Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians in 1972 pummelled Uganda’s economy

Racism and xenophobia can exact a heavy toll on a nation

In August 1972 Ugandan dictator Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of some 80,000 Asians by giving them 90 days to leave the country.

This year marks 50 years since the mass expulsions.

Amin’s justification for the expulsion order: Asians were disloyal and had “sabotaged Uganda’s economy and encouraged corruption”.

The Asian community’s leaders refuted these allegations.

The president seized their properties and defended the expulsion by saying he was “giving Uganda back to ethnic Ugandans”.

Amin, who earned the moniker “Big Daddy”, was one of Africa’s most notorious and ruthless dictators. He saw himself as a self-styled “President for Life”, “Lord of all the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea” and “Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”.

Ironically, it was the Ugandans who suffered most under Idi Amin’s tyrannical rule. Some 300,000 people were killed, and countless others were persecuted under his rule. Big Daddy earned the ignominious title of “Butcher of Uganda” for his brutality and repression.

Amin seized power in a military coup on 25 January 1971 while then President Milton Obote was attending a Commonwealth summit meeting in Singapore. Troops loyal to Amin sealed off Entebbe Airport and wrested control of the capital, Kampala.

Amin had prior knowledge that Obote was planning to arrest him for embezzling army funds.

At the time of the expulsions, some 80,000 Asians lived in the country, only 23,000 of whom had their citizenship applications accepted. But many of the citizens also left out of fear.

Indians were brought into Uganda during the colonial era in the 1890s to work in the infrastructure sector, but later ventured into other businesses like tailoring and banking.

Amin’s expulsion order traumatised the Asians as many regarded Uganda as their home. Many of them were born and bred there.

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Economic devastation

The expulsion of the Asians, the nationalisation of their businesses and the expansion of the public sector wrecked Uganda’s economy. The real value of salaries and wages plummeted by 90% in less than a decade.

The impact of the expulsions on the economy was startling: gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 5% between 1972 and 1975, while manufacturing output tumbled from 740m Ugandan shillings in 1972 to 254m shillings in 1979.

The biggest losers from the expulsion? Not the Asians but the Ugandan people.

True, the Asians lost many of their assets, but the Ugandan dictator’s nefarious policies also obliterated Uganda’s industrial sector. Almost all sectors of the national economy shrank, except the government bureaucracy.

As a commercial and industrial class, many of the Asians were the lubricants who oiled the Ugandan economy.

The expulsion of the Asians aggravated the country’s woes as it destroyed a significant portion of the urban tax base. At the time of their deportation, Asians owned 90% of the country’s businesses and accounted for 90% of Uganda’s tax revenue.

The contagion effects were felt all over the country, compounding the country’s tax woes. Large agricultural estates owned by the Asians were abandoned or reduced to subsistence agriculture.

Desperation among the people intensified with skyrocketing unemployment, crime rates and smuggling.

The expulsion of the Asians led to a shortage of skilled workers and damaged trade links vital to keeping industries functioning.

Uganda’s international reputation was tarnished, and capital inflows into the country stagnated.

Asian businesses were handed over to Ugandans, many of whom didn’t have any idea how to run these firms. Combined with Amin’s massive military spending, Uganda’s economy plunged into free fall, enveloping the country in poverty.

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New life in Britain

Life was tough for the 27,000 Asians who fled Uganda for Britain, leaving behind many of their assets. They faced resentment from locals in some cities. In Leicester, the city council placed newspaper advertisements warning them not to come to the city seeking jobs and homes.

Despite aversions from a segment of British society, others welcomed the refugees.

The British government set up a Uganda Resettlement Board to assist in the relocation of these refugees, some of whom held British passports, as Uganda was a former British colony.

The British Council of Churches and other faith groups formed a coordinating committee for these refugees. Church halls were turned into temporary reception centres, and volunteers came forward to assist these new arrivals.

Current British Home Secretary Priti Patel’s parents were among the refugees from Uganda. Fortunately for the Ugandan refugees, the then Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, took a principled position on this, standing firmly against racial prejudice.

Success through hard work

Many of the expelled Asians came to Britain penniless and had to rebuild their lives from scratch. Their pragmatism, sheer resilience, grit and determination helped them to integrate well, and they were successful in the business endeavours they embarked upon in Britain.

Within a brief span of time, many of these refugees expanded their businesses from family-run enterprises to major global trading companies. Some made it to the UK rich list and to the boardrooms of FTSE 100 firms.

The business acumen of these Ugandan Asians helped them to settle easily in British society.

Ironically, their successes in Britain caught the attention of President Yoweri Museveni when he assumed power in 1986. Museveni criticised Amin’s policies and invited the exiled Indians to return.

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The Indians who returned to Uganda have once again carved a niche for themselves in the country and have helped to rebuild Uganda’s economy.

Golden jubilee

To mark the golden jubilee of the arrival of Asian Ugandans in Leicester, the Uganda 50 exhibition is currently being held at the Leicester Museum and Art Gallery until 23 December.

This exhibition highlights the evolution in the lives of the 10,000 Asians who settled in the city upon their arrival from Uganda.

Painful stories are recounted, highlighting the turmoil experienced by these expelled Asians, many of whom arrived in the UK with just a suitcase of belongings and a few personal items.

The Asians from Ugandans never bore any malice to their home country, despite their harrowing experience of abruptly being expelled. Many still speak fondly about Uganda and are proud of their Ugandan roots.

We can learn a lot from these hardy Asians who started at the bottom of the ladder to achieve success in Britain. After all, “the only hands one can always depend on will be at the end of one’s own arms”.

There is a moral episode which we should emulate from the Asians expelled from Uganda: when we are pushed to the ground, don’t dwell in self-pity but get up and move forward with tenacity and fortitude. Defeatism and despondency are vices that will only drag us down further.

Lessons to be learnt from Uganda:

  • All it takes is just one despotic leader to destroy a country
  • Racism wipes out the very fabric of human society
  • Xenophobia can devastate a nation’s economy
  • Never oppress communities within your country
  • Bigotry and prejudice should never triumph over rationality
  • Arbitrary nationalisation under the guise of affirmative action could ruin a nation


AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
  1. Tegakkan maruah serta kualiti kehidupan rakyat
  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
  3. Raikan kerencaman dan keterangkuman
  4. Selamatkan demokrasi dan angkatkan keluhuran undang-undang
  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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Chen Yen Ling
22 Aug 2022 8.39am

Thank you for this reminder and insightful write on the great lessons. Although I am rather pessimistic on the situation in Malaysia, there is always hope for us to hang on to.

Uncle Yap
Uncle Yap
21 Aug 2022 8.47am

I was studying in the UK from 1971 to 1977 and saw their impact on life in Britain. Many took over the corner Mum&Dad sundry shops that sold daily provisions and newspapers. They remained open until 9pm, something unheard of in the then-UK where every retailing outlet (except the pubs) closed at 7pm.

Robert
Robert
16 Aug 2022 9.16am

The lesson for Malaysia is not to push the nons away by the apartheid practices favouring the Malays.

Unfortunately, I doubt if the ketuanan bigots understand the impact the loss of skills and tax base will mean to Malaysia.

To them (the bigots), their race and religion are what matters.

Mildred Lopez
Mildred Lopez
14 Aug 2022 11.10pm

Excellent article which traces the migrant story of resilience.