With his brutality, President Idi Amin has obscured the real problems of the Asians of his country. Amin is a poorly educated man oblivious to the complexities of finance and state. He is the disgrace of Black Africa, and it is easy to be repelled by his ravings. But his expulsion of Uganda’s Asians—inspired, he says, by Allah in a dream—is not the chance blow of a maniacal tyrant. As an African Christian wrote in a church newspaper in East Africa recently, “Amin’s dream, even though the press has been laughing at it, is Africa’s genuine dream.” With or without Amin, the plight of the Asians in Uganda, like that of the many more Asians in the rest of East Africa, always has been precarious and even desperate.
By ordering the Asians out in ninety days last August, President Amin acted with a haste and callousness that shocked even those other political leaders in East Africa who share his basic views, But he is not really more racist than they are. East Africans feel an intense and terrible hatred of the Asians who live in their countries. They are a despised minority, like the Jews of old Europe. Ugandan Foreign Minister Wanume Kibedi was close to the truth when he said recently, “To the people of Uganda, any wonder in the government’s decision is not that it was made but that it had not been made years earlier.”
There are confusing questions about the expulsion order. It still is not clear exactly who was expelled and who stayed. According to the 1969 census, Uganda had 75.000 Asians—immigrants from old British India and their descendants. Many had been born in Uganda, and most looked on Africa as home. But only 23,000 had Ugandan citizenship, while perhaps 45,000 had British passports. The rest were Indian, Pakistani, or stateless.
In early August, General Amin announced the expulsion of all Asians who were not citizens because “they have been milking the economy of the country.” Then a series of clarifications and modifications confused the order. First, he expanded the edict to cover Ugandan citizens of Asian descent as well, but, when other African governments protested, he quickly rescinded that amendment. Instead, his government did much the same thing by rechecking citizenship. For a variety of technical reasons, immigration officials began tearing up citizenship papers. Perhaps two out of three Asians lost their Ugandan citizenship, and they became stateless.
Then Amin began to realize how much he might need the Asians, who monopolized the commerce and professions of Uganda. He quickly decided to exempt from the expulsion bureaucrats, technicians, industrial managers, teachers, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals. The exemption, in fact, was more of an order than an exemption. A few doctors, eager to get out of Uganda, tried to leave, but soldiers stopped them at the airport and sent them back home. Other professional people are reported by the government to have “disappeared.”
The stateless Asians will pose a special problem. General Amin insists that they are British and must go, but the British refuse to take any responsibility for them. “Our hearts bleed for them,” said one British diplomat in East Africa recently, “just like the hearts of everyone else in the world.”
Responsibility will have to rest with the United Nations. Fortunately, many of the stateless are Ismailis, followers of the Aga Khan. And the Aga Khan’s uncle, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, is the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. He will not neglect them. The United States has announced, grudgingly, that it will take in a thousand stateless Asians. In addition to taking in four thousand Asians, India is allowing more than ten thousand of them holding British passports to stay in India for a year or more. The British assume that more than half of them will want to stay in India, but all have the right to go on to Britain if they wish.
But whatever the total number of those expelled is, the uprooting of the Asians has been harrowing and humiliating. General Amin’s edict came at the end of a long breakdown in discipline in his army. For a year and a half, soldiers have been killing each other and civilians, including foreigners, with little discouragement and no discipline from above. Amin put these soldiers in charge of the expulsion. To make matters worse, the invasion by Ugandan exiles, supported by neighboring Tanzania, came in midSeptember at the height of the exodus. Government propaganda branded the invasion a foreign attempt to halt the expulsion. The failure of the exiles made Uganda’s soldiers more bold and more heady with power. It gave them even more license to harass the Asians.
Asians have been killed and their shops looted by soldiers. Others were kidnapped and released to their families after the payment of ransom. Departing Asians, driving from their homes to the airport at Entebbe, had to run a gauntlet of a half dozen or more roadblocks manned by contemptuous soldiers. One Asian woman was raped so many times on her way to the airport that she had to be hospitalized after her plane reached Nairobi in neighboring Kenya. There are other reports of soldiers whipping Asian women with kibokos, whips made of hippopotamus hide. The soldiers snatched as much as they could from the refugees. Women lost their bracelets and necklaces. Numerous watches were taken. Soldiers took away all the extra underwear from the suitcase of one Asian and then handed him a receipt.
Besides the isolated incidents of terror, the soldiers have, in general, created a mood of petty harassment and greater humiliation. One Asian man, for example, reported that soldiers beat him across the neck with a stick in the railroad station of Kampala because he had ten shillings (about $1.40) in his pocket. “You are a thief,” the soldier said. “Why keep your money in your pocket?” The Asian replied, “I am sorry.” “Why are you sorry?” demanded the soldier. “I am not your wife.”
