Idi Amin and the Asians

James Myburgh writes on the fate of a productive racial minority under African nationalist rule


In the British imagination Prime Minister Harold MacMillan's famous "Winds of Change" speech to the Parliament of the Union of South Africa, Cape Town, on February 3 1960 is generally viewed as an enlightened acknowledgment of the rise of African nationalism and a rejection of the National Party government's apartheid policies. Noting the growing strength of "African national consciousness" MacMillan famously observed:

"In different places it takes different forms but it is happening everywhere. The wind of change is blowing through this continent and, whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it."

Though the effect of the speech, on the ground in South Africa, was to strengthen Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd politically - especially after his effective off-the-cuff reply[1] - the events of the following thirty years tend to be presented as vindication of MacMillan's position.

For instance, noting contemporaneous right-wing Conservative opposition to the ditching of Empire, and Verwoerd's comment that "To do justice to all does not only mean being just to the black man of Africa, but also to be just to the white man of Africa", the New Statesman commented that "Macmillan's vision of Africa prevailed."

What is striking about the largely these self-congratulatory British accounts is that they almost never discuss the British vision for its territories in Africa, and particularly those with multi-racial populations, that MacMillan actually articulated - and the degree to which the British government was subsequently able to deliver on this promised future.

In his "Winds of Change" address MacMillan commented that in British colonial territories "inhabited by several different races it has been our aim to find means by which the community can become more of a community, and fellowship can be fostered between its various parts." He then approvingly quoted British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd's September 1959 remarks to the United Nations General Assembly as reflecting the British policy on this matter:

"In those territories where different races or tribes live side by side the task is to ensure that all the people may enjoy security and freedom and the chance to contribute as individuals to the progress and well-being of these countries. We reject the idea of any inherent superiority of one race over another. Our policy therefore is non-racial. It offers a future in which Africans, Europeans, Asians, the peoples of the Pacific and others with whom we are concerned, will all play their full part as citizens in the countries where they live, and in which feelings of race will be submerged in loyalty to new nations".

One of the great tests of the British government's ability to engineer such a non-racial future lay in its territories in East Africa. In particular, the extent to which Britain were able to secure, even as it cut loose its empire, the future of the substantial "Asian" ("Indian", in South African parlance) minorities in Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda.

The focus of this essay is on the fate of the Asians of Uganda under Idi Amin, however it will deal at some length with the situation in Kenya as well.

The Asians of East Africa under colonial rule

The Asian population had arrived in East Africa during British imperial rule, both as traders and as workers on the "Uganda Railway" built in the last years of the 19th century from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. By the mid-1950s the Asian population of Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika had grown to 240 500 people (out of a total of 19 541 100). See Table below.

Table: Asian (Indian) population of East Africa mid-1954[2]

British government documents from the 1950s emphasise the crucial role that the Asians had played in the economic development of these territories. A January 1955 British cabinet memorandum noted that "in East Africa the Asians constitute a number of essential cogs in the economic machine as clerks, technicians and petty shopkeepers and until Africans have been trained, their presence is indispensable."

It added that it was accepted policy to treat Asian residents of these territories as "citizens in the fullest sense of the word, since this is the only hope of attracting their wholehearted loyalty to the territory in which they live. Any other attitude would be unfair to people who have entered in good faith and of whom many have made a very substantial contribution to the economic development of the territories concerned."[3]

The East Africa Royal Commission 1953-1955 Report (June 1955) argued that the future prosperity of East Africa depended heavily on the contribution of its racial minorities. It noted, "Whatever the political arrangements in East Africa may come to be in the future there is no evidence at present to suggest that any appreciable modern economic advance can be achieved without the help, efforts and presence of non-Africans."

By the late 1950s the British government accepted that the black African majority would "ultimately gain political control" in its territories of East Africa - Tanganyika, Kenya and Uganda. However, as a secret July 1959 cabinet memorandum on "Africa: The next ten years" by British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd noted: "it is important to safeguard the future of the non-African minorities. These generate much of the wealth of the territories and contribute much of the skill and enterprise which are engaged in them. They play a vital role, therefore, in the prosperity and development of East Africa."

It was evident, even in the mid-1950s, that securing the future of such minorities in the face of rising African nationalist sentiment would be no easy task. The East Africa Royal Commission had noted:

"The theme that those who possess an advantage have attained it merely because they belong to a more favoured racial community runs like a pathological obsession through the daily life and work of the community. This gives rise, in the last resort, to the belief that all would be well if, by a stroke of the pen or the sword, the African could be rid of the presence of the non-African, or could obtain complete political domination over him. Conversely the non-African population seek their security in measures which would prevent such an occurrence and often seek their security in the political domination of the African."

