Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Monday 21st August 2017 | Manchester, UK

Idi Amin: The Expulsion of South Asians from Uganda

Since Idi Amin did not write an autobiography, research on his background is limited. Amin was born in 1923 in either Koboko or Kampala. A researcher from Makerere University has stated that Amin was the son of Andreas Nyabire, who converted from Roman Catholicism to Islam and changed his name to Amin Dada. Andreas abandoned his son, leaving him to grow up with his mother’s family in a rural Ugandan town. Amin was educated in an Islamic school, only reaching grade four before being leaving and later being recruited by a British colonial army officer.

As the daughter and granddaughter of Indian immigrants from Uganda in East Africa, I grew up listening to the stories of Idi Amin’s reign of terror. It was after a military coup that Milton Obote was deposed from power in 1971. Idi Amin then seized control of Uganda and ruled for the following eight years until Obote regained power. Throughout his rule, Amin not only committed genocide within Uganda, but also forcibly removed the Indian minority from Uganda – completely ruining the country’s economy.

In the 1800s, it had been a deliberate decision by the British administration to bring South Asians into Uganda. They were to ‘serve as a buffer between Europeans and Africans in the middle rungs of commerce and administration.’ Over 30,000 Indian labourers were brought over from British India to begin construction of the Uganda Railway. However, when Obote served his first term as president, he pursued a policy of ‘Africanisation,’ which included policies targeted at Ugandan Asians. Obote persecuted Indian ‘traders,’ as they were then stereotyped. Furthermore, they were labelled ‘dukawallas,’ which is an occupational term that transitioned into an anti-Indian slur when Amin came into power.

Obote was overthrown by the army while he travelling to Singapore for a Commonwealth conference. Amin had ordered this because he knew Obote was planning to arrest him for misappropriating army funds. As Amin became president, full-blown Indophobia was induced throughout the country. Exaggerating the policies of ‘Africanisation’ upheld by Obote, Amin announced a review of the citizenship status awarded to Ugandan Asians. At this point, Amin said his government would recognise all citizenship rights that had already been granted, but outstanding applications would be cancelled. The number of outstanding applications was close to 12,000 at this point.

In August of 1972, Amin ordered the expulsion of the Ugandan Asian minority. He gave them ninety days to leave. At the time, there were close to 85,000 South Asians in Uganda, and of these, around 23,000 people had had their applications for citizenship processed and accepted. Amongst these people were my great-grandparents and grandparents, who recall the distressing exodus well. Those who refused to cooperate were subject to theft and physical and sexual violence by Ugandan soldiers. Many Asians who had received citizenship status chose to leave voluntarily, fearing further intimidation and violence if Amin went back on his word and expelled them from Uganda too. Amin defended the expulsion by arguing that he was giving Uganda back to the ethnic Ugandan. He also claimed that God spoke to him in a dream, saying South Asians were responsible for exploiting the indigenous citizens of Uganda. Amin also accused them of sabotaging Uganda’s economy and encouraging corruption. It has also been suggested that Amin was plotting vengeance against the British government due to their refusal to provide him with arms so he could invade Tanzania. Many of the expellees were citizens of the United Kingdom and its colonies, so emigrated to there. The other refugees settled in Canada, India, the nearby Kenya, and other Commonwealth countries

Before the expulsion, Asians owned many large businesses in Uganda, so the effect on the economy was destructive when Amin purged them from the country. Amin expropriated all these businesses and properties and gave them to his own supporters. However, the businesses were not managed well at all, and industries began to collapse from lack of maintenance by the hardworking Asian community. The economy, already declining at this point, suffered an even bigger loss. Yoweri Museveni, the current President of Uganda, came to power in 1986. He had inherited an economy that suffered the poorest growth rate in Africa.

In 1979, Amin was forced into exile. He escaped to Libya and stayed there for a year, until he settled in Saudi Arabia. Amin died there in 2003, but never seemed to show any remorse for his actions.

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