Even without the harassment, the mechanics of the expulsion were designed to rob the Asians. The Asian community is believed to have owned a few hundred million dollars’ worth of assets in Uganda. Amin’s government ordered the departing Asians to register their property with the government for future sale to Africans. The Africans expect to buy the buildings, shops, and factories at bargain prices later, and the Asians do not expect compensation.
Amin has allowed the Asians to sell movable property such as cars. But, with so many selling at once, the Asians received little for their goods. One Asian said that his father tried to sell a truck but was offered almost nothing for it. “You leave it here,” an African told him. “We will take it as a present.” Amin depressed sales further by warning Africans that the Asians would sabotage their goods before selling them.
Even if they received a good price for their property, the Asians could do little with their money. The government allowed them to leave with £50 (about $140) in foreign traveler’s checks and five shillings (about 70 cents) of Ugandan currency in their pockets. Some Asian refugees who headed by train to the Kenyan coast for a ship to India did not have enough money to buy food during their two-day rail trip.
For the Asians, expulsion from Uganda, and the accompanying wave of humiliation, were only the most blatant and brutal of a long series of discriminatory acts. The Asians have been the object of scorn and denigration and jealousy in East Africa for more than a hundred years.
In the early nineteenth century, the British encouraged Indian merchants to set up shop on the island of Zanzibar and the nearby African coast. Since the Indians were British subjects, the British, in an era of imperialism, could use Indian commerce as an excuse for British political influence. Thus the Indian traders helped ease the way to British rule in East Africa.
The Indians soon controlled all foreign trade on Zanzibar and became the island’s bankers. Many Arab and Swahili plantations were mortgaged to them. As a result, the Indian merchants aroused the usual scorn and enmity for moneylenders. The missionary, David Livingstone, a much more gentle man than General Amin, once used Amin-like terms to describe them. He called the Asians “the worst cannibals in all Africa” and accused them of controlling the slave trade. This was later disproved by a special British commission, but the reputation stuck.
The British decision in 1895 to build the Ugandan railway from Mombasa on the Kenyan coast to Lake Victoria in Uganda drew Asians into the interior of East Africa for the first time. The British imported more than 32,000 Indian coolies to build the railroad. Many Africans, including President Amin, seem to believe that the present Asian population of East Africa descends mainly from these railroad workers. But actually 23,000 coolies returned to India, and 2500 died. Only 7000 remained in East Africa. The railway and the coolies who stayed behind did attract many thousands of other Indians, who set up little shops, or dukas, along the rail line. Sir Harry Johnston, Britain’s special commissioner in Uganda at the turn of the century, thought that East Africa might someday become the “America of the Hindu.”
But white settlement prevented that. The rich highlands of East Africa soon attracted white settlers, and they made sure that the Asians took no higher than second place in the social hierarchy of East Africa. The whites even tried to stem Asian immigration. But, as British subjects, the Indians had the right to move freely through much of the British Empire.
The immigrants came in a steady flow, mainly from Gujarat and the Punjab in India. The Asian population of East Africa increased from 50,000 in 1921 to 200,000 in 1948 to 350,000 in the early 1960s, when most East African countries became independent. Half the Asians lived in Kenya while the others were divided almost equally between Tanzania and Uganda.
At first, the Asians were mainly dukawallas (small shopkeepers) and fundis (artisans). The dukawallas made their money by working long hours, employing no help but their families, and accepting slim profit margins. Their industry would have excited American champions of the Protestant ethic in the nineteenth century. But Africans had a different view. New to a money economy, the Africans looked on the dukawallas as exploiters who cheated them of the little money they had. “Bloodsuckers" was a common epithet.
This view was encouraged and reinforced by white settlers who did not like the darker Asians and their competition. Under British rule, the Asians also began filling the middlelevel ranks of government, serving as surveyors, clerks, cashiers, policemen, and typists. Later, with education and wealth, the children of the early Asian immigrants became the professionals of East Africa and the investors in new industry. At independence, in 1962, the Asians had great economic power in East Africa, controlling commerce and making up the only real middle class.
But they had no political power. The Africans disliked them. Their early political agitation against the whites did not impress the new African leaders. Nor was there any visible African gratitude for the few Asian political leaders who had sided with the African nationalists in the decade of pressure for independence. Instead the Africans remembered that most Asians looked down on them, that most had stayed aloof from the struggle for independence, that most, as shopkeepers, had seemed to exploit them, and that most had jobs that the Africans wanted. The Asians became an isolated foreign minority in new countries now in the hands of hostile black masses. The Asians looked different, dressed differently, clung to Indian ways, and lived in a more prosperous style than most Africans.
