The brutal dictator of Uganda, General Idi Amin, 40 years ago this August, ordered the expulsion of the country’s Asian population, who had lived in the East African country for more than 100 years. Amin maintained he had a dream in which God told him to expel Asians from the country. Amin’s dream became a nightmare for Asians, who were given 90 days to leave the country.
In August 1972, 60,000 Asians, some of whom were third generation, became stateless, penniless and destitute. They had to flee the country of their birth, sparking the largest Asian exodus in African history and creating a diplomatic crisis. They had been stripped of all their possessions, hounded out of their homes, their businesses and now their country. As they trooped to the Entebbe airport and crowded the highways, Amin’s soldiers robbed them along the way.
The Asian expulsion is largely forgotten today, except by the Ugandan Asians themselves and their descendants who have spread across the world. It was a traumatic experience for them that highlighted the inherent insecurity of migrants and their place in a rapidly changing world.
This year, Uganda celebrates 50 years of independence and marks 40 years since the Amin decrees that forced Asians to leave, creating a large and diverse Ugandan diaspora in many parts of the world, including Canada. The Golden Jubilee Reunion is aimed at former citizens from abroad to return home, to reconnect with their roots, to reflect on the country’s varied past, its booming present and its promising future.
A statement issued by the organizing committee says: ” In an even-packed four days, we will celebrate our shared history and experiences, showcase today’s Uganda, and look forward to the development and the opportunities that will shape our country’s future.” The four-day event, which has been endorsed by the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his government, as part of the official Golden Jubilee celebrations is scheduled for October 11-14.
President Museveni has appreciated the Asians’ contribution to his country and made a special plea to the Asian living abroad to return, promising to given them their properties. Some went back and picked up their shattered lives in Uganda again. Although they represent less than one percent of the country’s population, Asians own Ugandan banks, hotels and foreign exchange bureaus. They manufacture soap, bicycles, jewelry and tissue paper. They run pharmacies, sell insurance and dominate the sugar industry.
Of the estimated 15,000 Asians living in Uganda today, far fewer than the 80,000 or so during. Amin’s time, but estimates put the amount of investment that they have made in Uganda over the past decade at somewhere close to $1 billion.
These days, Uganda’s richest men have names like Madhvani, Hirji and Ruparelia. Some of them contribute more in tax money than the combined populations of entire districts.
One of the tycoons, Sudhir Ruparelia, who was a child when Amin ordered Asians out, stayed and today he owns a country club, various hotels and office buildings, an international school, a bank, an insurance company and a flower farm. His main office is a busy place full of many employees not only of Indian descent but with many black ones as well.
Manuel Pinto, a former member of Uganda’s Parliament, estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the economy is in their hands. Ali Kassam, now a successful Calgary businessman, still remembers hearing Idi Amin’s voice on the radio as he ordered the Asians to get out within 90 days.
”We didn’t believe it at first, but we soon realized that he meant what he said,” said Mr. Kassam, a third generation born in Uganda. ”It was August 1972. I’ll never forget it.”
He questioned the logic and rationale of the Ugandan government to hold the reunion. “What reunion? They confiscated our properties, homes, businesses, farms and vehicles. Now they want us to go back and celebrate our misfortune? No way,” he said echoing sentiments of most ex-Ugandan Asians.
The Aga Khan’s Ismaili community was also among those expelled in 1972, but that didn’t stop the community from making a great contribution to Uganda’s development. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) has built US$ 770 million Bujagali Hydroelectric Power Project, the country’s first private hydroelectric power project. The Bujagali project, one of the largest independent power plants in sub-Saharan Africa, is expected to significantly lower the price of electricity in Uganda.
Another major contribution by AKDN to Uganda’s economy was the opening of its flagship hotel, the Kampala Serena Hotel and the Lake Victoria Serena Resort, thus ensuring that the Serena portfolio embraces all aspects of Uganda’s social and corporate life.
A gigantic boost to the Ugandan economy came with the announcement that at least 2.5 billion barrels of crude oil were discovered along Uganda’s border. The Economist reported that the country expects to earn $2 billion a year beginning in 2015.
The discovery of vast oil reserves in Uganda caused excitement across the country, and more than a touch of anxiety too. If managed well, the petrodollars could transform the economy of the landlocked country, potentially doubling the state’s revenues, creating thousands of jobs and help realize President Yoweri Museveni’s dream of industrializing the country.
The peak flow of 150,000 barrels a day for up to 25 years is expected by 2015. Some of the oil will be used for power production, but the bulk will be sold domestically and in the region. According to government plans, part of the revenue will be used for infrastructure and development projects and part safeguarded for future generations.
However, there are concerns that the glut of petrodollars could distort the economy – and its politics. Godber Tumushabe, executive director of the think tank Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment, in Kampala, said that oil discoveries typically “encourage political longevity”.
Museveni, who has ruled since 1986 and is currently enjoying his fourth term, would not tolerate a handover of power with oil revenues about to flow, he said.
President Museveni, 68, in May has said he will retire at 75 years, which means that he could run for the Presidency in 2016. He has been in power for the last 26 years.
Under present circumstances, I doubt if many expelled Asians will be sending RSVPs to Kampala for the reunion. In 40 years, the Asians have settled well in their adopted countries and have made a name foe themselves in civic, professional and business life.