Asian leaders offer Amin Shs100,000 as he turns up the heat

As part of his policy to ‘Africanise’ Uganda in the early 1970s, Idi Amin expelled Asians who had lived there for several generations. More than 200 Ugandan Asians fled to New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

What you need to know:

Looming storm. Amin calls Asian leaders to a summit meant to clear the air but the two sides only succeed in drifting farther apart as dark clouds gather overhead.

On December 7, 1971, Amin met a delegation of representatives of the Asian community in Uganda. Oboth-Ofumbi, the minister of Defence, chaired the first session, lunch was served, and then Amin turned up to deliver his address.

Although he claimed this was a routine meeting with different Ugandan communities, the writing on the wall was that it was anything but.
A few months earlier, in June, Amin had told Ugandan traders that his government would do anything possible to put the economy in local hands.
On October 7, a census was ordered of all the Asians living in Uganda, and special green cards introduced, which members of the community had to carry with them.

As earlier noted, many Asians had applied to become Ugandan citizens during the Obote regime (some twice, after the Constitution was changed) but those applications had not been processed despite protestations by the Asian community and their representatives in Parliament. That process had remained in abeyance by the time of Obote’s ouster.

“On December 7, following the ‘Asian census,’ Amin put a stamp of finality on the noncitizen status of many Asian traders by cancelling the applications of over 12,000 Asians for Uganda citizenship,” notes Prof. Mahmood Mamdani.

That was the same day that Amin turned up to address the representatives of the Asian community at the Conference Centre in Kampala.
The Asian community made several representations in which they recounted their economic contribution to the country but also pointed out some of the injustices that they suffered.

They complained about discrimination at the hands of the immigration department as well as delays in the approval of citizenship applications. They also noted that they were often passed over when they applied for government jobs.

If the Asian community expected to get any sympathy from Amin, those expectations immediately flew out of the window when his turn to speak came round.

The main thrust of Amin’s prepared speech, which he referred to every now and then, was a challenge to the Asian community to propose what they intended to do about accusations of corruption and isolationism.
Apart from the more common accusations of corruption or “economic sabotage” arising partly out of the shortages and hoarding of the late 1960s, Amin also pointed out that the Asians in Uganda had kept to themselves throughout their time in the country.

Specifically, Amin said, indigenous Ugandans “had been deprived from being able to marry Asian girls”. Only six Africans were known to be married to Asian women at the time, and these marriages had taken place outside the country. Cases of Asian girls committing suicide after their parents refused them to marry Africans had been reported, yet many Asian men consorted with native Ugandan girls.

Amin read out a letter that he said he had received from an Asian woman married to a native Ugandan, in which she detailed the scorn and abuse the couple had reportedly suffered at the hands of the Asian community.
Amin issued a thinly veiled warning to the Asian community. “You are gambling with a matter any government takes seriously – citizenship,” he bellowed.

“I will remind you that if there is any blame which you might later wish to bring against my government about your citizenship, the person responsible for any confusion were yourselves.”

The leaders of the Asian community present sought to diffuse the tension. “…Minorities in all countries must ensure that they live in a spirit of full harmony and understanding with the rest of the inhabitants of the country concerned. We fully appreciate that in an independent country the Government must always try to promote the interests of the majority of the country’s population,” they noted in a memorandum presented at the conference.

“In this process a balance must be struck between the interests of the immigrant minority with those of indigenous majority which has just won its struggle for freedom and independence from the colonial power. Equally the minority such as the Asians in Uganda which had hitherto enjoyed certain advantage and predominance must be prepared to make adjustments in the interest of the country as a whole and the indigenous people in particular.”

Dr Vali Jamal notes in an upcoming book, ‘Uganda Asians, Then and Now,’ that the leaders at the conference offered Amin a ‘gift’ of Shs100,000 (a tidy sum at the time). Amin, however, “did not keep it and donated the money to families of soldiers who died at the take-over” in 1971.
And, as earlier noted, he then went ahead and cancelled the pending 12,000 citizenship applications.

On January 5, 1972, notes Prof. Mamdani, Amin warned 13 representatives of the Asian community that “Uganda is not an Indian colony”. A week later, Amin “said he would like to see Ugandans owning businesses on Kampala’s main street”.

As the weeks rolled on in 1972, the economic pressure was mounting on the new regime. “Amin had nothing to show to justify his coup,” historian Phares Mutibwa writes.

“Taxes had not been reduced, and the people were called upon to make the sacrifices necessary to make development possible. The prices of basic foodstuffs and the general cost of living were rising; kondoism [urban thuggery] was still rampant; there were ever fewer jobs for school-leavers; and violence and murder, far from being eradicated, were virtually institutionalised. Not only the civilians were complaining; even army personnel were looking to Amin for a solution.”

There happened to be some rich folks around, who were a minority and thus easily isolated, and who could offer a solution, however temporary, to Amin’s dilemma. The countdown to a showdown and well and truly underway.