Reliving 50 years since the expulsion of Asians

Expelled Asians from Uganda arrive at Stansted Airport, near Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex, England, on September 18, 1972. Photo /stock.

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.
  • Framed as nationalistic, the ‘economic war’ plunged Uganda into turmoil headlined by collapse of industries, widespread scarcity of household essentials and a booming black market.
  • From the ashes emerged a coterie of indigenous entrepreneurs. In this first instalment of our new series marking the golden jubilee of the expulsion, we examine the outsized role of Asians in powering Uganda’s economy and commerce.  

Fifty years ago, in August 1972, President Idi Amin announced that Uganda’s Asians (more accurately, Indians) had been given 90 days to decide whether to take up full Ugandan citizenship or British citizenship.
It could not be both.
Thus began one of the defining periods in Uganda’s history. It was one of the biggest world news stories out of Africa in 1972.
Most of the Asians declined to take up Ugandan citizenship and were deported to Europe and North America.

Five decades later, Uganda has still never fully recovered from the disruption to society and, especially, to the economy that this caused.
The decay of community institutions is most noticeable in the upcountry towns where the Indians had established schools, charity clubs and public libraries.
The expulsion of the Asians was the first dramatic deed to establish a negative image of Amin in the West, even as it increased his popularity in Uganda and Africa.
Western governments thought Amin erratic and irresponsible, while most Africans felt that Amin was showing the principle and courage that his peers were unable to muster.

The flight of East African Asians has been portrayed over the past 50 years as entirely the story of hard-working, honest Asians uprooted and expelled by a brutal dictator Idi Amin.
There is much to unpick from the last 50 years, but for now we must start from the beginning.
The general view is that the Asians from India first set foot in East Africa in the late 1890s mainly as manual labourers on the Uganda Railway being constructed at Mombasa, Kenya and thereafter stayed on to become traders.
The fact is, Asians started arriving in East Africa in 1886, a decade before the idea of a Uganda Railway had even been proposed in the British parliament.
What caused the migration into East Africa is not clear, but poverty, pressure on land, perhaps the disruption caused often by the monsoon rainy season, were factors.
Most Ugandan Asians originated from Gujarat in India’s west coast, while most of the porters and artisans nicknamed “coolies” who built the Uganda Railway were of Punjabi origin.

Gradually, the Indians established a strong presence in East and Central Africa, in trade especially and later on, in the professions such as medicine and education.
The colonial governments practised a kind of semi-apartheid, with eastern African society structured along ethnic lines and marked by a separation of residential areas, schools, hospitals and trade.
Europeans occupied senior positions in the civil service and public administration, Asians were present in commerce and commercial agriculture, and indigenous Africans were usually at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.
By the late 1950s, the Asian population in East Africa was 360,000-strong, with about 87,000 of them resident in Uganda.
As independence dawned in East Africa, the Asians were already feeling a degree of disquiet.

Public protests and boycotts of Asian businesses had been the main rallying call in 1949 led by political activists such as Augustine Kamya.
These 1949 protests and calls for boycotts of Indian-owned businesses were the first warning to the Indian community of what awaited them when Uganda got independence.
Another major round of boycotts of Indian businesses took place in 1959.
“A boycott by Africans in Uganda of Asian shops and some products and services provided by whites is exacting a heavy economic toll,” reported a wire service news report on December 10, 1959.
About 10,000 Ugandan Africans lost their jobs or income as a result of that 1959 boycott.
The Uganda government lost £600,000 in revenue (or Shs2.6 billion in 2022 money value).

Many businesses, in panic, transferred their money to Kenya and that was the start of a general capital flight to Kenya over the next 20 years, to Uganda’s disadvantage and Kenya’s gain.
The closer East African colonies drew to independence, the more vulnerable the Asian community felt, because almost inevitably Black majority rule would see pressure to redress the economic imbalance, to the detriment of the Asians.
This is mainly why, in a state of insecurity and uncertainty, most decided it was safer to retain their British citizenship.
Far from being racist, it was the only pragmatic course of action open to the Ugandan Indians after the 1959 boycott.
Oddly, the-then Indian Prime Minister and Non-Alignment Movement hero Jawaharlal Nehru gave more personal support to Africa’s independence struggles than he did to the anxieties of the East African Asians.

