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Rough Cut: Uganda: The Return
Background History

Asians In Uganda

A long trading history between India and Africa brought Asians to the African continent long before European colonizers arrived during the 19th century. The first large influx of Asians to Uganda came with the building of the railroads at the turn of the 20th century. The railway that still operates today along a 600-mile stretch between the Kenyan coast and Uganda took more than 30,000 laborers six years to build.

In his book, The Iron Snake, first published in 1965, author Ronald Hardy wrote vividly about the wretched conditions endured by workers during the construction, in which, he reports, four people died for every mile of track laid. African tribes, including the Maasai, dubbed the railroad "the iron snake" prophesying that it would bring nothing but plunder and bad luck to their homeland.


Agricultural worker among crops.

Even in the early 1900s, tensions were building between native Ugandans and Asians around trade. When the railroad was completed in 1901, it opened up Uganda's abundant resources of cotton, tea, coffee and sugar, which were exported back to Britain at ever increasing rates.

Close to the zenith of their colonial power, which many historians say peaked around 1921, the British saw Uganda as one of its crown jewels of Africa. And as Ugandan trade began to boom, the British increasingly turned to Asians, rather than black Ugandans, to run their operations.

In the view of the British, Asians made better business partners, and when Africans tried to organize control of Uganda's prized cotton gins, producing the country's most valuable cash crop, they were soundly defeated.

Tensions also began stirring in Uganda's sugar plantations where many of the Asian plantation owners kept wages low by bringing in migrant workers from outside the region.

Gen. Idi Amin

Gen. Idi Amin. (Photo: AP)

By the time the country reached independence in 1962, Asians were an entrenched part of Uganda's business elite. But their fortunes changed dramatically in 1971, when Africa's most famous -- or infamous -- dictator, Gen. Idi Amin, came to power. Some 60,000 Asians were expelled soon after Amin seized the country from President Mobote in a military coup.

The expulsions began in September 1972 and three months later, all Asians not holding Ugandan citizenship were forced to leave. As citizens of a former British colony, many Asians still held British passports, and a reported 30,000 of them fled to Britain, leaving most of their assets behind.

Already mired in corruption with an expensive army to maintain to keep him in power, Amin used the Asians and their economic prowess as easy villains to inflame an already disgruntled and poor black population and to deflect attention from the gluttonous excesses of his own rule. He referred to Asians as "bloodsuckers" and said they were milking a system that rightfully belonged to Africans.

The assets from confiscated Asian businesses enriched Amin's own coffers and paid for continued army protection, but, the expulsions essentially left the Ugandan economy with no-one at the wheel. A few years after the Asians left, the Ugandan economy was in disarray. Once-powerful agricultural production centers were left abandoned or reduced to subsistence farming, and inflation soared.

Street-food venders in Kampala.

In 1982, a decade after Asian Ugandans had scattered across the world, Amin's sucessor, President Milton Obote, and his government passed legislation to begin returning land to Asians. It took another nine years for those properties to be restored, helped by pressure from international donors such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, who were largely bankrolling Uganda's economy.

Today, under current President Yoweri Museveni, Asians have been further if tacitly encouraged to return to Uganda as part of a general economic revival and a more stable political environment.

SOURCES: BBC; The Guardian; The New York Times; Uganda National Agricultural Research Organization; International Television News; Ugandan Asians Archive.

Books, Films, and Related Links

The Daily Monitor
The Daily Monitor has been a privately owned independent national newspaper since 1992. It covers all African news but especially focuses on business, politics and culture in Uganda.

Uganda Since Independence: A Story of Unfulfilled Hopes By Phares Mutibwa, September 1992
During the publication of Uganda Since Independence, Mutibwa, former head of the department of history at Makerere University, was a member of Uganda's Constitutional Commission. An academic and a resident who lived through the time of Idi Amin's rule, he gives a first-hand account and analysis of that tragic period in Uganda's history.

Idi Amin Dada
French filmmaker Barbet Schroeder got unprecedented access to the Ugandan president in 1974, when he created a personal portrait of Idi Amin at the height of his power. It's a fascinating, humorous, and sometimes bizarrely staged look at the daily life of the leader who became vilified by the rest of the world for his increasingly brutal rule.

The Last King of Scotland
Based on the novel by British journalist Giles Foden, the film tells the story of Idi Amin (played by Forest Whitaker) through the eyes of a fictional character, Nicholas Garrigan, who is Amin's personal doctor. In what is often seen as a Heart of Darkness tale, Garrigan is caught between duty and morality as he experiences firsthand Amin's mercurial power and the tragedies of his eight years in office. Whitaker won an Oscar for his performance.

Mississippi Masala (1991)
Directed by Mira Nair, the film follows the prejudices that surface around a relationship between an Indian woman (Sarita Choudhury), whose family was expelled from Uganda in 1972, and an American businessman (Denzel Washington), after the two meet and fall in love in the American south.

Idi Amin Obituary
This well-furnished report published in the Guardian U.K. in August 2003 marks the career and death of Idi Amin, who went from lowly army cook to become "one of the most brutal military dictators to wield power in post-independence Africa."

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

Uganda: The Asian Backlash
Recent riots in Uganda left three dead and communities at odds. In this April 2007 dispatch from Kampala, Jonathan Jones reports on resentments that run long and deep.

by Jackie Bennion