The Commission, which pressed for the dismantling of colonial-era discrimination and the opening up of equal opportunities for Africans concomitantly rejected the (African nationalist) demands for "guaranteed equality of attainment". It stated that "All attempts to impose artificial equalities where they do not exist, ultimately result in increasing the poverty of the poor rather than reducing it. They thus run counter to what should be the first aim of those who are concerned with equality: the reduction of obstacles to the increase of the national income, and its better distribution."

In "Africa: The next ten years" Lloyd saw self-government being attained in Tanganyika and Uganda by around 1970, though Tanzania, due to its "lack of personnel capable of governing with any hope of success", would remain reliant on "external economic and administrative help." In Kenya Lloyd envisaged an even longer time line for the implementation of responsible self-government given the need to safeguard the legitimate interests of all communities. He noted "In Kenya, our policy is to build up a viable, non-racial State, in which the interests of all communities will be secure, and to maintain full responsibility until this has been achieved."

However, within a few years the British government had jettisoned such imperial obligations. On December 9 1961 Tanganyika secured its independence, followed by Uganda (October 9 1962) and then Kenya (December 12 1963).

The transition

During the negotiations around the transition in these territories African nationalist leaders vehemently opposed any group-based protections for racial minorities. Instead, assurances were made that the rights of individuals from these communities would be respected and their future contribution to the economy was valued and would be protected.

For instance in December 1959 TANU President Julius Nyerere sought to allay the fears of his country's racial minorities stating that "We in Tanganyika believe that only a wicked man can make colour the criterion for human rights. Here we intend to build a country in which the colour of a person's skin or the texture of his hair will be as irrelevant to his rights and duties as a citizen as it is irrelevant to his value in the eyes of god."

In his address on Kenya's day of independence President Jomo Kenyatta also stressed reconciliation. He stated that "We shall count as our friends, and welcome as fellow-citizens, every man, woman and child, in Kenya - regardless of race, tribe, colour or creed - who is ready to help us in the great task of advance the social well-being of all our people."

Milton Obote, Uganda's new Prime Minister was quoted in a 1964 New York Times article as saying: "I can only work for the liberty of all individuals residing in Uganda, regardless of race. There should be a square deal for everyone and this idea is popularly accepted."[4]

From such straw European apologists for African nationalism spun an image of the new regimes as hugely tolerant, non-racial and committed to the brotherhood of man. Kenya, for example, was pictured by Western political scientists as "a little paradise for race relations."[5]

The reality, on the ground, was quite different. Once the transition in these countries had been secured temporary assurances were discarded, and the new regimes committed themselves to aggressive "Africanisation" policies. The demand for equality of outcomes was, once again, asserted.

In Tanganyika President Julius Nyerere introduced guidelines as early as October 1960 stating that only if "no suitable, qualified Tanganyikan African candidates is available" for civil service positions should candidates from other race groups be considered. Such racial preferences were defended on the basis that the "racial composition of the civil service should in the long run broadly reflect that of the population as a whole."[6]

In Kenya KANU's 1963 election manifesto declared that "the radical disbalance in the Civil Service, commerce and the professions will be righted".[7] In a July 1963 speech to the Kenyan senate J. P. Mathenge, the KANU leader of government business, stated that government's policy was to redress the existing imbalances between races, a policy which meant that "the proportion of officers in the Civil Service, and we hope in all other walks of life, will more accurately reflect the racial composition of the population as a whole. This means that 99 per cent of the civil servants and other people will be black people."[8]

In the early years of African nationalist rule in Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika (Tanzania, after the incorporation of Zanzibar) the priority was Africanising the civil service. By 1969 the percentage of Africans in the Tanzanian civil service had been increased to 80.3%, up from 26.1% in 1961. In Kenya too, 92% of the civil service had been Africanised by November 1966.[9]

Within a few years, the Asian community - which continued to play a central role in the economy - had become the focus of nationalist hostility. In an article for the New York Times (June 25 1967) Lawrence Fellows noted how the Asians, who were estimated to control some four-fifths of commerce in East Africa, were "becoming more and more the objects of outbursts of envy and smouldering resentment." He described the issue as follows:

"The Africans have won political power in their countries, but economic power eludes them. Programmes of Africanisation, of reserving jobs for Africans, have got them into the civil service, but not into commerce. Programmes of Government help to aspiring African businessmen have not often proved a good substitute for hard work and the good business sense that is acquired through experience. The Africans rarely blame themselves; more often they speak of their plight as a legacy of their colonial past." [10]

In late 1966 non-African stallholders in the Nairobi city market were expelled by the City Council. KANU MP J K Gatuguta defended this decision saying "it is very wrong for anybody to think that this is discrimination. It is not. All the Government is trying to do now is to remove the imbalance in commerce and industry. If the government thinks that some section of the community has advanced so far in commerce and industry and that something should be done to remove the imbalance, that is not discrimination, I must say."[11]

In early 1967 the Tanzanian government deported hundreds of Asian families in order, according to Fellows, to "open up jobs and hasten the process of Africanisation." The basis on which this was done was that these individuals had no legal right to be in the country as they were not citizens.

