On the Exodus of Indians from Uganda

Exodus of Indian from Uganda essay
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Exiled Indians in the Netherlands after leaving Uganda. Bert Verhoeff / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Anyone even remotely aware of political leaders and political history has no doubt heard the name of the infamous President of Uganda, Idi Amin, who frequently pops up on lists of the cruelest and most brutal political leaders in modern history.

One can hardly deny that Amin indeed earned and deserved this reputation of his for various reasons. For all the unaware folks out there who have never heard of him, allow me to briefly introduce him to you.

Idi Amin was a Ugandan military officer who served as the third President of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, after seizing power in 1971 with a coup d’etat that toppled President Milton Obote‘s government. Amin declared himself President of Uganda and began ruling as a military dictator.

Needless to say, his rule was not democratic at all. Over the course of his presidency, Amin became known for his blatant human rights violations, persecution of political opponents, ethnic cleansing, corruption, extrajudicial killings, and several other serious crimes.

It is estimated that between 100,000 and 500,000 people were killed under his rule.

However, in this essay, we will be taking a look at just a minor aspect of his legacy, which involved the expulsion of Uganda’s Indian, or Asian, minority. For the sake of this essay, we will be referring to Uganda’s Asian minority as Indians, for the large majority of them were of Indian descent.

Let us begin with a little background.

While Uganda was under British colonial rule from 1894 to 1962, the British brought thousands of Indians from British India as indentured laborers to work on the construction of the Ugandan Railway in the 1890s. Although the majority of the Indian indentured laborers made their way back to India after the construction of the railway was completed, a few thousand chose to stay behind.

To add to this Indian diaspora in Uganda, many Indians were brought over to Uganda by the British in order to serve as a buffer between Europeans and Africans. This Indian diaspora formed the middle rungs of administration and commerce in Uganda.

The British began to invest in the education of this Indian minority while neglecting the native Ugandans. Due to this, Indians began to be employed in administration, banking, and various other businesses.

By 1970, the majority of businesses and commerce in general in Uganda were run and dominated by the Indian minority. This resulted in a new status quo, wherein even after a decade of Uganda gaining its independence, the average Ugandan Indian was better off than the average native Ugandan.

And in spite of forming just one percent of Uganda’s population, the Indian minority was earning around one-fifth of the national income. Indian traders dominated Uganda’s commerce and economy and even received privileges from the existing tariff system which was geared to benefit them. They also had access to better residences, schools, and healthcare facilities.

The affluent Indian minority began living in gated ethnic communities, away from the natives, which gave rise to racial segregation. Though not all Indians in Uganda were affluent, most were much better off than the native Ugandans.

Naturally, this led to resentment and ill-will toward the Indian minority among the natives. Indians came to be referred to as dukawallas, which was initially an occupational term but was later used as an anti-Indian slur during Amin’s reign.

The native Ugandans saw Indians as traders who cheated customers for their own gain and only cared for their own community.

To curb the influence of the Indian minority, Obote’s government began formulating policies that encouraged the Africanization of Ugandan commerce and industry. These policies were Indophobic, and they sought to limit the role of Indians who were not Ugandan citizens in professional and economic activities.

These already-existing anti-Indian sentiments laid a perfect foundation for Idi Amin to build on. After seizing power in 1971, Amin ordered a review of the citizenship status given to the Indian minority, eventually coming to the decision that the ones already granted citizenship would be recognized, but all outstanding applications for citizenship would be terminated.

Although Amin did acknowledge the contributions of the Indian community to the economy and professions of Uganda, he also accused a minority of the Indian population of commercial malpractice, practicing racial segregation, and disloyalty. He also accused them of encouraging corruption and sabotaging Uganda’s economy.

All these anti-Indian sentiments in the government and among the native population culminated in Amin ordering the expulsion of Uganda’s Indian minority in August 1972. He gave them three months to leave the country regardless of their citizenship status.

Amin justified the expulsion by declaring that he was giving Uganda back to ethnic Ugandans. Needless to say, the order of the expulsion of the Indian diaspora was welcomed and celebrated by most native Ugandans.

Over 5,000 firms, estates, farms, and ranches were confiscated along with houses, goods, and vehicles.

The around 80,000 Indians that formed part of the Indian diaspora in Uganda, out of which around 23,000 were already citizens, had barely three months to flee the country and find asylum elsewhere.

