“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past." - Karl Marx
On 5 August 1972 – informed by the census that had been carried out the previous year – Idi Amin announced that he had a dream in which it was revealed to him that some 60,000 Asians who were not classed as Ugandans (defined as such by a convoluted arbitrary lineage) must leave Uganda, declaring, “Asians came to Uganda to build the railway, the railway is finished, they must leave now”.
They were given 90 days and a limit of £50 on the value of assets they could take out of the country, and threatened with concentration camps if they were found to be in the country beyond that, hastened by the army who were set loose to rape, harass and kill at will.
The basis for expelling the Asians was fundamentally racist and led to a brain drain from the country that saw the economy and many of the social and cultural infrastructures – which involved both Asians and Ugandans – collapse. The Asians had built up 90 per cent of the economy, living in communities that were not deliberately segregated but which by virtue of the natural gathering of a group with a collective identity, set them apart. However innocuous the apparent differences may have been, they were ideal fodder for Amin to use in sewing the seeds of distrust and tension between the East Asians and the native Ugandan people.
During this time, the British High Commission in Kampala, which had courted close relations with Amin, claimed to the outside world that there was no real problem. And the international community remained powerless at best, and at worst, passive and dismissive of the atrocities that all citizens at the time were being subjected to.
Silence and denial surrounded the people of Uganda, and even within Uganda, little was documented as very few dared to keep any paperwork that might leave them under suspicion. News blackouts and curfews were commonplace.
The 1971 Commonwealth declaration, originally made in reference to South Africa and Rhodesia but which applied universally to all member countries, states that: “We recognise racial prejudice as a dangerous sickness, threatening the healthy developments of the human race and racial discrimination as an unmitigated evil of society. Each of us will vigorously combat this evil within our nation.” And yet even though Amin’s policy against the Asian population was an unequivocal contravention of this pledge, the Commonwealth looked the other way, proving itself to be just an ineffectual as the UN, rendered redundant in its own apparent mission to protect the rights of the vulnerable.
The UN had said it would review conditions in Uganda in 1978, and yet postponed doing so, allowing the killing to continue, leading British newspaper the Guardian to comment; “what sort of things is the UN Commission on Human Rights concerned with if it is not concerned with the situation in Uganda?”.
When the East Asians were expelled from Uganda, they faced barricades at every turn – first there were the roadblocks they had to pass as they attempted to navigate their way out of towns such as Masaka and into Kampala to reach Entebbe airport. There were army security checkpoints, with Amin’s child soldiers wielding weapons and an air of viciousness that was all the more horrific for the brutalisation of the perpetrators as much as their victims. And then there were the arbitrary rules of what could and could not be taken out of the country under the £50 allowance.
Kenya, Tanzania, India and Pakistan – unwilling to come to the aid of a country ruled by a hostile despot – initially closed their borders against what they feared would be an influx; whereas Italy and Austria opened up temporary camps, and Canada and America accepted a limited number of refugees, primarily taking academics and professional workers.
The UK accepted those who were classified as protectorates, amounting to some 30,000, although the figures that were bandied around at the time were far higher, artificially elevated to bolster fears of a tidal wave of foreigners as the anti-immigration and Far Right lobby capitalised on the crisis for political gain.
Welcome to Britain
The 1970s Britain into which the refugees arrived was far from a cohesive socio-political environment. Refugee camps may have been established to temporarily offer the Diaspora protection, but on the streets, and immediately as they arrived in coaches from Stansted making their way to the camps in Wales and Somerset, their first impressions were of angry protestors – those involved seemingly unaware of the Britain’s responsibility in creating the hotbed of anger, hostility and mistrust that sat beneath Uganda since the colonial era.
Ed Harriman, reporting in the New Statesman after he seized top secret and confidential documents when Uganda was liberated, found documents in the headquarters of Amin’s former secret police unit – the innocuously titled State Research Centre – indicating the extent to which Britain had supported him. British born army brass Major Bob Astles had been Amin’s special advisor and head of the Anti-Corruption Squad. The State Research Centre was in fact established in 1973 under the auspices of Bob Astles – and came to be the most feared building in Uganda, commanded by Major Farouk Minowa, with the aid of 1,500 spies who tortured and terrorised anyone who incurred Amin’s erratic wrath.
Britain also repaired and supplied military spares to Amin’s government, and the nation accounted for a third of Uganda’s trade in terms of manufactured goods, including those to oppress Ugandan people. Until 1979, Amin had cargo shipped daily from Stansted – the same airport that those he kicked out would end up – including luxury goods that would satiate his army. All the while the army remained contended, the country went to ruin, poverty rose and the general population faced shortages. The firms that dealt with Amin included Barclays, ICI, ICL, Leyland, BP, Plessey and government owned institution, Crown Agents, who printed currency for Amin.
Leicester, the city that would eventually become home to a large proportion of Indian-origin East Asians, was for a significant time, one of Amin’s primary suppliers during his despotic rule. In 1976, the telecommunications firm Contact Radio and Telephone, produced a bullet-proof broadcasting station for Amin so that he could broadcast from anywhere in a state of emergency. Pye Telecommunications of Cambridge was Amin’s biggest suppliers, via their Kenyan distributor. Dyma Electrons Lt of Watford also provided him with equipment.
Even after scores of refugees arrived in Britain, fleeing well documented abuses at the hands of Amin, Britain continued to trade with him. It was only in 1976 that PM James Callaghan broke off democratic relations with Uganda.