The citizenship question

Two protections had been provided to East Africa's Asian minorities at independence. The constitution of, for example, Kenya prohibited racial discrimination. Asians also retained the right to British citizenship. It appears that citizenship was not automatically granted to those individuals whose parents were born outside of the country - but had to be applied for during a limited two-year period. Applicants were also required to renounce their citizenship of other countries in order to do so.

In Kenya 50 000 Asians, out of the total Asian population of 180 000, automatically received citizenship at independence, and another 20 000 successfully applied for and received citizenship during the initial two year window period.[12] In Uganda the Asian community had initially been slow to apply for citizenship, but thousands had rushed to do so as the deadline approached. Most of these applications were not processed. Obote's 1966 constitutional amendments placed an embargo on the granting of further citizenship applications even though they had been submitted on time.

The nationalist regimes in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya proceeded to use this largely contrived distinction between citizen and non-citizen to bypass the principle of non-discrimination and drive what were essentially aggressive anti-Asian policies.

In late 1967 the KANU government in Kenya passed two pieces of legislation - the Trade Licensing Act and the Immigration Act - in an effort to remove non-black competition in employment and trade. An editorial in the East Africa Journal complained of how the Africanisation of high-level positions in the private sector was "so small as to be almost meaningless" and welcomed the "new, tough line which the Government is taking" as "long overdue and most welcome".[13]

The Immigration Act withdrew existing residents' certificates and required all non-citizen employees to apply for permits-if they wished to continue in their positions. Any change of occupation would require authorisation, and non-citizens were not allowed to move jobs without permission. The Act did not apply to Ugandan or Tanzanian Africans.[14] The Kenyanisation Bureau, established by the Act, would only grant permits if there was no citizen able to do the task available, and only for one or two years - in order to allow the employer to train citizens to fill those positions.

The Trade Licensing Act meanwhile centralised control over the granting of trading licenses in order to accelerate Africanisation. The method it employed was through proscribing non-citizens from trading in certain areas and certain goods. By 1970 non-citizens were prohibited from trading in fifty-two items including maize, sugar, vegetables, kerosene, soap, salt, cigarettes and sweets. Non-citizens were also prohibited from trading outside of the main urban areas ("general business areas") unless they had received special dispensation to do so. The Act stated that the licensing officer was "to be guided by the principle that businesses carried on in any place which is not within a general business area ought, where practicable, to be controlled by citizens of Kenya".[15]

In terms of the Act, all traders (whatever their citizenship status) were required to apply for new licenses. When the law was implemented in January 1969 it was announced that 3 000 non-citizens traders would lose their licenses, and a further 1 000 would be deprived of their licences the following year. Quit notices were, in some cases, sent to citizens. The justification for this was that "citizens of African origin" were having difficulty obtaining premises on main streets, and as a result government had decided that some of these sites would be reserved for Africans.

As the New York Times later noted this "elaborate system" of trade licensing and work permits for non-citizens was aimed primarily at "slowly replacing many Indian and Pakistani businessmen with Africans."[16]

The British response

As early as 1965 a secret British cabinet memorandum noted the high number of Asians with British passports entering the country from East Africa (some 5 000 a year). It suggested that such individuals be subjected to immigration control. This was duly done through the Commonwealth Immigration Act passed in February 1968 by the Labour Party government in a panicky response to a surge of immigration of Asians with British passports from Kenya. 1 500 vouchers proceeded to be allotted for entry into the United Kingdom for the whole of East Africa (each voucher covered the head of a family rather than just an individual.)

In December 1968 another cabinet memorandum, prepared by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, analysed the intentions of the "Kenyan and Ugandan Governments in regard to their Africanisation programmes and the likely effect that these would have on the Asian communities resident in those countries" most of whom, it noted, had British passports.

It is clear from this memorandum that the British government was involved in a game of push-me-pull-you over the Asians with the Kenyan and Ugandan governments. With the latter doing their best to push out Asian non-citizens and the British trying to prevent a large influx of such migrants. The memorandum noted that the Kenyan government was planning on not renewing 9 000 work permits of Asian non-citizens - a decision which would affect some 27 000 people in total. It advised that representations be made to "the Kenya Government emphasising that we have already made provision to absorb a substantial number of Asian UK citizens expelled from Kenya" and that "our capacity to absorb is already fully stretched."