Moreover, the Asians could not or would not hide their economic power. At independence, they controlled more than 90 percent of the trade in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. The commercial streets of the town came straight out of India, with brown shopkeepers scribbling their accounts in the Gujarati language. Even the shop signs had an Indian flavor: Bombay Bazaar, A.P. Bhimji Jewellers, Gulpa Hair Stylist, Mehta’s Upholstery, Patel Automobile Spares. It was a constant reminder to Africans that, though the government was theirs, the economy belonged to people who seemed foreign.
But the Asians looked on East Africa as home. The 1962 census of Kenya showed that three out of every four Asians there either had been born in East Africa or had lived there for more than twentyfive years. While the Ugandan census did not explore the background of the Asians as thoroughly, it is evident that almost as many in Uganda felt that they belonged in Africa.
At independence, Uganda, like the other East African countries, gave automatic citizenship to all Asians who had been born there, if at least one parent had been born there as well. Most of the others had a constitutional right to citizenship if they registered as citizens within two years. Few did so. Uncertain of their future in black-run countries, most Asians chose what seemed to be the security of a British passport. As British subjects or British-protected persons, they had a right to these passports. Of those who did register, many thousands hesitated until the last few weeks before the deadline. This delay angered the African governments. Despite the constitutional guarantee, the Africans refused to process these last-minute registrations.
Many Asians in East Africa look on citizenship as a phony issue, a convenient way for the African governments to discriminate against Asians while protesting that they are only protecting their nationals against foreigners. If all Asians had registered as citizens and all applications had been processed, these Asians believe, Amin would still be expelling them. Faced with a large citizen Asian population, according to this view, the East African governments would simply enact legislation that made a distinction between citizens of African origin and citizens of Asian origin. This view gets strong confirmation from the pronouncements of General Amin confusing citizen and noncitizen Asians and from the ease with which Ugandan officials have revoked the citizenship of thousands of Asians.
But so far, the laws and edicts of East Africa, including those of the Amin government, have kept the distinction, more or less. Before Amin’s expulsion order, the most serious threat against the Asians came from the pressure that the East African governments began putting on noncitizens in the late 1960s to give up their jobs to Africans. This was done through an elaborate system of work permits and trading licenses. All noncitizens had to have them. When the governments wanted an Asian worker or shopkeeper to give up his job and leave, the governments simply revoked his permit or license. The system has not worked very well. Corruption runs rampant in a system where bureaucrats have the arbitrary right to issue or revoke a license. Perhaps more important, taking a shop or job away from an Asian does not insure that an African has the capital or skill to replace him successfully.
When the licensing system began in Kenya, the country with the most Asians, it triggered an exodus of Asians with British passports to Britain. This frightened the British government because of a growing hostility in Britain toward black and Asian immigrants from the Commonwealth. In 1968, Britain enacted a law that, in effect, made Asians with British passports only secondclass citizens of Britain. The legislation revoked the right of British Asians to enter Britain freely. Instead, Britain decided that it would issue no more than 3000 vouchers a year for British Asian families from East Africa.
For a while, the East African governments went along with the British legislation, pushing out no more Asians than Britain would take in. This stemmed partly from the African fear of crippling their largely Asian-run economies and partly from their fear of antagonizing Britain, their largest aid donor and foreign investor. But Amin broke this unspoken gentlemen’s agreement with his expulsion decree.
For the British, Amin’s order has ended the embarrassing publicity about British immigration officers barring entry to British citizens just because their faces were dark. In the last few years, many East African Asians, with British passports but without the special entry vouchers. have tried to enter Britain despite the immigration legislation. Called “shuttlecocks” or “migronauts” in the press, these Asians have traveled from airport to airport throughout the world until the British, faced with Amin’s decree, have finally relented and agreed to take in every British citizen. Some of the pressure has been removed from the British, however, by other countries that decided to accept Asians on humanitarian grounds. The most generous offer came from Canada, which will take up to five thousand Asians.
The troubled history of the Asians makes it clear why they are and will continue to be a convenient scapegoat for African politicians in trouble. At the moment, General Amin is badly in need of scapegoats.
In January, 1971, when General Amin overthrew President A. Milton Obote in a coup, there was a good deal of relief among foreigners, especially the British. Obote had irritated them with his confused ideology, stabs at nationalization, and anti-British rhetoric. Amin, a onetime boxer who had risen from the ranks, did not seem particularly intelligent, but everyone believed that his heart was in the right place. A combination of apparent decency and stupidity made him seem harmless, even pliable.
