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Uganda: The Asian Backlash

Downtown Kampala gets back to business after racially charged riots.

It was our second week in Uganda. My wife and I were heading back to the capital, Kampala, after two days in the beautiful Kibale Forest in the southwest of the country.

Approaching the city, our driver, Geoffrey, received a text message. Protests had erupted in the capital over the government's decision to hand over more than 7,000 hectares of the Mabira Forest Reserve to an Asian-owned sugarcane company, and things had turned violent.

What began as an environmental demonstration left three people dead, including a 25-year-old Indian man who was pulled off his motorcycle and stoned to death.

Some of the demonstrators carried signs that read, "Save Mabira Forest," but others touted messages proclaiming, "Asians should go," and "For one tree cut, five Indians dead," along with praise for Idi Amin's decision to expel the Asian community in the 1970s.

Some of the demonstrators carried signs that read, "Save Mabira Forest," but others touted messages proclaiming, "Asians should go," and "For one tree cut, five Indians dead."

When an Asian man tried to escape the crowd by driving through it, knocking down several black men, the crowd began attacking Asians indiscriminately, looting their businesses, and smashing the windows of a Hindu Temple, according to local newspaper reports.

During a radio call-in show that night some callers condemned the attacks, but others were less conciliatory.

"Asians would rather throw away the food they don't eat rather than give it to an African," said one caller.

"Idi Amin saved us," said another.

Driving back through downtown Kampala after the riots, I was struck by how deserted the city looked.

newsstand shows newspaper headlines.

Reporter, Jonathan Jones, surveys the local newspaper headlines following the riots that left three people dead.

When I first arrived in Uganda, I couldn't help but notice the number of Asian businesses. Asians own the majority of the upscale hotels, restaurants and retail stores in the capital.

But most black Ugandans earn very little and are trying desperately to escape poverty.

When Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni came to power in the mid-1980s, he essentially inherited an economy in shambles.

Desperate to revive his country's fortunes, Museveni wooed Asians back to Uganda, believing that they could attract foreign investors. He offered to return their property and provide them with financial compensation. But his policies reignited old hostilities.

In the last two decades, Asians, especially those of Indian descent, have re-established both their economic and class status in Ugandan society. Today, India is one of the largest foreign investors in Uganda, and Asians make up a large portion of the country's elite.

Desperate to revive his country's fortunes, Museveni wooed Asians back to Uganda, believing that they could attract foreign investors.

But this resurgence has come at a cost.

At upscale restaurants or hotels, I've seen Asian bosses verbally abuse their black employees. I've noticed black Ugandans checking to see if their Asian bosses are watching before taking a tip.

Of course, I've also seen Asian employers showing their employees compassion and respect, while black Ugandan business owners mistreat their black workers. But I would be lying if I said I hadn't noticed the power dynamic between Asian employers and their black employees here.

A number of failed Asian business projects, including the Sri-Lankan run Tri-Star Apparels textile factory that produced clothing for Wal-Mart and other U.S. stores, have fueled further resentment toward Asian businesses. The general perception is that these large industries are taking money away from Africans.

Of course, I've also seen Asian employers showing their employees compassion and respect... But I would be lying if I said I hadn't noticed the power dynamic between Asian employers and their black employees here.

But even more important, many Ugandans feel that Asian businesses are influencing the country's political future by feeding money into the ruling party, which recently moved to scrap constitutional term limits so that Museveni could run for another term. The opposition along with aid organizations have accused the president of cracking down on dissent and expanding his own presidential powers.

Although Museveni denies this, it remains to be seen whether the leading opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), will use the wave of anti-Asian sentiment to build political support. The FDC has already stated that the recent racial attacks are a result of the government's favorable business policies toward Asians.

A few days after the riots when everything looked to be settling down, trouble flared again when police arrested two opposition members of parliament in connection with the Mabira Forest demonstrations.

Hundreds of opposition supporters poured on to the streets. Riot police blocked parts of downtown Kampala and used tear gas and clubs to break up the crowds. The minute I stepped out of a cab, I could hardly see or breathe for the noxious effects of the smoke.

Other groups, known as the "kiboko" or "stick brigade," because of the canes they carry, worked alongside the police, chasing people through the streets and clobbering anyone who failed to stop.

I noticed hundreds of young men lining the streets, waiting to see what would happen next. I didn't stick around to find out.

In the aftermath of the violence, I got the sense from both public and media reactions that most Ugandans would rather harmony prevail. Asian and black Ugandans alike realize that the last thing the country needs is a reputation for violent xenophobia that could scare away much-needed foreign visitors and investment.

As for the fate of the reserve, leaders from both communities were also in agreement that the precious natural habitat was worth trying to save.

The question now is whether Museveni and his government are willing to listen.

Jonathan Jones is a print and video reporter. Over the next 18 months, Jones and reporter, Anna Sussman, will be traveling through East Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, and South East Asia reporting on peace and reconciliation.

Uganda: President for Life?
Read Jonathan Jones's previous dispatch from Uganda, reported during the 2004 U.S. presidential elections.

Uganda: A Little Goes a Long Way
Watch our popular broadcast story about a San Francisco-based non-profit using the Web to help fund and grow small businesses in Uganda.

REACTIONS

Milton Keynes, United Kingdom
Excellent article.