Uganda's loss, Britain's gain
August 4, 1972, was a quiet day for British diplomatic correspondents attending their daily briefing at the Foreign Office in London. There wasn’t much to report. It was late afternoon and some of the journalists had left the building but a few stragglers were summoned back by diplomats in the news department to be told that the Foreign Office had received a telegram from the British High Commissioner in Kampala. Those were the days when missions abroad communicated with the Foreign Office in London through coded “telegrams”.
Idi Amin, the Ugandan president who had seized power in January 1971 by ousting Milton Obote in an army coup, had made a speech in which he had given Asians 90 days to leave the country. The idea seemed so bizarre that the British were not sure how seriously to treat Amin's threat. Over the subsequent months, it became all too apparent that Amin, who had been regarded as a welcome change after Obote, was deadly serious.
Why Amin made the decision that he did is still not clear to this day. Some said his was a populist move. Others speculated it was revenge for thwarted lust -- he had apparently been rebuffed after expressing a desire to add an Indian woman from a well-known family to his collection of wives. At any rate, Amin said God had appeared in a dream and told him to order the expulsion. “We are determined to make the ordinary Ugandan master of his own destiny, and above all to see that he enjoys the wealth of his country,” he declared. “Our deliberate policy is to transfer the economic control of Uganda into the hands of Ugandans for the first time in our country’s history.”
Figures are uncertain but there were perhaps 90,000 Asians, mostly of Indian origin, in the country. They represented the legacy of the British Empire, having been taken there at the turn of the 20th century by the British either to build the East African Railway (quite a few were eaten by lions) or work the sugar, tea and coffee plantations that were being established. It was now an exodus which no one had expected. Uganda was home to the Indians born in Uganda, a singularly lush and fertile country. They saw it as a kind of “paradise”. Now, they were being ordered to leave everything behind in the country they had loved.
Forty years on, the “Ugandan Asians”, as they were called, are marking the anniversary of their expulsion. Nowhere have they been more successful than in Britain, which gave shelter to some 30,000 refugees. They arrived by charter flights which took them from the Ugandan sun to the cold and damp of Stanstead Airport in Essex where they were welcomed with ham sandwiches -- no one had realised that the refugees included Gujaratis who were vegetarian.
In 2022, when another decade has lapsed, there will be an even more significant anniversary when half a century will have passed since the exodus from Uganda. But Praful Patel, then a 33-year-old businessman in London appointed as a member of the Uganda Resettlement Board, does not want to wait that long. “I am 73 now,” he pointed out. “Some of those who left Uganda 40 years ago have passed away and in another 10 years many more will pass away,” said Praful, who now lives in Mumbai. Praful will be coming to the UK shortly for functions in London and in Leicester which accepted the bulk of the 30,000 refugees who came to Britain.
“We want to say ‘thank you’to the government for accepting us,” said Praful, who was himself born in the Ugandan city of Jinja but emigrated to Britain long before the expulsions. “We want to celebrate,” he said. “Ugandan Asians have not only done well in business but in all the professions.”
This is true. Uganda’s loss has been Britain’s gain. Leicester’s economy was in the doldrums in the early 1970s. The streets with boarded up shops had the air of decay. The Ugandan Asians, by introducing the then radical concept that shops did not have to shut at 5.30 pm, helped in transforming the economic landscape of Britain. Today, supermarkets are trying to put Asian cornershops out of business by staying open late, in some cases, all night.
After Amin’s announcement, no country seemed prepared to take the Asians. India did not want them because it felt those with British passports were the UK’s responsibility. Britain was not keen to have them either on the grounds that the Asians were not “kith and kin” of the British people which was another way of saying they were not white.
The right wing of British politics, led by Enoch Powell, opposed any move to accept the Asians who were encouraged to go to India or any other country so long as it was not Britain. Leicester in the East Midlands was designated a “red” area which the refugees were urged to avoid. “If you go there,” an English community worker told an obstinate refugee, “we cannot help you.” The local authority in Leicester took out advertisements in Uganda urging the refugees not to come to Leicester where there were no jobs or housing for them. Even elements in the Church of England joined the anti-Asian lobby.
However, the Asians had a friend in Ted Heath, the Conservative Prime Minister, who ruled that Britain had a moral and legal responsibility to take in Ugandan Asians with British passports. London’s dockers and butchers marched in support of Enoch Powell but Heath won the day and the flights starting arriving at Stanstead with refugees ill-prepared for a British winter.
It was not a glorious chapter in India’s history. The Delhi government huffed and puffed and warned Amin there would be dire consequences if he went ahead with his expulsions. But India was shown to be weak and feeble and could do nothing to halt the exodus. It is estimated that India took 4,500 Ugandan Asians. Canada was persuaded to accept 6,000, while smaller numbers went to Australia, Austria, Sweden, West Germany, Mauritius, Malawi, New Zealand, Pakistan and neighbouring Kenya.