The memorandum also noted that the Obote regime in Uganda wanted to boot out most of its Asian population. It noted:

"We know that the Uganda Government, in pursuit of a policy of Africanisation, are considering legislation which could be introduced at short notice, the effect of which, by withdrawing all permits and renewing them only on a selective basis, would be designed to reduce the Asian population of Uganda from 80 000 to some 20 000 over a period of 5 years. It is understood that the Uganda Government intend that about 20 000 of these people should leave Uganda within 6 months of the introduction of the legislation. While the exact number of United Kingdom citizens of Asian origin in Uganda is not known, it is expected that about 75% of those required to leave Uganda will be United Kingdom citizens. If our worst fears are realised this could involve a demand for 5 000 vouchers in the first six months."

This unstable status quo of the Kenyan and Ugandan governments wanting the Asians out, and the British not wanting to let them in, would remain intact over the next few years. By February 1970 there was a waiting list of 10 000 in Kenya and 1 200 in Uganda for the annual allocation of 1 500 British entry permits for East Africa.[17]

The Asians and Idi Amin

By the late 1960s it is clear that the Black Spot had been placed on the Asian minority of East Africa. Once regarded as an asset to these countries, they had been redefined as a problem not just by African nationalist rulers, but by many Western intellectuals as well. As Paul Theroux noted in his 1967 essay "Hating the Asians", the vulnerable position of this minority was "the result of a collaboration, most likely unthought-out and maybe even unconscious, between outsiders and insiders; almost a conspiracy of Africans and their European apologists, who would very much like to see Africa succeed, even at the expense of a pogrom, a thorough purge of these immigrant peoples."[18]

In February 1968 Ugandan President Milton Obote had warned that "We will keep non-Ugandan citizens at our pleasure but if, for national interests, that pleasure runs out, they will have to go to their countries." In a despatch dated February 24 1970 The Times of London wrote of the growing fears of Asian non-citizens in Uganda. This was the consequence of the Ugandan Immigration Act, flagged in the cabinet memorandum mentioned above, that was due to go into effect on May 1. According to the report Asians feared that the requirement for permits "for non-citizens to hold jobs or own shops will force them out of the country."

The newspaper reported that the Asians were already subject to severe discrimination with Asian traders "barred by the Government in trading in 34 commodities, including everyday items such as groceries." It also observed that "Asians in Uganda form most of the middle class, as they do in Kenya. But there is one difference: there was already the core of an African middle class here when Uganda became independent. Therefore the ‘Africanisation' process is expected to be applied more systematically than it has been in Kenya. There is a schedule for ousting, district-by-district, all non-Ugandan citizens."

These fears were not immediately realised and in January 1971 Milton Obote was ousted in a coup d'état by General Idi Amin. The New York Times reported, on January 31 1972, that having put a halt to Obote's "move-to-the-left" programme the Ugandan economy appeared to be heading out of serious economic trouble. It did note however that while nationalisation had been put on hold the government was putting greater emphasis on "Ugandisation of industry and retail and wholesale trade, which now is largely in the hands of the country's more than 80 000 Asians."

By 1972 it was government policy in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania that all Asian United Kingdom passport holders would have to leave eventually. As a British cabinet memorandum on the "Asian Problem in East and Central Africa" (December 1972) noted, the Asians "are unpopular". The "degree of resentment varies... but the reasons are broadly speaking the same. It is not just that they have attained a controlling position in trade, disproportionate to their numbers, but they constitute an important middle class element, holding jobs in management, teaching and the civil service, to which the new newly-educated Africans aspire."

The governments of Kenya and Tanzania were willing to pursue this goal gradually but purposefully - with Kenya, in particular, mindful of the need to avoid too much economic disruption. Idi Amin, who had only reached grade 4 in school, would prove less susceptible to considerations of economic rationality and traditional British diplomatic cajoling.

On August 4 Idi Amin told a contingent of troops that there was "no room" in Uganda for the Asians because they were "economic saboteurs."[19] The following day he announced that Asians with British passports would have to leave Uganda within three months. In a national broadcast Amin said that he would be summoning the British High Commissioner to ask him to "make arrangements and remove the 80 000 British passport holders [this was an overestimate] within three months." He repeated his accusation that the Asians were sabotaging the economy and complained that in most main towns "almost the entire commercial section remained in the hands of Asians. ‘Why have Ugandans not taken over such businesses?' he asked."[20] Amin would say, a short while after, that the decision had come to him after he had had a "dream that the Asian problem was becoming extremely explosive."

