles, it was a losing battle. Determined to protect the king, the [royal] guards knew the only option was for him to flee. Rain connived with the royals, as it slowed the attackers’ advancement. Jumping over bodies as they fled, Mutesa and 20 royal soldiers hauled each other over the six-foot high brick walls of the palace. Unfortunately, Kabaka Mutesa landed in a precarious angle that left his backbone injured as he fled to exile in the United Kingdom.
With the tide turning against his government, the Move to the Left was a policy direction undertaken by Milton Obote in the period 1968–1971. Despite nominally being a move towards socialism, it also had strong nationalist overtones.
Obote often quipped that the Asian community were lapdogs of the West, who were eager to transplant a form of sub-imperialism upon Ugandans on behalf of their puppet-masters.
Between 1966 and 1969, however, little of a socialist bent was announced.
Selwyn Ryan, a Political Science professor from Trinidad and Tobago, who taught at the University of Toronto and Makerere University attributes this to Obote’s political instability, suggesting that Obote “did not at first consider himself sufficiently strong politically to embark upon radical economic policies.”
Yash Tandon observed that “Obote has not until recently  been free from the problems of maintaining the basic unity of the country... [he] was always inclined towards a socialist path for Uganda, but for reasons of state and politics, played this down between 1962 and 1968. The second Five Year Plan (roughly 1966-1971) noted the potential of the state-controlled Uganda Development Corporation, but also sought to promote small, private industry and attract foreign investment. There were few genuine socialists in Uganda, let alone socialists with genuine administrative ability. Of these, very few enjoyed the confidence of Obote.”
It was in November 1968 that Obote remarked that Uganda was pursuing a “middle of the road strategy”, one that was “neither left nor right”, and predicted a leftwards swing in policy during 1969.
According to historian Amii Omara-Otunnu, Obote decided to undertake the Move to the Left to de-emphasise his reliance on the Uganda Army to maintain his authority, which had become increasingly apparent after he deposed president Edward Mutesa and consolidated his power during the Mengo Crisis in 1966.
He hoped the policy change would broaden his popular appeal outside of the military and extend it to more of the civilian population.
Ugandan commentators worried that the Move to the Left, insofar as it was socialist, could not co-exist with plans to Africanise the Ugandan economy, since the latter promoted African enterprise (what Ryan termed “petty bourgeois accumulation”) in a way that was incompatible with the planned economy model of socialism.
In January 1971, Obote was overthrown by an Idi Amin-led coup during a visit to Singapore to attend a Commonwealth conference.
Some observers postulate that the Obote I government may have planted the rhetoric that fed the nationalistic psyche leading to the expulsion of Asians. These are some of the memorable quotes in regard to what he stated about Asians.
Obote’s comments about Ugandan Asians:
On the state of Asians in Uganda at independence:
“As a new country, we have got to think in terms of Uganda, rather than in terms of Asian, European and African.” – Press conference in Kampala, Uganda Nation, October 10, 1962.
On Asian citizenship in Uganda:
“This is the first time in the history of civilisation that a great country has come out openly to deny some of her citizens and to strenuously propagate throughout the world that the unwanted citizens are the responsibilities of the small country in the heart of Africa known as the Republic of Uganda. We do not accept any propaganda nor do we accept any such responsibility. We say squarely that these people are citizens of the United Kingdom and colonies, and that Uganda must not be made a refugee camp for the unwanted citizens of the United Kingdom and colonies.” – Speech to UPC delegates in Mbale, December 18, 1970.
On his intention to expel Asians from Uganda:
“They have never shown any commitment to the cause of Uganda or even Africa. Their interest is to make money, which they exported to various capitals of the world on the eve of our independence. They are, however, human beings and much as they have shown every sign of being rootless in Uganda, we would like their departure not to cause them or others dear to them, or even ourselves, any human affliction.” – Speech to UPC delegates in Mbale, December 18, 1970.
On claims that Ugandans cannot run the economy without Asians:
“If their countries are richer than our country, then why don’t they go back to their countries? I refuse to believe that the people of Uganda cannot manage and control our economy. I refuse to believe that the people of Uganda must be made prisoners in their own country when the economy of the country is controlled by foreigners.” – Address to the Parliament of Uganda, April 20, 1970.
On his opposition to the return of Asians:
“One of the reasons my government [Obote I] was toppled was because I had quarreled with the British over their refusal to accept those Asians of British origin. Britain wanted to turn Uganda into a dumping ground. The economic sector, especially the running of the shops, must be the responsibility of Ugandans. Nobody will return the Asians. I don’t want them back like some people have been claiming.” – Speech on Cooperative day in Mbale, August 1, 1970.