It was drizzling when the first flight landed on September 18, 1972. Someone had brought along his two parrots. Kanji Karsam, then a 35-year old building worker who was accompanied by his wife, spoke of the terror of negotiating nine checkpoints mounted by Amin’s soldiers on the Kampala-Entebbe highway. His experience was typical, “We were dragged out of the car and stripped of my valuables and the little money I had. I am penniless and I have no plan.” Then most of them were taken to a Royal Air Force camp 25 miles away at Stradishall in Suffolk. Over the subsequent week, so many arrived that beds had to be shared.
In 1997, on the 25th anniversary of the expulsions, Sir Edward Heath explained why he had decided to let in the Asians. “It was not a difficult decision because it was absolutely the right one,” he said. “The rest of the world could see that we were still a great, human country. It is a great credit to them (the Asians) that they fitted in so well.”
Ugandan Asians have always acknowledged their debt to Heath. Quite a few vote Tory to this day. “His was a bold decision,” remarked Manubhai Madhvani, then the most senior Asian businessman in East Africa. “He put his foot down.” He went on, “We came here 25 years ago full of anxiety to an unknown land. The British people extended a welcoming hand enabling us to make this country our home. Very few people tend to say thank you. We intend to be different.” He also had a suggestion about the future, “We should be raising money for British charities, not sending money back to charities in India. We are British and we should not repeat the mistakes of Africa.” There has long been a criticism that Indians kept themselves aloof from Africans because they considered themselves to be culturally superior.
Three years ago, when 18 of Leicester’s 54 councillors were Asian, the city was “twinned” with Rajkot in Gujarat. Leicester has sent trade delegations to India. The Leicester Mercury, the local paper which had once campaigned to keep out the Asians, now depends on Indian businesses for advertising support. A statue of Gandhi has been erected by Indians though the local whites would have preferred Gary Lineker, the former footballer.
Keith Vaz is a Catholic of Goan origin who was born in Aden but he has been the Labour MP for Leicester East since 1987. He has succeeded in attracting several Indian film stars, from Amitabh Bachchan to Dalip Tahil, Sanjay Dutt and Shilpa Shetty to his patch and brought a touch of glamour to what was once a drab city.
Leicester today has the biggest Diwali celebrations outside of India. Along the 1,000 metres in Belgrave Road, the heart of the Indian settlement, some 6,500 electric lamps are erected every Diwali and left switched on till the New Year. Leicester is today said to be a city where the ethnic minorities make up more than 50 per cent of the population. Not all the developments are positive, though. The Asian population is starting to divide along religious and caste lines. But on the plus side, thanks to Asian business acumen, Leicester is weathering the recession better than many other cities. Heath died in 2005; Madhvani passed away in May last year, aged 81. His family have returned to Uganda and revived their flourishing sugar business in Kakira.
Praful Patel, who returned to Uganda for Manubhai’s ashes ceremony, reckons, “Three hundred Asian families have set up their businesses again in Uganda but this is mostly in Kampala. The rural areas have been ignored.” Praful visited his hometown of Jinja and the school he had attended. Seeing the dilapidated state of his birth places, “I was in tears,” he confessed.
Asians were invited to return by Yoweri Museveni, the army officer who has been Uganda’s president since 1986. He was involved in the war that deposed Amin in 1979 and the rebellion that ended Milton Obote’s second term in 1985. On a visit to London in 1997, Museveni even went to the Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden, north London. Some of the older Asians wept at being invited back. Museveni’s trip marked a sort of healing process. “While you were living comfortably in Shepherd's Bush, I was fighting in the real bush,” quipped Museveni. Countless Ugandans died during Amin's brutal years but he was never brought to justice. He fled to Saudi Arabia and lived in exile in Jeddah where he died on April 16, 2003.
Back in 1972 Manzoor Moghal was in his late twenties when he fled in the middle of the night. He then worked in finance and became one of the most respected personalities in the city through his work in race relations. “Leicester has benefited from the injection of Ugandan Asians,” he said. “They have created a lot of wealth, thousands of jobs. The younger generation of Asians have gone into the professions law, medicine, accountancy, industry. There may be nostalgia (for Uganda) among those who came in their twenties, but among those born here there is absolutely none.”
In the last 40 years, a new British-born generation has grown up. While the older generation may retain nostalgic recollections of “the good old days” in Uganda, the young consider themselves to be ‘British’ and part of multicultural Britain. To them, Uganda is a foreign country. There also exists in the collective consciousness the trauma of fleeing Uganda where many felt their lives were at risk. On the airport road, Amin’s thuggish soldiers stole jewellery and cash with impunity. One Asian who burnt his cash so that soldiers could not have what he could not take from the country was unceremoniously shot.
As a young man, Moghal would often visit Amin and came under his spell. “He was a remarkable man, affable, who laughed and joked a lot,' Moghal commented. “But he wasn’t a buffoon. He who could have someone killed instantly if he felt threatened.” In 1986, puzzled by the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ nature in Amin's personality, Moghal went to Jeddah, and found himself being entertained for by the old, affable Amin. “I have no love for Amin, I suffered a lot under him but he was remarkable,” commented Moghal. "As I left at 1 am, he said, ‘tell the Asians to go back’. He was not apologising for having expelled the Asians. He knew Uganda’s economy had crumbled under his regime.” But both men knew the innocence and the old Africa had gone forever.