A great number of the Indians in Uganda were actually originally citizens of the United Kingdom or its colonies, that is they were British subjects. The majority of them emigrated to the United Kingdom, while the remaining emigrated to India, Pakistan, Canada, Kenya, Malawi, West Germany, the United States, New Zealand, Australia, The Netherlands, Sweden, Mauritius, and several other countries.

Although shortly before the intended deadline Amin’s government exempted the Indians who were already granted citizenship from expulsion after some international outcry, the majority of them chose to leave anyway rather than face further persecution. Only a small minority of Indians chose to remain in Uganda.

The expulsion of the Indian population and the subsequent redistribution of property came to be known as Operation Mafuta Mingi.

However, such major events have major and serious consequences. The expulsion was not peaceful and in its resulting upheaval, Amin’s soldiers stole goods and engaged in physical and sexual abuses against the fleeing Indian population. Indians also faced restrictions in transferring or selling their private businesses.

Amin claimed that he wished to make the native Ugandan in charge of his own destiny and enjoy the wealth of the country. And by kicking the Indians out of the country, he wanted to transfer the economic control of Uganda into the hands of native Ugandans for the first time in the country’s history.

However, the true reason for his decision to expel the Indians is still at times debated and speculated. Some claim that Allah visited Amin in his dream and instructed him to expel the Indians, while others speculate that he did it to take revenge on the British government for refusing to give him arms in order to invade Tanzania.

Since neither of these claims can be confirmed or denied, we are left with no choice but to accept Amin’s own claim of why he did what he did.

Naturally, the expulsion drew severe international criticism of Amin’s government. The Indian government broke off diplomatic relations with Amin’s government and the United Kingdom held back the loan of a substantial amount promised to his government the previous year.

The expulsion policy was widely described as probably the most explicit and blatantly racist policy implemented in modern, post-colonial Africa.

The situation became more serious and urgent when Amin sent a telegram to the United Nations Secretary-General, Kurt Waldheim, indicating that he sympathized with the way Adolf Hitler treated the Jews.

This led to the United Nations taking the expulsion of Ugandan Indians more seriously, prompting them to immediately arrange an airlift for the refugees and send the Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa, Robert Gardiner, to negotiate with Amin and get him to reverse the policy. Not surprisingly, he failed in doing so and the exodus of Ugandan Indians continued.

Obviously, the countries to which the Indian refugees were emigrating were not that keen on having them. Tanzania and Kenya shut down their borders with Uganda to prevent the influx of more Indian refugees. British overseas territories such as Hong Kong, Solomon Islands, British Honduras, Bermuda, the Virgin Islands, and some others were also reluctant to permit Indian refugees to settle within their borders.

The only British territory that was receptive to the Indian refugees was the Falkland Islands.

The redistribution of property that took place after the Indians left Uganda mainly saw government officials and soldiers benefit from it, with most of it being allocated to high-ranking officials and government bodies. The state-owned Ugandan Development Corporation seemed to benefit the most from the redistribution after gaining control over some of the largest enterprises.

As Idi Amin’s rule continued over the years, many of the few Indians who stayed behind also left the country. Since Indians had dominated the commerce of the country, their expulsion resulted in a major brain drain in Uganda, thereby severely crippling Uganda’s economy.

Indians owned around 90% of Uganda’s businesses and accounted for around 90% of Uganda’s tax revenue. Therefore, in their absence, the country’s GDP fell by 5% between 1972 and 1975, while manufacturing output sharply declined over the years.

Although Indian businesses were handed over to native Ugandans, the Ugandans found themselves ill-prepared to run those businesses as they had no prior experience in running businesses. Further, the lack of educated, skilled, and experienced workers and technicians saw the industrial sector, which was the backbone of Uganda’s economy, crumble over the years.

It is estimated that in less than ten years following the expulsion of the Indians, the real value of wages and salaries dropped by 90% in Uganda.

Idi Amin was overthrown as President in 1979 after the war he declared on Tanzania backfired and resulted in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala being captured by the Tanzanian Army and the Ugandan National Liberation Army, which included Ugandan exiles.

By then, the damage was already done and Uganda’s economy was crippled and in dire straits.

In 1986, military officer Yoweri Museveni became the President of Uganda and invited Indians to return to Uganda after condemning Amin’s expulsion policies. He also acknowledged the role of Indians in the industrial and social development of Uganda.

Museveni’s sympathetic view toward the exiled Indian community and his reversion of Amin’s policies prompted many Indians to return to Uganda once again and set up their businesses, thereby assisting to rebuild Uganda’s struggling economy.