That view of Amin has changed dramatically. Now he is looked on as an erratic tyrant. There can be few more incredible communications in the history of diplomacy than his telegram to President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania in August. After denouncing Nyerere, Amin added, “With these few words I want to assure you that I love you very much and if you had been a woman, I would have considered marrying you even though your head is full of grey hairs, but as you are a man that possibility does not arise.” He has piled one outrageous statement on another, the most shocking coming in his cable to U.N. SecretaryGeneral Kurt Waldheim expressing approval of Hitler’s extermination of six million Jews. Diplomats and other analysts in East Africa now spend a good deal of their time arguing whether the forty-seven-yearold Amin is stupid, mad, or a shrewd man powered by primitive cunning.
During his reign, Amin has allowed, perhaps encouraged, a tribal purge in his army that has left at least a thousand soldiers dead, about one out of every seven men. Most were either Acholi or members of Obote’s Lango tribe. In recent months, that purge has spread to civilians as well and to some prominent members of the Baganda, the largest and best-educated tribe in Uganda. At the same time, Amin, unconcerned with such niceties as a budget, has squandered millions of dollars on his army, almost bankrupting the treasury and depleting the country of nearly all its foreign exchange.
With his country riven by tribal strife and his economy shattered, Amin has resorted to the technique of dramatic distraction. The first was his sudden breaking of relations with his former ally, Israel, and his expulsion of all Israeli technicians and advisers. Amin’s edict against the Asians was only his most sensational move. While it is sure to weaken his economy even more, it has guaranteed him great popularity, at least for a while. The African masses are excited that the hated Asians are leaving, and they are convinced that blacks will soon be as rich as the expelled Asians once were.
Tanzanian President Nyerere handed Amin another distraction in mid-September by supporting the invasion by Ugandan exiles who had fled to Tanzania with Obote when Amin came to power. The invasion—a blunder by Nyerere—has only strengthened Amin and made him even more popular.
It is hard to predict the future course of events but easy to assume that they will not make life more hopeful in Uganda. Amin has more diversionary tactics to play with: the Baganda intellectuals, the Asians still in Uganda, the few thousand whites there, mostly British. Three Americans have been killed since Amin came to power. Although Amin’s soldiers have treated Americans worse than any foreigners except British Asians, official American response has been wringing of hands and feeble milk-toast protests. The American government, influenced by Ambassador Thomas P. Melady, does not want to antagonize the General.
Amin can create other distractions with his borders. Tanzania is the obvious enemy now. But Amin has also been making threats about Rwanda to the southwest.
With the future of Uganda so bleak, the expelled Asians are probably the most fortunate of Uganda’s people. They have lost everything they had, but they are out of it.
That ironic lesson has not been lost on the other, larger Asian communities of East Africa, particularly in Kenya. Events inside Uganda have shaken the confidence of the Asians outside. Kenya is one of the most prosperous and stable countries in Africa, and much of its development is due to its rich, educated, and skilled Asian population.
But the Kenyan government has done little to calm their fears. In fact, Amin’s popularity has persuaded the government that it had better speed up the process of pushing Africans into the jobs and shops of the Asians. One Asian lawyer in Kenya recently found himself in an argument with an African on the phone. “Just wait,” the African finally said. “Someday we will get our Amin, and he will fix you.” Many East African Asians have decided that there is no point in waiting for that. They are preparing to leave, more victims of General Amin and the black racism he reflects.
For the Asians left in East Africa, the problem remains of where to go. The British will probably hold to their quota of 3000 vouchers a year, although, with the Ugandan Asians gone, this will mean more vouchers for Kenyans and Tanzanians. But not every British Asian wants to go to Britain. Some older Asians born in India prefer the homeland. The racial discrimination in Britain has incensed many of the educated East African Asians, and they are looking for alternatives. Canada is the first choice now.
At a recent dinner in Nairobi two Asian lawyers, both born in Kenya but only one a citizen of Kenya, discussed alternatives. “We had thought our wandering had stopped,” said the citizen, who looked like Mahatma Gandhi as a youth and is a grandson of an Indian coolie who came to work on the railway eighty years ago. “Now we want to find a home from which we will not have to move again.”
The noncitizen lawyer, a British passport holder, said he was planning to go to Canada. “I think,” he said, “we can be sure of Canada for at least three generations. After that, I do not know.”
“Then it is not home,” said the young citizen. “Perhaps Kenya, in the long run, will be the only place for us.” His companion quickly dismissed this thought, and the young citizen agreed: “We will never have a guarantee that there would not be an Amin here.”