The response by the British government was to acknowledge a "special responsibility" to Uganda's non-citizen Asians but to resist their wholesale expulsion from the country. The British Home Secretary, Robert Carr, said a group of ministers and officials had been established to "make sure all action is taken to try and avert the terrible threat overhanging these people." Amin nonetheless reaffirmed his decision stating, on April 9, that any Asians not exempt from his order who overstayed would "be sitting in the fire."[21]

In an article for the New York Times Martin Short, The Economist's correspondent, wrote that Amin had decreed that departing Asians must "sell their businesses only to Ugandan Africans. That means that many of them, finding no buyers, will have to abandon their businesses. The exchange-control regulations are being amended to permit them to take out only a minimum of money and personal effects. Still, all they want at this point is to go to Britain."[22]

In a meeting on August 15 Geoffrey Rippon, a special British envoy, failed to persuade Amin to relent on his expulsion order. Amin told a joint press conference that "I am not changing my mind that the Asians who are British, will have to go to England."[23]

One Asian shopkeeper - one of hundreds of Indians waiting outside the British High Commission in Kampala - told Bernard Weinraub of the New York Times: "Everything's gone. The shop, the money, the house. Everything, everything." Weinraub also quoted an anonymous Western diplomat as saying that "the resentment toward the Asians is vast, even among intellectuals. President Amin does seem to have the support of the people, who keep saying over and over that from the time they were children they were treated as inferiors by the Asian shopkeepers. Now they're getting even and they have no qualms about it."[24]

On August 19 Amin announced that all Asians - including citizens - were now to be expelled. This would affect the several thousand Asians who had taken up Ugandan citizenship on independence (this edict was reversed a short while later). The New York Times noted "The announcement means that virtually the entire Asian community will disappear, leaving businesses, schools, stores, banks, garages, hospitals in the hands of Ugandans for the first time." Amin justified this decision "in the light of sabotage and arson, which the Indians have now started to carry out in the country."

Amin also explained how he would deal with the effects of the exodus. The Asians were estimated to manage over eighty percent of the commerce and trade in the country, and also made up most of the professional classes in the country (doctors, lawyer, teachers etc.) On the question of how departing Asian teachers would be replaced Amin advised that he would "soon be signing a decree empowering the Minister of Education to direct students in our university to take up the teaching profession to insure that our schools remain open and adequately manned."

The loss of many of the country's motor mechanics and technicians would not, it seemed, be a problem either. Amin stated that he would very soon "send delegations to countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Japan who sell a lot of cars and other motor vehicles to this country. The delegations will make arrangements to send technicians and mechanics to come and man the garages which will be left by the Asians."[25]

That day hundreds of black Ugandans in Kampala protested in support of the expulsion of the Asians. Haji Musa Sebaduka, 62 year old president of the Uganda African Traders Association, was quoted as saying "We have been suffering too long. They have taken our commerce and trade and now it is the Africans' turn."[26]

In a feature for the New York Times Weinraub recorded the shock of many Asians. He quoted one Indian woman sitting in her home on old Kampala Hill as saying: "It is finished, all finished for us. My family came in 1889. I was born here. I want to die here. This is my home. What on earth shall I do?" An Indian importer who arrived as a child in Uganda 40 years before told Weinraub "We are tenacious people, but if we feel we are not wanted then we cannot stay. We will lose a great deal, perhaps everything, but we cannot stay. It is not money that makes a man's life happy; it is the certainty of the future. We do not have that certainty any more."[27]

In another article an Asian lawyer, sitting in his office off Kampala Road, told the newspaper: "Do you think it was easy for us? My father came here in 1910. An old relative was here. They worked seven days a week building up the dukawallah (shop). My father had no money, no skills, and worked 46 years until his health broke. And now, after our lives are here, our roots are here, they say go, get out, we are ‘sabotaging' the economy. It is shameful."[28]

On the likely repercussions of the departure of most of Uganda's middle class The New York Times noted that Amin "seems to be ignoring the domestic consequences of a sudden exodus of most of the nation's doctors, lawyers, businessmen, mechanics, hotel owners, grocers and shopkeepers." It commented:

"Although some Asian lawyers and doctors who are Ugandan citizens may remain, the position of Asians in Uganda is likely to be hazardous at best, and even they will probably start leaving. With so few Africans qualified to take over the Asians' role - a problem encountered not only in Uganda but across East Africa - the exodus is expected to lead to unemployment, food shortages (virtually all distributors are Asians) and scarcities of everything from medicine to building equipment."[29]

In the late 1960s many Western academics shied away from drawing the obvious parallels between the Africanisation measures being pursued across East Africa at the time and the ‘Aryanisation' policies implemented across continental Europe in the mid-to-late 1930s. Amin though - a fierce "anti-Zionist" - felt no compunction about expressing his admiration for Adolf Hitler.