Nehru urged East Africa’s Asians to form political alliances with the Black African majority, the way it was in apartheid South Africa.
The East African Asians felt that independence and the rise of a new Black elite was a threat to their social and economic position and so, in a miscalculation, chose to remain an enclosed community, further fuelling antagonism toward them by the indigenous populations.
As all this was unfolding in Uganda, there was something similar going on in neighbouring Kenya but which has never been given adequate coverage.
In January 1967, the three heads of state of East Africa, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, and Milton Obote of Uganda agreed to coordinate a policy requiring the East African Asians to choose either local citizenship or British citizenship.

Former President Idi Amin

The reason behind this was that the East African countries were under pressure to show the fruits of independence for their indigenous populations, much the same way the ZANU-PF government in Zimbabwe and the ANC government in South Africa came under pressure in 1980 and 1994 after the end of White-minority rule.
Africanising the business economy was one way these governments hoped to meet this pressure and the one obvious route was to require those holding dual British-African citizenship to decide where their loyalty should be.
Feeling insecure and alarmed at this development, between 1967 and 1968, there was a flow of Kenyan Asians to Britain after they declined the Kenyan government’s offer of Kenyan passports if they renounced their UK citizenship.

This little-mentioned exodus was an exact forerunner to the 1972 exodus in Uganda, but for some reason barely gets mentioned in the media or the history books.
There is also a little-mentioned outflow of Malawi Asians into the UK in May 1976 for the same reason as in Kenya in 1967 and Uganda in 1972.
In 1976, there were about 6,800 Malawians of Indian ancestry, most of whom also held British passports. Under the same pressure as Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, Malawi asked them to choose between Britain and Malawi.
Malawi expelled 5,000 of the 6,800. None of this seems to form the historical narrative of the region when Idi Amin’s role is highlighted as the only one.
Only Tanzania of the four did not go ahead and put pressure on the Indians, mainly because of President Nyerere’s personal intervention and his convictions about South-South unity.

By November 1972, almost all the Asians had departed Uganda.
The Uganda government started compensating those who were leaving and this also debunks the common legend that the Asians fled Uganda with only the clothes on their backs and started afresh in Britain and Canada.
The process of compensating the Asians began right away in August 1972 and was completed by about March 1974.
Probably because they did not know this, the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) government of Milton Obote when it came back to power in 1980, created a Departed Asians’ Custodian Board to return properties to the Asians who had been fully compensated by 1974.

With the Asians now gone, Uganda began to feel the effects of the gap. Commercial trade dramatically shrunk in the country and much more felt in the smaller towns.
Primary and secondary schools and hospitals that had been run for decades by the Asians went into decline in government hands.
Once-strong town sports leagues and charities declined. Uganda saw a major shortfall of medical doctors, bankers, accountants, and other white-collar professionals.
The large beer and sugar companies run by Indian families at Kakira outside Jinja and at Lugazi were gradually run down under Ugandan management, and this was the start of the 20-year period of scarcity that lasted from 1972 to 1992.

The then Minister of Planning and Economic Development, Sam Odaka, told Parliament in a statement in July 1982 that a decade since the expulsion of the Asians, Uganda was still feeling the effects and had never recovered from the economic disruption caused.
The more pragmatic 1980-1985 UPC government and the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government after 1986 moved to restore Uganda’s Asians and encourage them to return to their homeland.

Much of the economic recovery of the 1990s and the end of the 1970s and 1980s scarcity was because of the return of the Asians.
Meanwhile, a new class of indigenous Ugandan entrepreneurs, encouraged by the Amin government, rose in the 1970s to fill the gap left by the Asians.
Almost all lacked business experience and acumen and many missteps were made along the way.

There has been a narrative since the 1970s that one of Amin’s most important contributions to Ugandan history was to have made possible the emergence of this Black Ugandan business class.
While the argument holds some weight, the overall picture still shows little real impact.
By 2020, for example, about 69 percent of all revenue collected by the Uganda Revenue Authority was from Indian-owned companies.
This figure alone shows that after the Asians started returning in fairly large numbers in 1992, they more or less picked up from where they had left off in 1972, which was to become the dominant force in Uganda’s economy.


In January 1967, the three heads of state of East Africa, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, and Milton Obote of Uganda agreed to coordinate a policy requiring the East African Asians to choose either local citizenship or British citizenship.
The reason behind this was that the East African countries were under pressure to show the fruits of independence for their indigenous populations, much the same way the ZANU-PF government in Zimbabwe and the ANC government in South Africa came under pressure in 1980 and 1994...