The Expulsion of the South Asian Community in Uganda
by Olivia Musselwhite
On October 9, 1962, Uganda celebrated its independence. Political independence was achieved through the liberation of Africa from the British, but economic independence was believed to be withheld by the Asian community who controlled a significant percentage (Cosemans, 2018). According to East African leaders, the Asian community in Africa inhibited real, African independence (Cosemans, 2018). Tensions between African and Asian Ugandans were further stressed when Milton Obote became president in 1966, pursuing the “Africanization” of Uganda, which restricted Asian involvement in the economy (“Background: Idi Amin’s Uganda, 1972”). Between 1969 and 1971, due to Obote’s anti-Asian measures, more than 24,000 Asians left the country (Muhammedi, 2017).
In January 1971, General Idi Amin led a military coup against the Obote government and took power (“Background: Idi Amin’s Uganda, 1972”). Amin argued that Africa’s weakness was its belief that the imperialists needed to continue to teach Africa how to run its affairs (Muhammedi, 2018). On August 4th, 1972, President Amin announced that those who were non-citizens in Uganda would be forced to leave the country, as he declared that British passport holders were the reason for social, political, and economic issues in Uganda (Muhammedi, 2017). The expulsion decree became effective as of August 9th, 1972 with the deadline for the departure of all Ugandan Asians being midnight on November 8th, 1972 (Muhammedi, 2017). Amin’s original announcement excluded Ugandan Asians who had Ugandan passports but this was reversed on August 21st, leading to all Asians being expelled with little exemption (Muhammedi, 2017).
In order to expel the Asians for Amin’s political agenda, the charge against the Asian community was economic sabotage through profiteering, smuggling, hoarding, and currency offences (“Uganda planning to kick out 80,000 Asians”, 1972). The same day that the decree became effective, newspapers flooded with headlines about Amin’s announcement that God had directed him to expel the Asian community (“Ugandan Leader Heard Call”, 1972).
According to Western newspaper articles released after the announcement, Amin’s exodus was seen as a desperate attempt to hold Uganda together under his power. (“The British of Uganda”, 1972) The Globe and Mail described the announcement as an attempt to inflame old African prejudices to absorb popular dissatisfaction with Amin’s government (“Racism in Uganda”, 1972). The Asian community was not the first to be expelled under Amin’s government, as on March 30, 1972, he expelled the Israeli community from Uganda, alleging that the Israeli government was planning against him (Muhammedi, 2017).
There is a long history of South Asian people in Uganda, and by the time the expulsion was announced there had already been several generations of South Asian families who viewed Uganda as their home (Musselwhite, 2022). Carleton’s oral history interviews reveal that the expulsion was sudden and the Ugandan Asian community did not think that the announcement was serious at first, believing that it was a joke. Nizar Fakirani and his family were some of the last to leave before the expulsion deadline. Fakirani explains, “When Idi Amin declared that the Asians had 90 days to leave the country, that came as a shock, as a complete shock. There were Asians there for more than three-four generations… we never had in our minds any thought of leaving the country.”
In the beginning, the Ugandan Asian community did not pay much attention to the expulsion announcement but panic ensued when it was announced that no one would be exempted from the expulsion. Tom and Joan Francis both grew up in Uganda and were rendered stateless by President Amin’s decree. Tom explained their initial reaction to the news, “We thought, ah, it’s a joke. And Amin was known to be a bit over the top and making rash statements and so on, so we kind of dismissed it. The next day he repeated it and then we realized that he was serious and then he gave us three months to leave the country.”
Some of the Ugandan Asian community held on to the hope that President Amin would rethink the expulsion longer than others. Jitu Tanna recalls that her family was wishful that Amin would change his mind,
“After about the middle of the time, maybe a month and a half before the deadline we realized you know that this is serious and we started making plans. We started selling stuff that were in the shops, furniture, everything, started putting money in the bank and then yeah, when the day came… we left just a day before the deadline. That’s how close it was, because I think my father was always thinking that no, no, this can’t be happening, I think he will change his mind. I think it was just… wishful thinking.”
Suddenly, Uganda was no longer a safe place to stay for the South Asian community. Ugandan Asian families lined up in front of immigration offices for long hours to receive the documentation that they required to stay in Uganda but were often denied, their futures becoming suddenly uncertain. Britain requested assistance from other governments in relocating the Ugandan Asian refugees, with Canada being the first to act followed by India, Pakistan, Kenya, Malawi, United Kingdom and the United States (“Background: Idi Amin’s Uganda, 1972”). Due to Amin’s political agenda, the Ugandan Asian community saw an uncertain future, leaving Uganda, which had been home for many generations.
Background: Idi Amin’s Uganda, 1972. The Uganda Collection, Archives and Special Collections, Carleton University. https://carleton.ca/uganda-collection/archival-material/background-idi-amin-uganda-1972/.
Cosemans, Sara. (2018). The politics of dispersal: Turning Ugandan colonial subjects into postcolonial refugees (1967–76). Migration studies 6(1), 99–119. https://doi.org/10.1093/migration/mny010.
Muhammedi, Shezan (2017). ‘Gifts From Amin’: The resettlement, integration, and identities of Ugandan Asian refugees in Canada. Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 4438. https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/etd/4438.
Racism in Uganda. (August 9, 1972). The Globe and Mail, courtesy of the Hempel Collection, Archives and Special Collections Carleton University. https://carleton.ca/uganda-collection/archival-material/the-hempel-collection-looking-in-from-the-outside/.
The British of Uganda. (August 7, 1972). The London Times, courtesy of the Hempel Collection, Archives and Special Collections Carleton University. https://carleton.ca/uganda-collection/archival-material/the-hempel-collection-looking-in-from-the-outside/.
Ugandan leader heard call: ‘God directed me to expel Asians’ (August 9, 1972). Ottawa Citizen, courtesy of the Hempel Collection, Archives and Special Collections Carleton University. https://carleton.ca/uganda-collection/archival-material/the-hempel-collection-looking-in-from-the-outside/.
Uganda planning to kick out 80,000 Asians (August 8, 1972). Ottawa Citizen, courtesy of the Hempel Collection, Archives and Special Collections Carleton University. https://carleton.ca/uganda-collection/archival-material/the-hempel-collection-looking-in-from-the-outside/.