In a message sent to United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim and Premier Golda Meir of Israel in mid-September Amin commented: "Germany is the right place where when Hitler was the Prime Minister and supreme commander, he burned over six million Jews. This is because Hitler and all German people knew that Israelis are not people who are working in the interest of the people of the world and that is why they burned the Israelis alive with gas in the soil of Germany." He added that the Jews should be deported from Israel back to England "which was responsible for taking them to Palestine."[30]

A day or two later Uganda announced that any of the unwanted Asians who were still in the country after November 8 would "have to be rounded up by the security forces and taken to specified military camps" and kept there "until the British Government allows them entry into their own motherland, which is Britain." The country's Foreign Minister Walume-Kibedi warned that "if the British Government insisted on frustrating the removal of British Asians from Uganda, the consequences would not be good for the Asians concerned or for Britain."[31]

Although Julius Nyerere, a strong ally of Milton Obote, criticised Amin's move to expel the Asians most other black African states resisted any condemnation of the Ugandan leader. On September 27 1972 British Foreign Secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home asked the UN General Assembly to give urgent consideration to the expulsion of the Asians from Uganda - as it was "an outrage against standards of human decency, in the face of which this Assembly cannot remain silent." He asked the body to call upon Amin to extend "his arbitrary and inhumane deadline of 90 days, and to allow the Asians expelled to take their belongings with them." In his address he stated:

"We do not accept that this deadline has any justification in law or in morality. The government of Uganda is responsible for the proper treatment of those who have lived in that country for many years, and putting them in camps is contrary to all accepted standards of civilised behaviour."

He requested that the matter be placed on the agenda. "I trust that it will be overwhelmingly accepted because, should this organisation fail to do so, there is no one to whom any person, whatever the colour of his skin, can turn for common justice." In reply Uganda's delegate Grace S. Ibingira said that if the matter was placed on the General Assembly's agenda "we shall take it that we are being bullied by a former imperial power into submission on a matter with which they are without right." The issue was an economic one, he added, not a racial matter, and that it was a ‘coincidence' that the aliens being expelled were Asians. "Ninety-five per cent of the wealth of our country was in the hands of [this] minority group."[32]

Shortly afterwards (September 29) Britain suspended its request, citing an "important African initiative on the matter." It is not clear how much support it would have received. The New York Times quoted one African foreign minister as insisting that "all African nations shared Uganda's position that the issue of the Asians was an ‘internal' matter that should not be brought before the General Assembly. Many Arab states are said to hold this view - that Uganda is being bullied by a former imperial power."[33]

In an editorial the New York Times commented that "For African governments to contend that this abrupt uprooting of thousands of helpless people from the only homeland most of them have ever known is purely an ‘internal' matter for Uganda is preposterous....It would be unforgivable if [Amin] made good his threat to herd into concentration camps these people who have contributed much to Ugandan development and commerce."[34]

By mid-October some 14 000 refugees had been flown into the United Kingdom, with 10 000 more expected. A New York Times report on the Stradishall refugee camp in England cited the case of one family who had owned a garage in Kampala. The son, Sirhaz, told the newspaper's correspondent "It was worth 3,000,000 shillings and after we left and the Government sold it we got a letter saying it went for 30,000."[35]

By the time the November 8 deadline had passed Uganda's Asian population had been reduced to only several hundred or so individuals. The few remaining Asians were required to present themselves at Independence Park where their newly issued identity cards were signed by Government and army officials. "Asians who are citizens were being asked to what rural areas they would prefer to be moved", one report stated: "President Idi Amin has announced that they will not be allowed to remain in the towns."[36] According to the New York Times 24 000 Asians were airlifted to Britain, 6 000 to Canada, several thousand more flew to Britain, Europe and India on scheduled flights. Several thousand went to India by sea. The US accepted 940 stateless Asians.[37]

Michael Knipe, correspondent for The Times of London commented on the aftermath of the exodus:

"Three months ago it was impossible to imagine Uganda without Asians. They were as inevitably present as the banana trees in the lush green vegetation and the elephants in the game parks. Plump women bulging out of saris minded almost every duka (store) in the villages along the main roads. And here in the capital, Asians were everywhere, dominating the professions and controlling 75 per cent of the import trade and almost as much of the retail trade. The division between Asians and Africans was most apparent in their modes of transport. Africans walked, or rode bicycles or buses; almost all the cars were owned and used by Asians. Last week things were staggeringly different. One could walk through Kampala, in and out of banks and shops - the few that were still open - without seeing a solitary Asian face. The same applied in every town and village. And the cars, including numerous Mercedes, were being driven by Africans."[38]

Agence France-Presse estimated, on November 12, that only 800 Asians remained. It reported that 80 per cent of shops in Kampala had closed and the city "has an air, as one diplomat put it, of ‘trying to live after an epidemic of plague'." The agency commented: "Previously, the Asian residential areas took up a third of Kampala. Now, there hangs over them the sort of silence that follows a catastrophe... With the departure of the Asians, imports have been cut back, and everyday products are running out fast. Many prices have doubled since Wednesday." The departure of the Asians had deprived the hospitals, schools, industries and import-export concerns of much of their skilled labour. And some 150 000 workers and 50 000 servants had lost their jobs.[39]

The market for chickens, traditionally grown by Uganda's peasant farmers, also collapsed. Asian businessmen were no longer around to collect and gin the cotton crop grown by such farmers. A sugar shortage was developing "apparently because of production difficulties caused by the failure of machines that had been serviced by Asians." The tourist industry also imploded.[40]


With the Asian problem "settled" Amin turned to the "second phase of the economic war", with Uganda's once 7 000 British community the new target.[41] On December 18 1972 Amin announced the takeover of all "foreign owned tea plantations here, and eight of Uganda's biggest commercial concerns, seven of them British and one American."[42]

In 1974 the International Commission of Jurists published a report which estimated that 90 000 individuals had been killed since Amin had taken power.

