Uganda: Return of the exiles

More than 30 years ago, Uganda's dictator, Idi Amin, expelled 80,000 Asians. But now they are welcomed back by a government that realises how much wealth they create. By Meera Selva

Dip Karia still remembers the moment 33 years ago today that Idi Amin, then the Ugandan president, issued the expulsion order giving the 80,000 Asians in Uganda 90 days to leave the country. The bleak weeks that followed still haunt him, as thousands of Asians packed their bags and headed for an unwanted exile in Britain or Canada.

Like the rest of the community, the Karia family had their property confiscated. But they had all been born in Uganda and had no relatives abroad, so they decided to stay, along with 32 other families in the same position.

"The streets were empty, the schools were deserted," Mr Karia said. "It was as if everyone, not just the Asians, had left the country. Things did improve after a few weeks, but the city still felt very strange."

Now, three decades later, more than 15,000 of the Asians have returned, welcomed back by a government that admits its predecessor's mistake in expelling them and wants to use their return to show the world just how much Uganda has changed.

Amin had accused the Asians of sabotaging the country's economy by exploiting its assets and not investing their profits back in Uganda. He also said they avoided paying tax, by keeping their accounts in Gujarati or Hindi, which Ugandan tax authorities could not read. But barely two years after they left, it became clear Asians had not been sabotaging the economy.

Instead, they had been generating growth. After the expulsion, Uganda's inflation soared and imported goods became impossible to get hold of. Few Ugandans saw material benefits from the expulsion. Instead of equally distributing the property and land the Asians had left behind, Amin gave the confiscated property to a handful of his favourite soldiers who had no business skills or money for investment.

Uncared for, the shop fronts crumbled and farmlands returned to the jungle, and international investors became increasingly reluctant to put their money in the country.

The few Asians who stayed were soon vindicated. "After we lost our property we started a hardware business and by 1974, Amin had relented and said the remaining Asians in Uganda could keep any new businesses they started," Mr Karia said. "The talk of Asians bleeding the country dry did not last long, though people remained suspicious of us for a long time."

But only when Yoweri Museveni came to power in 1986 did the Ugandan government warm to the Asian community. By then, there were attempts to return confiscated lands and properties to their Asian owners, if they returned to the country to claim them. In 1992, Mr Museveni said Asians were welcome to either return or come to Uganda for the first time.

Now, the empty streets are bustling again, and it is hard to believe there was a time when Kampala was not at least partly an Asian city. Hindu temples are busy, with families bringing offerings of flowers and fruit, Indian businessmen drive gleaming new cars wearing bespoke suits, and even Italian restaurants offer chicken madras and lentil curry.

Mr Karia is now an elected local councillor for central Kampala as well as a director of the property company his family thought it had lost three decades ago. The return of the Asians provides a much-needed image boost for President Museveni. He has been heavily criticised for wanting to amend the country's constitution so he can seek a third term in office, and various donors have cut grants over allegations of corruption.

This week the Global Fund to fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria suspended grants worth more than $200m (£111m) after finding evidence of "inappropriate expenditure and improper accounting" in the Ugandan ministry of health office that was dealing with the money.

Mr Museveni is keen to be seen as a moderniser, trying to amend the mistakes of Uganda's past rulers and run an efficient economy. This year, he enlisted the help of Asian businessmen to regenerate and modernise the private sector. He pleaded with foreign investors to do business in Uganda, and promised to cut red tape and restrictions on foreign-owned companies operating in the country. He also pointed to the restitution of Asian land and businesses confiscated by Amin as an example of how Uganda respected property rights.

Now the entire country seems to be working hard to welcome back the Asians whose ancestors had been brought to east Africa from south Asia by the British to help build the railways. "What happened at the time of Amin was the result of an unfortunate mix of racism and economic naivete," Moses Byaruhanga, a presidential aide, said. "Ugandans believed it when they were told Asians were responsible for their problems. There is nothing inherently racist about the people in this country, but they were misled. Ugandans now understand more about globalisation and the role of different groups in modernising a country."

Mahmood Hudda's family was one that listened to Mr Museveni's earliest calls, to return and modernise. They left when he was five and went to Canada. When the regime changed in 1986, Mr Hudda's father moved back to Uganda to reclaim the farm his grandfather had bought in 1952. "My father moved back more out of nostalgia than anything else," Mr Hudda said. "He never felt at home in another place. When I finished school, I came out here to join him."

