NEWS ANALYSISBy John KakandeTHE anger and hostility exhibited against members of Asian descent in (recent) demonstration was not primarily caused by the Government plan to give away part of Mabira Forest to the Sugar Corporation of Uganda (SCOUL), which is part of the Indian-owned Mehta Group. The tension between both communities goes back to colonial times, over 100 years ago.
The British colonial administration originally imported labourers from India, primarily to work on the construction of the Uganda Railway around 1895. The colonial administration had to resort to Indians because the African peasants were purportedly not willing to take up the work and get paid ‘wages’. Later, more Indian immigrants came to Uganda as soldiers,
artisans, clerks, carpenters, bricklayers, blacksmiths and gardeners.
The conflict between the Indian community and the indigenous Ugandans first emerged in the 1920s. The colonial regime, according to Ugandan political
economy scholars, deliberately refused to sell land to the Indian immigrants for political and economic reasons. The Indians thus took to trading. At the same time, the policy of the colonialists was to keep the Africans in the agricultural economy and away from the market place. The Indians thus became dominant in commerce and trade. They particularly controlled the lucrative cotton ginning and processing trade, which put them at logger heads with the African cotton producers.
In 1945, 1948 and 1959, riots in Kampala and other parts of the country targeted Indians, mainly because of their monopoly position in trade. In 1959, a mass boycott was organised of shops owned by the Asians. Augustine Kamya, the trader-cum-political agitator who led the Uganda National Movement, announcing the mass boycott stated: “From now, ten minutes to six, all trade is put into the hands of Africans. From this hour, no African
should enter a non-African shop.”
One of the demands was that the Asian traders must leave retail trade to the Africans. The colonial regime also moved to enable Africans, through cooperatives, to participate in the lucrative cotton ginning and processing
trade. When political independence came, the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC)
that took over power had to grapple with the Asian question. The Government
tried to promote what was called African trade development. In practice,
this meant enabling the African traders expand into retail and wholesale
trade, which was originally controlled by Asians. Rivalry, however, remained
between Asians and African traders.
On seizing power in 1971, Idi Amin took a number of populist measures to
boost his support. On the political level, he freed all political detainees
and appointed some of them to his Cabinet. The President of the main
opposition Democratic Party, Ben Kiwanuka, was appointed Chief Justice. To
woo the Baganda, Amin returned the body of Ssekabaka Edward Mutesa II for
On the economic front, Idi Amin, ruthlessly expelled the Asians in what he
called an “economic war” to ensure that the national economy was in the
hands of Africans. The Amin regime then distributed, free of charge, the
assets and enterprises formerly owned by the Asians to local traders. Some
enterprises, including those of the Mehtas and Madhvanis, were turned into
state parastatals. In due course, the enterprises collapsed due to
mismanagement. The national economy, too, was ruined.
After the fall of the Amin regime in 1979, Obote II opted to return the
properties to the former Asian owners. A law, the Expropriated Properties
Act, was put in place to facilitate the Asians to repossess their
properties. A few Asians, including the Mehtas and Madhvanis, took advantage
of the law. But owing to the political instability and insecurity in the country, the majority of the Asians stayed away, until 1986 when the National Resistance Army captured power.
On taking over, President Museveni accelerated the process of returning the
properties to the Asians. A big section of the Ugandan business community
and political class were opposed to this. The then interim legislature, the National Resistance Council (NRC), met in a closed session to debate the issue. The session was chaired by President Museveni himself and according to reports; the debate was quite heated. The NRC begrudgingly agreed to allow the Asians to repossess their properties.
The NRM government’s decision was reportedly dictated by the economic
realities and by the donor community. For the donor community, it was not easy for Uganda to attract new foreign investors before redressing the gross injustice committed against the Asian community.
Museveni’s Government had inherited an economy in ruins. Essential commodities like sugar and salt were scarce. Actually the Government allocated sugar through the local village committees. The authorities were desperate to attract investments to revive the economy. They believed the
Asians had the capacity to mobilise funds for the revival of the economy.
Furthermore, most of the properties under the Departed Properties Custodian Board were on the verge of collapse due to poor maintenance. The Board was broke because the tenants of the properties paid peanuts in rent.
Returning the properties to Asians revived the age-old hostilities against the Asians. Some local traders, who were operating from the premises, resisted. But eventually the exercise was successful. Over the past two decades, the Asians managed to regain their leading position in the national
Kampala city traders anger
The re-emergence of the Asians as key players in the retail sector as well as import and export did not please everybody. It was not surprising that the Kampala City Traders Association (KACITA) joined in the demonstration against the planned Mabira give-away. Note that KACITA has hitherto either opposed or stayed clear of political demonstrations.
It is unfortunate that yesterday’s demonstration degenerated into an
An entire community or ethnic group should not be blamed for the action of
one person or a company. That is precisely what caused the massacre of people in Lango and Acholi during Idi Amin’s regime and the massacres in West Nile during the Obote regime. It is unacceptable.
Posted to Apn by Ham Mukasa
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