Over a century ago, a young man from India journeyed all the way to East Africa to follow his brother who had migrated to Uganda two years earlier. The year was 1908 and he was aged 14 years. He had just finished his primary education a year earlier. His name was Muljibhai Madhvani.
Muljibhai came from the state of Gujarat in India. The vast majority of Indians who had migrated to Uganda came from Gujarat, being prompted by the British who used them for the construction of the Uganda Railway Line and by the success of several prominent Gujarati families in East Africa.
While many came from a farming background – the origin of the name Patel, also Gujaratis, means ‘tiller of the soil’ – but in East Africa, they became more identified as merchants, or baniani in Swahili, from the Gujarati word ‘baniya.’
After working in his uncles’ stores for several years, Muljibhai opened up his first business in Jinja, a district in the eastern region of Uganda, in 1912. Six years later, while still working for his uncles, Muljibhai bought an 800 acres estate in Kakira.
The beginning of Kakira Sugar Works
This was the beginning of Kakira Sugar Works, the first of what has now become a business empire consisting of about 35 companies, with footprints across the globe, making over $500 million in revenues, and employing over 10,000 people.
When Muljibhai died in 1962 he left behind five sons and a thriving conglomerate that was taken over by his sons, Jayant, who ran the business until his death in 1971, and Manubhai, who ran the business from 1971 until his death in 2011.
By the early 1970s, the economy of Uganda was majorly under the control of Indians such as the Madhvani brothers and others. While they made about one-third of the number of traders in Uganda, they controlled 97.5 per cent of all retail trade in Kampala.
By 1972, they controlled 92 per cent of total commercial trade and contributed 90 per cent of Uganda’s tax revenues. They numbered about 80,000 in a population of 10 million.
When the leftist pan-Africanist Milton Obote started talking of the nationalisation of privately owned industries in Uganda in 1970, those who were dominating the economy, mainly Indians and the Baganda, were not pleased.
So, when Gen. Idi Amin overthrew Obote in January 1971, the Indian community welcomed his ascension to power. Unfortunately, Idi Amin had his own ideas.
An obedient soldier who turned a coup leader
A while ago, speaking of Amin, the British had said that he was an obedient soldier who could be relied on to do what he was told. Thus, when they needed loyal soldiers to go to quell the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, Amin was a natural choice.
But come independence, and a taste for power, this docile soldier started to be not so docile. In a wave of mutinies that had engulfed East African armies in 1964, Amin was involved in an army mutiny in Uganda.
However, unlike Tanzania and Kenya which punished the culprits, Uganda chose appeasement – it not only failed to court-martial the culprits, but it provided them with their demands.
To consolidate his power, Obote went further by making an alliance with the army that benefited Amin greatly – in three years, he jumped from the rank of Colonel to Major General.
However, the higher Amin climbed, the more he misbehaved. Hence, it reached a point that Obote could not shield Amin any longer and he made the mistake of confronting Amin just before he left for a Commonwealth meeting in Singapore. To being removed from power, Amin overthrew him.
Amin’s economic war
Unlike the ‘cosmopolitan’ Obote, Amin had a majorly rural upbringing and had not had enough exposure to the world through education.
So, like many rural Ugandans, his attitude towards Indians was negative: they lived a life apart from Africans; they forbade intermarriages; Afro-Asians were not accepted in Indian communities; they were considered as mercenaries; they were paid five times what Africans were paid; they were economically dominant; they were considered as saboteurs of Uganda’s economy; etc.
Therefore, 50 years ago this year, Idi Amin expelled all ‘non-citizen’ Indians from Uganda, giving them only 90 days to leave. In practice, Amin’s order meant that other Indians could stay at their own risk, the fact which they quickly deduced before the deadline.
The decision was part of what Amin called ‘an economic war’ – leading to the Ugandanisation of the economy. In a number of ways, Amin had a point.
In 1968, when the UK had announced a deadline for entry for those members of its collapsing empire who had special privileges, there was an exodus of Indians from Kenya for England.
Similarly, a study conducted in Uganda in 1965 revealed that Indians were exporting 50 to 85 million dollars a year from Uganda. Long before Amin’s order, there was a massive capital flight from Uganda, which was significantly limiting its economic growth.
In 1972, when Manubhai Madhvani was expelled from Uganda, he only had $2 in his bank account despite the fact that he was commanding a business empire worth $90 million. Issues such as these were not lost on Amin and Ugandans.
Lessons and things to ponder
A review of 50 years of Indians’ expulsion from Uganda provides many things to ponder about. Firstly, Africa needs foreigners to develop. Yes, as the case of Uganda shows, this is a double-edged sword, but the evidence clearly suggests that the presence of foreigners tend to spur certain developments in Africa.
Secondly, the exodus of foreigners from Africa tend to be followed by economic catastrophes. This was true of Amin’s Uganda, Samora Machel’s Mozambique and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
In Tanzania, Nyerere really tried to court Europeans and Indians to remain, a very smart move, but his disastrous Arusha Declaration ended up achieving the opposite.
Thirdly, the evidence clearly suggests that ceteris paribus, Africans aren’t as competitive as others in managing businesses. In Uganda, in 10 years, all the companies that the Madhvanis left had become shells of what they were before.
But when they were called back, they were revived and prospered. In Zimbabwe, the same story. It is time Africans take a serious look at themselves in the mirror and ask– when are we going to dispel this shame from Africa?
Fourthly, how Indians were viewed in Uganda was not exclusive Ugandans: similar stories abound in East Africa.
Conversely, honest accounts from Indians and whites who wrote of their communities reveal that what Africans perceive as racism was true not only in Uganda but also in Zimbabwe, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, etc.
This suggests that multiculturalism – tolerance of other cultures – can only take people so far. Without concerted efforts towards integration and possibly assimilation, a future void of suspicions among these communities will be impossible.
Finally, who is to take the lead? Before Amin, Indians in Uganda missed so many opportunities to affirm their loyalty to the nation. The same thing can be said for many of their communities elsewhere.
For Africans to see Indians – or other non-native communities – as compatriots, they have to position themselves differently. There is a need for increasing cultural, social, business, and if possible religious intercourses.
It is difficult for people to trust people who live in exclusive communities, especially if they associate them with misappropriating privileges that are denied them.
The 50 years’ history of expulsion provides many things for Africans and Asians to think about. As it has been shown, it takes two to tango.
Charles Makakala is a technology and management consultant based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is available through firstname.lastname@example.org. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at email@example.com for further inquiries.