Now, Mr Hudda has taken over the farm business, 20 miles outside Kampala. He uprooted the sugar cane and coffee plantations his family had grown and moved into a more lucrative area, selling roses and vegetables to Europe. He stays with his family in Kampala during the week and comes down to the farm at weekends so the children can cycle and play in the countryside.

But not everything is as it was before. Throughout the late 1960s, Uganda's Asian community specialised in retail, running the kind of corner shops now all over Britain. They also controlled the export/import market that brought in low-cost machine parts and fabrics.

Mr Hudda said: "The Ugandans learnt how to manage the retail trade in the Asians' absence and they are very competitive. Ugandans are also now flying to Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, all the places we used to travel to, to buy spare parts."

Now, Asians are more likely to run hotels, technology firms and farms, areas where they bring new knowledge and skills.

Vellupillai Kananathan, a Sri Lankan-born businessman, moved to Uganda in 1986. In 2002, he started Apparels Tri-Star, which became one of the few Ugandan clothing companies exporting to America and Europe.

And Mr Museveni even personally hired the first 1,000 workers to illustrate how a foreign businessman could generate jobs. Uganda is a cotton-growing country but most of its crop is exported raw, so Tri-Star has to import its fabrics and turn it into clothes to be sold to chains such as Wal-Mart. This year, the factory will begin making its own cloth by spinning and weaving raw cotton grown in Uganda.

"Uganda produces about 300,000 bales of cotton a year but most of it is exported to the UK where it is turned into fabric," Mr Kananathan said. "We want to see if we can process the cotton ourselves to generate more profits within the country."

Some tensions still remain. Mr Kananathan fired 200 workers who had gone on strike last year, accusing them of indiscipline and sabotage, and rival textiles makers feel that Tri-Star has been given extra help from the government. He said his company has employed and trained a total of 2,800 local workers and plans to hire more, but there have been complaints that he has undermined workers' rights.

When Amin died two years ago, newspapers carried letters that reminisced fondly about his treatment of Asians, who are still occasionally made into scapegoats for problems of unemployment and housing shortages.

And despite official welcomes, only one-fifth of the Asians have returned. Most have now settled in their new lives and are reluctant to return to Uganda. The ones who did return are careful to maintain links elsewhere: they often send their children abroad to study, and maintain residency status in other countries. Mr Hudda moved into the export business so he could deal in American dollars and not worry about fluctuations in African currencies.

But overall, the Asians who never left Uganda, those who returned and those who came for the first time, have all become fiercely patriotic. They all praise the gentle climate, fertile soil, and the welcome they have received. Integrating the country's fast-growing Asian community is a crucial part of Mr Museveni's strategy to show just what a modern, forward-looking country Uganda is. The government is anxious this year to reassure the international community of its commitment to human rights and democracy.

Mr Hudda said: "This country's history has given the people a deeper understanding of globalisation and human rights, and race relations here are now much better than in places like Kenya, where an expulsion never occurred."

Mr Karia agrees. "My father decided that Uganda was home, so he would tie his fortunes with it," he said. "At Amin's time, we used to get phone calls threatening that we would be moved to Karamoja, [the inhospitable, violent far north of Uganda] and my father always responded that as long as it was in Uganda, he would move there happily.

"I feel the same."

'One day you had everything, the next you lost everything'

The looting of properties began before our families had even left. On the way to the airport, cars were repeatedly stopped by the police, passengers were stripped of their belongings, jewellery was taken, and there was nothing anyone could do. They came to Britain with nothing but hand luggage and the clothes they were wearing.

The memories are still vivid for my uncle, Raj Shah. "One moment it was your house, and the next it was not. One day you had everything and the next you lost everything."

Among Asians, there was talk of the British not putting enough pressure on President Amin. Many of Uganda's Asians had been brought from India by the British to help build the railways and most held British passports. My uncle feels London was obliged to help. But he admires the efforts of Edward Heath, then the prime minister, who acted in the face of fierce political opposition.

In Britain, shelters and camps were set up and British Asian volunteers met arrivals at the airport. Volunteers helped with language and offered reassurance. Food and blankets were distributed.

In Uganda, my family had two houses, and owned a coffee estate in Kasangati, 10 miles from Kampala. My grandfather earnt enough to send four of his children for education in Britain, so when they arrived they were greeted by familiar faces.

My grandfather had always been healthy but he died five years after arriving in Britain. "He was an independent man, and suddenly he was left with nothing."

Una Galani

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