"The killing", according to an August 1974 article by Hal Sheets, "has struck nearly every tribe in every region of the country, including more than 50,000 people from ethnic groups formerly identified with the Obote regime and several thousand from General Amin's own tribe, the Kakwa. According to witnesses, the methods used in the killings match the horror of the numbers. There are reports that entire villages were slain by machine gun and that the bodies were fed to crocodiles in the Nile River or carried to mass graves in the bush. Some victims have been made to kill each other with hammers or to consume their own flesh until they have bled to death."[43]

The expulsion of the Asians, and the increasing number of "disappearances" of opponents of the regime did not turn Idi Amin into an international pariah. On October 1 1975 Amin, as Chairman of the Organisation of African Unity, was publicly applauded by the UN General Assembly (the same body that had decreed that apartheid was a crime against humanity two years before.) According to a New York Times report he was given a standing ovation both when protocol officers led him into the Assembly hall and after he had completed his remarks.[44]

In a diplomatic cable sent from Bonn on November 21 1975 the US's former Ambassador to Uganda, Thomas P Malady, noted that the expulsion of the Asians was welcome to most Africans in Uganda. This he put down to "economic envy." However, Amin's murder of thousands of people "together with economic difficulties after the expulsion of the Asians turned the tide of Amin's popularity." Malady noted:

"People became terrified and disappointed. They realized, that in the long run, they received no advantage from the expulsion of the Asians, except the few who took over their business. Although disappearances are rare today and people have begun to feel safer again, the economic difficulties and the scarcity of essential commodities, even those produced in Uganda, brought Amin's popularity down to a minimum. Only the much favoured Muslims, members of his own tribe, higher ranks of the army and other favourites who came to power and influence through Amin still support and favour him. Discontent is stronger among the urban populace, since the rural populace can support itself through agriculture. Muslims play the most important role. Almost all industries, business and shops in Kampala and the major cities are owned or managed by them, although they represent only five per cent of the people (many jokingly speak of Kampala as 'Muslim City')."

Although the expulsion of most of Uganda's middle class, on the basis of their racial distinctiveness, impoverished that country it proceeded to greatly enrich the United Kingdom. As The Observer noted in 2002 on the thirtieth anniversary of the expulsion, "In a remarkable story of triumph, those penniless [Asian] refugees are now Britain's most successful immigrant community. From arriving with only the clothes on their backs, Ugandan Asians have risen to the top in all walks of British life."


In his 1962 "Winds of Change" address MacMillan had reiterated that British policy for its colonies, as opposed to the National Party's apartheid policies, offered a non-racial future in which Africans, Europeans and Asians would "all play their full part as citizens in the countries where they live". It is clear, however, that by 1968 this ideal was dead in the water as far as East Africa was concerned. By this time British policy was mainly concerned with how to deal with the potential influx of Asian migrants with United Kingdom passports increasingly rendered in "excess" by Africanisation policies.

The basic problem had been identified by James Madison some two centuries before. In the Federalist Papers he warned that under democracy "If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure." There were, he wrote, only two methods of "providing against this evil":

"The one by creating a will in the community independent of the majority -- that is, of the society itself; the other, by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable."

As the imperial power Britain was an external authority responsible for and in a position to protect the legitimate interests of the different groups in its colonial territories (though it clearly did not always do so). However, its response to the rising tide of African nationalism was to cut loose its territories and to scupper its old imperial responsibilities. MacMillan might have cited the ideal of a non-racial future for British territories in the Winds of Change address, but the underlying message of the speech was that soon Britain would no longer be around to guarantee it.

At the same time African nationalist ideology sought to unite the racial (or sometimes ethnic) majority in the colonial territories around a "common interest." This extended well beyond just securing independence from the former colonial power. The essence of African nationalist ideology lies in the belief that the advantages of the metropolitan powers relative to their African colonies - and, more critically, of the alien racial and ethnic minorities within them - had simply been acquired through the robbery and exploitation of the majority population.

As such the positions and property of such minorities were seen as "unearned" and illegitimate. This wealth was seen as thus rightfully belonging to "the people" from whom it had been "stolen". The continued economic success of such minority groups, even (and indeed especially) after power had been won and discrimination turned against them, was also felt to be a continued moral affront to the "dignity" of the majority. This then was the interest around which African nationalist unity was built, and one which obviously placed the rights of racial and ethnic minorities in profound peril.

