‘God’ tells Amin to expel Asians as dreams quickly turn to nightmares

Ugandan Asians arrive in the UK after being expelled by Idi Amin in 1972. More than 50,000 Asians were expelled at the time, part of their ‘crime’ being monopolising trade at the expense of native Ugandans. PHOTO BY AGENCIES

What you need to know:

Turning dreams into reality.Although Amin put his inspiration down to a dream, the squeeze on the Uganda Asians had been at least two decades in the making.

Relations between Idi Amin and the Ugandan Asians did not improve after the December 1971 conference. If anything, things continued to go downhill as the economy continued to suffer.

As 1971 turned to 1972, Amin fell out with the Israelis and the British, as we have already seen in this series but historian Phares Mutibwa argues that the attention turned to the Asians was driven by the economic malaise that the country found itself in.

“There is a tendency in reconstructing historical developments to emphasise economic factors but here they can hardly be over-stressed,” he wrote.
“The expulsion of 50,000 Asians, many of whom were millionaires in Ugandan shillings at the time and who together owned and controlled perhaps half of the country’s wealth, opened the way for the state to acquire their assets, without payment, for Amin to dispose of as he saw fit.”

The expulsion, argues Prof. Mutibwa, “was Amin’s answer to the plight of the masses and the greed of his soldiers. Those who benefitted most from the expulsion were those, military and civilians, who would not have made it to the top under Obote or any other civilian ruler”.

The Ugandan Asians controlled a very large chunk of the economy and were heavily invested in the country. Despite being a small minority, their expulsion would obviously have consequences to the country and its economy.

The Asian community was, however, hamstrung by inability to rally support from the majority within the country. Many of the majority indigenous Ugandans looked at the Asian community with indifference at best and, at worst, hostility, partly fuelled by jealousy over the wealth the minority had accumulated.

It did not help the Asian cause that the community had remained very isolated, living within but separate from the majority of the population (a policy of segregation that had its roots in the colonial policy of setting up European and Asian neighbourhoods in the city separate from those of the locals).

“Although some had taken Ugandan citizenship, the Asians remained – and were seen to be – foreigners in their own country,” Mutibwa argues. “The Asians’ failure to integrate within Ugandan society was a theme to which Amin always returned, right from the time of the coup. He knew that any measures taken against Asians would find favour with Uganda’s black population.”

It has also been argued that Amin was emboldened in his action, at least in part, by his newfound friendship with Libya’s Col. Muammar Gaddafi who had also engineered the expulsion of Italians from their former north African colony.
On May 9, Mamdani notes, the finance minister was instructed to tell the Bank of Uganda to give whatever money was available to Africans but not Asians. This was bound to fail, seeing as a lot of the capital in the country was actually controlled by the British banks, and not the Central Bank.

The final act started on August 4, 1972 when Amin announced that he had had a dream in which God had asked him to expel the Asians from Uganda. A lot of contemporary history seeks to narrow the decision to expel the Asians to a wild dream by Amin but as the foregoing narrative shows, the fundamental issues of a minority controlling the majority of the country’s economic surplus had been inherited at Independence and had simmered for the 10 years since.

In his book, ‘Soldiers as Traditionalisers’, Prof. Ali Mazrui places Amin’s dream in a philosophical text and gives it local context. “Some of the Ugandans, particularly the intellectuals, might dispute the validity or authenticity of this or that particular dream claimed by Amin,” he wrote.

“Perhaps the great majority would not dispute the proposition that some dreams are intended to be guides for action, and that supernatural forces might at times be in communication with a leader.”

In any case, the next day, on August 5, 1972, Amin made a further announcement in which he said he would ask Richard Slater, the UK High Commissioner to Uganda, to make arrangements to repatriate those Asians in Uganda who held British passports.
Kenya, which had a significant population of Asians itself, immediately shut its border to keep out any Ugandan Asians, while India, the mother country, quickly announced that any expelled Asians from Uganda were the responsibility of Britain.

“In the first few days after the announcement, Amin vacillated between expelling all Asians or just Asian commercial capital,” notes Mamdani. “Publicly, this was articulated in his indecision over whether or not to exempt professionals from the expulsion order. An expulsion confined to noncitizens would leave the bulk of big Asian capital untouched; furthermore, it might also leave this section of the Asian bourgeoisie in control of the material assets of the entire class once the process came to a conclusion.”

Things were beginning to move very fast. On August 9 Amin signed a decree revoking entry permits and certificates of residence of non-Uganda citizens of Asian origin, including those from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. They all had to leave Uganda.

The British initially responded by battening down the hatches and announcing tighter controls on immigration of Asians from East Africa and discouraging airline companies from flying them to the British Isles. India also announced that Asians from East Africa who had British passports would require visas to enter the country.

The British government then sent an official, Mr Geoffrey Rippon, to Kampala to hold talks with Amin in an attempt to change his mind. On arrival in Kampala he announced that Britain would consider taking in the 50,000 Uganda Asians who had British passports.

This left some 23,000 Asians who had Ugandan nationality. What would happen to them? Amin had an answer to that question when he spoke to reporters on August 14, 1972: “I see no more future for them in Uganda than for the others,” he said. “If all of them go I’ll be very, very happy.”

Continues Monday.