Roots of Radicalism


Part 2 (Part 1 appeared in issue 16 of Vanguard)


AS WE HAVE seen, the presence of the Asians in East Africa was due almost purely to economic motivation, and so, not surprisingly, they simply took to another form of mercantile adventurism with the demise of the slave trade. They became the leading force in the ivory trade, for instance, until the elephants became too scarce for the hunting expeditions to prove profitable. They never became farmers, despite becoming heavily involved in both the budding cotton and sugar industries of the time.

In both of these industries the Asians achieved considerable success. The reasons for which, in the sugar industry for instance, can be seen to have been a stable home market, government assistance with customs, tariffs and transport costs and the sheer suitability of sugar as a plantation crop. That they monopolised industry was due principally to their willingness to accept lower wages, leading to the Indian owners employing only other Indians as managers.

One such sugar empire, started by Muljibhai Madhvani, was seen to have spread into textiles, steel, glassware and brewing, as well as sugar, when his son, Jayant, died in 1971. It was one of the two largest personal fortunes in East Africa - the other also belonging to an Asian sugar baron, incidentally. This was, of course, a source of pride to the Indian community, where it was seen as proof that the African was too stupid to compete, and that they were, therefore, 'indispensible' to the Ugandan economy. This argument has, of course, been used in this country for the continued presence of both the Jew and the Asian.


The cotton industry provided similar ground for Asian ambitions. Not willing to actually grow the crop and the African being both willing and able to do so, led to the Asian, again, occupying a mercantile position. The industry became a microcosm of the entire country, setting out into a tri-racial layer cake. The African as the grower, the European the technician and manager, and the Asian as the middle class, middle man, making money out of the efforts of the others. This view was not confined to the Blacks incidentally. White ginners, for instance, demanded protection against "volatile middlemen without a real stake in the country, who would cream off easy profits in good years, cheating gullible peasants and would abandon Uganda in bad years".

A petition sent by the White settler farmers to the government, in 1902, asked for restrictions on Asians coming into the country, part of the wording reading: "the money earned by the natives of the country remains here, whereas the Asiatic takes away all his earnings to his native country".

From the very beginning the sheer number of Asian 'corner-shops' were causing concern, not least amongst the Blacks themselves, increasingly held as they were, in commercial thrall to them as their country was progressively 'modernised'.

A contemporary white observer of these shops noted that, "It is very hard to see how they expect to thrive, as almost every store is the exact counterpart of its neighbours. However, whether they trade or not seems to be a matter of complete indifference to the storekeeper, judging by the placid way in which he sits among his goods, and the nonchalent air he adopts when asked his prices".

Despite overwhelming Asian superiority the Blacks started opening up their own shops, however - particularly after the Second World War. The inevitable competition brought all the latent hostilities into the open, and during the 1950s the Blacks started attacking both the Asians and their shops. The Asian's political position did not deteriorate at the same pace however, they remained bigger friends with the government than with the people, for although the shopkeepers were attacked the more anonymous wholesalers were not, and 80% of the economy still remained in their hands, even after ten years of Ugandan independence.

Eventually, however, the patience of the government ran out too. Apart from any question of economic racial dominance there was the fact that by continuing to send money out of the country, effectively exporting currency, the Asians wrecked any attempt by the African government to control its own economy.

Most people will tell you that it was Amin that expelled the Asians from Uganda. In fact it was Obote, his predecessor, that both masterminded the overall strategy and started the ball rolling. He began with a programme of nationalisations, licensing arrangements for Asian traders and regulations regarding the residential status of 'non-citizens'. The Asians actually welcomed, if not aided, Amin's takeover in January 1971. The relief was short-lived of course. Amin immediately stepped up the pressure and the many Asians that had sidestepped or simply ignored Obote's provisions were rounded up and promptly deported.


Most British newspapers played all this down, as did the Foreign Office, not wishing to excite British public opinion. In fact Amin's eventual unpopularity stems not from the time that the deportations started, but from the time of his now infamous 'Hitler speech'.

"Germany is the right place where, when Hitler was Prime Minister and supreme commander, he burnt over 6 million Jews... This is because Hitler and all German people knew that the Israelis are not people who are working in the interest of the people of the world and that is why they burnt the Israelis alive with gas in the soil of Germany".

Until that point he was, for instance, the butt of Alan Coren's grotesque little parodies that appeared regularly in Punch. It was all right for Coren to make jokes (and a lot of money) about Idi Amin causing untold misery to the Asians and murdering anyone in his way, but the second the Jews were mentioned Amin became the Devil incarnate. Coren, in dropping the jokes, lamely explained that Amin was no longer funny. Coren is, of course, Jewish.

Idi Amin

Amin's reputation has never recovered. He may well have been a buffoon, but that did not stop him being representative of African anger, or having to deal with a situation not of his making or to his advantage. This was not just a question of the economy being controlled by alien interests either. The very boundaries of the country, for instance, are artificial, not corresponding to any particular tribal area. Amin killing his political opponents was just a reflection of the fact that they were also his tribal rivals.

The majority of those deported Asians came to Britain because, at the time of Ugandan independence, three quarters of them had opted for British passports and not Ugandan ones. This was not because the Asians misunderstood the situation, they had not, for nationalism was no new idea to them. They had vociferously championed the idea of 'Independence for India', this ambivalence only adding to the anger of the Africans.

Amin eventually accused them of a lack of faith in his government, of being 'socially exclusive' and, understandably now, of being 'foreigners'. Not all of the Asians deported to this country were British passport holders. Our government placed a last advert in Ugandan papers on the 25th of October 1972, reading:

"If you hold a UK passport and are a head of family, an independent person, or the wife of a Ugandan, Indian or stateless husband, and have not come forward for an entry certificate, you must do so now".


So Ugandan, Indian and even 'stateless' persons were coming over on the basis of their wives passports, this fact alone making a mockery of the liberal argument that we had a duty to stand by our passport holders. As we saw in part one they were only our passport holders in the first place because the likes of Duncan Sandys and Iain Mcleod said they could be, and saw to it that changes in the law allowed them to be. For the Asian however, it was, as one source in Uganda noted, not a question of loyalty to an old or new country at all. For them it was simply a matter of business, "as if nationality was a commodity in the market". (Y. Tandon in Portrait of a Minority pub. Nairobi 1970).

The parallels between the Asian's situation in Uganda and their tenure in this country are striking. They were part of the scenery in East Africa for centuries and never really became Ugandans, they, of course, could never have become Africans. They have remained separate economically, racially and culturally over here as they were over there, even finding themselves being disliked for the same reasons.

Why is it that the 'liberals' think that they will fit in over here that much better? The answer, ironically, is not one that could possibly be to their liking. Could it be because that, subconsciously, they think that we are more civilised (superior in other words) to those nasty Africans, after all?