Madison wrote that if democracies are to avoid degenerating into the tyranny of one part of society over another, society itself needed to be "broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority."

Over time, the unnatural popular unity achieved by African nationalist movements at independence may have been expected to gradually break down, as the euphoria of ‘liberation' faded, and the flaws of the new rulers became apparent. This would be a process greatly accelerated through economic mismanagement.

However, in such circumstances the overwhelming countervailing temptation for nationalist leaders was to briefly shore up popular unity by mobilising against the relatively wealthy and often highly productive racial minorities in their societies. The dispossession of such groups, often carried out in a popular and festive orgy of destruction, also allowed for key political insiders to be paid off with plunder.

Yet, by the time the consequences became apparent it was too late for those countries - as functioning and relatively prosperous multi-racial societies. Such ‘Africanisation' policies, when directed towards the expropriation of private property, invariably led to the mass exodus of racial minorities; economic collapse; the imposition of dictatorship by the newly enriched but suddenly unpopular ruling elite; and often then, in reaction, civil war.

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.


[1] See, for instance, Saul Dubow, ‘MacMillan, Verwoerd, and the ‘Wind of Change' speech", The Historical Journal, 54,4 2011, Cambridge University Press

[2] Cabinet Memorandum by the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, "Indian Communities in the Colonies", January 20 1955

[3] Cabinet memorandum by the British Secretary of State for the Colonies on Indian Communities in the Colonies, January 20 1955

[4] New York Times April 11 1964

[5] Paul Theroux, "Hating the Asians", Transition, Volume 0, Issue 33 (Oct - Nov., 1967)

[6] Cranford Pratt, The Critical Phase in Tanzania, 1945-1968: Nyerere and the Emergence of a Socialist Strategy, Cambridge University Press, 1967

[7] Donald Rothchild, Racial Bargaining in Independent Kenya: A Study of Minorities and Decolonization (London : Oxford University Press for the Institute of Race Relations, 1973), pg. 235n. According to a 1964 manpower survey Kenya, cited by Rothchild in a 1969 article, "A racial breakdown of jobs requiring university or higher education showed that, out of 6,488 positions surveyed, 23 per cent were held by Africans, 27 per cent by Asians, and 50 per cent by Europeans. Africans held only 2 per cent of the highest-level positions in the leading banks and motor firms; and less than 6 per cent of the town planners, lawyers, doctors, engineers, surveyors, and similar professional men were Africans. In the semi-professional and technical categories, Africans held an average of 76 per cent of the posts..." (Rothchild "Ethnic Inequalities in Kenya", The Journal of Modern African Studies, 7, 1969 pg. 693)

[8] Rothchild "Ethnic Inequalities in Kenya", pp 707 - 708

[9] Rothchild "Ethnic Inequalities in Kenya", pp 704

[10] Lawrence Fellows, The Duka-Wallas Are Outcasts in Africa, New York Times June 25 1967

[11][11] Hansard December 141966

[12] Yash Ghai and Dharam Ghai, The Asian Minorities of East and Central Africa (up to 1971 (London : Minority Rights Group, 1971), pg. 9

[13] Quoted in Rothchild "Ethnic Inequalities in Kenya"

[14] Rothchild, Racial Bargaining in Independent Kenya, pg. 263

[15] Quoted in Rothchild, Racial Bargaining in Independent Kenya, pg. 267

[16] The New York Times August 29 1972

[17] The Times, February 25 1970

[18] Paul Theroux, "Hating the Asians", Transition, Volume 0, Issue 33 (Oct - Nov., 1967)

[19] The New York Times August 8 1972

[20] Reuters August 5 1972

[21] Reuters August 10 1972

[22] The New York Times August 13 1972

[23] Reuters August 15 1972

[24] The New York Times, August 18 1972

[25] New York Times August 20 1972

[26] New York Times August 20 1972

[27] Bernard Weinraub, Stunned Ugandan Asians: From Prosperity to Despair, New York Times August 22 1972

[28] New York Times August 27 1972

[29] New York Times August 27 1972

[30] Reuters, September 12 1972

[31] Reuters September 13 1972

[32] New York Times, September 28 1972

[33] New York Times September 30 1972

[34] New York Times, October 2 1972

[35] New York Times October 18 1972

[36] The New York Times, November 10 1972

[37] New York Times November 12 1972

[38] New York Times November 12 1972

[39] AFP November 12 1972

[40] New York Times December 3 1972

[41] New York Times November 12 1972

[42] New York Times December 18 1972

[43] Hal Sheets, "Uganda's Reign of Terror" New York Times August 4 1974

[44] New York Times October 2 1975

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter