It was August 1972 and Idi Amin had been Uganda’s president for more than a year and a half having overthrown his boss, Dr Milton Obote, in a coup on 25th January 1971. Amin had successfully consolidated his grip on power and had cut out a popular figure at home and abroad. He then announced how he had received a divine command through a dream which was about to stun the whole world.
The dream was first given vent to the outside world at the Tororo Military Barracks. Amin claimed that while he was in Karamoja, he had received divine revelation to settle the country’s old colonial relief of Asians in Uganda. As if really possessed, Amin expounded the meaning of what he termed as a divine command with conviction and determination. Like the biblical prophet who cared less about the eminent danger of proclaiming faiths before established and entrenched society, Amin repeated his will at every turn giving the non-citizens 90 days to leave the country as commanded by Allah.
As expounded, there was nothing faulty with the rationale and logic behind Amin’s command. “Asians were brought to build the Railway. The Railway was finished and they have no cause to continue being in Uganda” He roared. An estimated over 32,000 Asian laborers were brought in Uganda by the British in the 1890’s to construct the Railway. Slowly the Asians worked their way up into the middle class of Uganda subsequently owning many businesses. These were estimated to be over 65500 enterprises, cars, homes and other properties.
“Their masters who brought them, the British colonialists left them behind and should make arrangements to collect them. Despite having been given the option to become citizens at the time of independence, a majority of Asians decided to retain their British citizenship while remaining in the country to milk the cow they never fed” He said.
At first Amin’s pronouncement was taken lightly. About that time, shrewd politicians often used the Asian community to obtain the cheap popularity of the majority of Africans who looked at Asians as an insurmountable obstacle to obtaining their share in the country’s wealth. More often than not, this was a way of making the Asian community more subservient to cunning politicians for nocturnal extractions of part of what they claimed was ill-gotten wealth from Asians.
To the Africans who had often heard such denunciations disappear in thin air, there was no enthusiasm for Amin’s dream. Even many Asian’s thought Amin’s tirades would come and go as had the previous ones. However, all predictions were proved wrong. Amin meant every word and was all set to implement his dream. After all, he was in control of the situation having consolidated his grip on power. Completely uncorrupted with the soup and pudding culture of colonial upbringing, he possessed needs that were as simple and clear as an ordinary African peasant’s.
There was no madness in Amin’s dream. He appeared to be articulating and pursuing the desire of the majority who had borne the burden of colonial stratum all of whose members happened to be of one race with no apparent way of throwing it off. Amin’s cabinet went on and produced a very well prepared document detailing this colonial legacy. The document explained the misdeeds of the colonial era and the need to end that situation by not only placing the destiny of the country but also the economy in the hands of its rightful owners. The expelled Indians were instructed not to take their wealth or any valuables.
Teams of ministers were sent around the country to explain the move. In Jinja, the document was presented by Engineer Zikussoka and Justus Byagagire in the compounds of Busoga Square. So did other government representatives in other regions. The country listened and awaited developments without comment. Soon, stae media; Radio Uganda, Uganda television and newspapers began to carry an advertisement continuously reminding Asians of the days, hours and minutes remaining for them to leave the Ugandan soil. The adverts also clearly spelt that whoever refused to leave would be thrown in concentration camps in Karamoja, or forced into the countryside throughout Uganda to break Asian dominance of the country’s capital and towns.
Amin’s dream was becoming real. He insisted that Uganda will receive full independence after his dream had been affected. Reactions from foreign nations started flooding in and there was also fear of a British military raid against Amin’s actions. The Indian government warned Uganda that there would be dire consequences, but took no action when Amin’s government ignored the ultimatum. The United Kingdom also froze the loan which had been arranged the previous year but president Amin ignored this threat too.
It was a time of confusion and stampede as Amin announced that it was not only Indians to go but all foreigners of Asian origin. Apparently, it was logistically impossible to relocate 80,000 people to other countries at such a short notice. Amin arrested the wealthiest Indian in the country the head of the industrialist Madhvani family and incarcerated him in filthy conditions at Makindye Barracks. He also openly congratulated Germany officials in Uganda for having had a great leader in Adolf Hitler who he said had done the right thing to kill 6 million Jews. Amin also announced plans to erect a monument in Kampala in memory of Adolf Hitler.
The international community could not wait for further warning and hurriedly arranged emergency flights in order to beat the 90 day ultimatum. By the time 90 days expired, some 80,000 Asians, stripped of Ugandan citizenship became stateless and they had suddenly become Ugandan-Indian refugees. Britain took up around 27,200 Canada 6,000, 4,500 ended up in India, 2,500 went to Kenya. Malawi, Pakistan, West Germany and the United States took 1,000 refugees each. Smaller numbers migrated to Austria, Sweden, Norway, Mauritius and New Zealand, while 20,000 were unaccounted for since some are said to have opted to suicide. 4th August, the D-Day finally came!
The Indians were forced to leave behind 6,000 companies, homes and shops other community facilities as well as places of worship. On 4th November 1972, the last plane carrying expelled Asians left Entebbe Airport. Other Indians left by road left by road many of which had to bribe their way through since the neighbors had closed Uganda’s 5 borders to prevent the influx of refugees after Amin’s decree.
The last to leave Uganda were those who were in prison and left out of the deadline; these were the Madhvani family members. Some 16 families however adamantly refused to leave Uganda saying they could not leave their country since majority of the expelled Indians had been born in Uganda. Even before the last batch of Indians left, distributing the bounty had started as Amin declared the last phase of the economic war in an operation termed as Mafutta Mingi. People who had never done any type of business line dup and were handed shops full of merchandise, stores full of supplies, cash boxes, garages full of cars, luxury items etc. Other Indian community facilities were handed to cronies of the Amin regime but there came a dialema as no one knew what to do with the new fortune.
The beneficiaries of operation Mafutta Mingi partied away as they enjoyed the cash and cars they got free of charge until the stocks run out and when all cash was gone, they started subletting the shops. Soon, shops at High Street Kampala Road started selling pancakes and locally made banana juice sold in empty soda bottles. Factory production soon came to a grinding halt. The new managers did not even know how to order inputs and machinery spare parts. Basics like sugar and salt became luxuries smuggled into the country from Kenya.
The exiles in Tanzania led by deposed president Dr. Milton Obote hurriedly assembled their forces to invade the country during the confusion of the Asians exodus and topple the regime. It was a great mistake. Amin’s popularity was at its zenith and the expulsion of Asian’s was highly popular. Any force trying to enforce the status quo in the issue of Asian’s could not have expected the public’s approval. The invaders who included the current leaders then in FRONASA were decisively defeated. Their story will be told some other day.