Asian dilemma: Too ‘white’ for Uganda, too ‘black’ for Britain

Asian immigrants board a plane at Entebbe Airport, Uganda in 1972 after the expulsion by Idi Amin. COURTESY PHOTO

What you need to know:

Expelled from Uganda, many Asians initially found themselves with nowhere to go, although some of them held British citizenship and should have been admitted automatically.


Although some of the Asians in Uganda were local citizens, Idi Amin was not interested in the minute details of rights, identity and due process.

After meeting Rippon, the British official sent to Kampala to try and talk him out of the expulsion, Amin was quoted in the Uganda Argus saying, “I am not changing my mind that Asians who are British will have to go to England…My decision of 90 days still stands.”

Unheeded voices
A few local voices of reason attempted to persuade Amin to change his mind. Mr Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile [currently Governor of Bank of Uganda], who was Guild President at Makerere University weighed in as did his fellow student leaders Ruhakana Rugunda [current minister of ICT] and Kisimba Masiko who headed the influential National Union of Students. It was all in vain.

Britain announced it was freezing a £10 million loan it had earlier promised to give to Uganda and the United Nations was asked, unsuccessfully, to impose sanctions on Uganda. None of it would change Amin’s mind, although he offered a year-long moratorium to Asians who were working in important positions in the civil service.

Prof. Mahmood Mamdani has argued that expelling only non-citizen Asians would not have delivered the prized trophy – control of their economic assets – that Amin and his regime was after, and that it became necessary to expel all Asians, including those who were born in Uganda and were citizens of the country.
“Once this was realised, the class struggle lost its veil of legality. Political actions were shorn of their legal forms and the class content lay bare for all to see,” Prof. Mamdani wrote in Politics and Class Formation in Uganda.

“The citizen Asians, asked to queue in order to confirm the validity of their citizenship, found their passports and certificates torn up. Eventually all Asians were expelled. Neither citizen nor professional remained.”

In reality, a significant number of Asians would remain in Uganda, including Amirali ‘Mukwano’ Karmali but the majority now had to find themselves a new home. By mid-August 1972, preparations were underway to start airlifting Asians with British citizenship from Uganda but this was not without controversy – and where would the rest go?

In Britain, there was significant opposition to the idea of tens of thousands of migrants suddenly turning up in the country, a point that the Conservative government had endorsed in its manifesto by ruling out large-scale permanent immigration to Britain. This led to public protests as well as angry newspaper articles but in mid September 1972, the first batch of evacuees began arriving in England.

Canada had at this time offered to take in some evacuees and many would eventually end up in that country. Britain also appealed to several other countries to help take in some of the departing Asians.

Out of the 75,000 or so Asians who had been living in Uganda, historian A.B. Kasozi notes that Britain took in 27,000 – the majority while 4,500 went to India. “[Some] 3,600 were put into refugee camps before resettlement in other countries,” writes Kasozi in The Social Origins of Violence in Uganda, 1964-1985. “Another 20,000 were unaccounted for.”

On the domestic front, Amin was unrelenting. In his effort to make Uganda “economically independent”, he announced plans to seize all foreign-owned businesses and forbade the departing Asians from taking any money out of the country. He need not have bothered, for his soldiers were soon working hard to relieve the departing Asians of their property.

“The theft of Asian property, even at its most chaotic, followed an established pattern,” notes Mamdani. “Everything the Asians had to leave behind was guarded carefully by the army and police officials.

“Any potential looters were shot dead on sight. Amin’s orders were that the Asians’ property be guarded as ruthlessly as the Asians themselves were being expelled. The same material interest was at stake in both cases, for once the Asians had departed a large part of their businesses, houses, and cars would be legitimately acquired by the upper sections of the army and of the petty bourgeoisie.
With the spoils going to the top military officials, ordinary soldiers took matters into their own hands, according to Mamdani.

“If ordinary soldiers were to share in the spoils, their opportunity for doing so was before the Asians’ departure, and to do this they had to resort to loot and plunder, unprotected by the halo of bourgeoisie legality.”

As the Asians began departing, Amin reported of an alleged plot to assassinate him and of another to support an invasion to topple his government. He expelled British diplomats, including high commissioner Richard Slater (who had ignored earlier warning signs from the Amin regime).
By the expiry of Amin’s 90-day deadline on November 8, most of the Asians had left the country but some remained and were asked to register.

Lingering consequences
About 6,000 Asians turned up at Kololo Airstrip for the registration exercise. About 100 chose to take their chances and stay in Uganda. The majority declared themselves stateless and were handed over to the UN High Commission for Refugees, which would later relocate them.

The Asians’ seven decades in Uganda had come to an abrupt end. It would leave lasting consequences on them and on the country, many of which are still felt today. In Uganda the contestation continued. A new class of Ugandans were about to become wealthy overnight and a bunch of exiles were about to launch an attack to try and dislodge the Amin regime.