Sunday, 26 February 2012

Uganda - a lesson for the East Africans and the Asians?

The British brought families of Indians, many Gujaratis, to Uganda in the 1870s. Under the Empire, they were British subjects and the first generation would build the railway. Further generations would go on to become the backbone of East Africa's trade and industry. In the early 1970s, forming just 1% of the total population of Uganda, the British Asians were responsible for 66% of the country's economy.

But, the events of January 1972 would go on to change their lives. On one morning during the 1972 coup overthrowing Milton Obote's government, a then unidentified voice purporting to be the leader of the Ugandan army announced on the national radio that the country was now under military control. At first, General Idi Amin and his troops were welcomed. But soon the new leader made his intentions clear. He announced his decision to expel all Asians of British nationality living in Uganda, who, according to him, were "sabotaging the economy of Uganda". He required all Asians to leave the country within 90 days, leaving all their possessions and wealth in Uganda. General Amin's intention was to prove to the indigenous people that he could balance the country's books, leading to the nationalisation of huge local industries. By ordering the expulsion of the economically dominant Asians, this became easy for him. A century of wealth and establishment was eradicated in a few months. Generations of an intelligent and industrious community became refugees in those 90 days.

Many British Asians remember those harrowing days of 1972. They were the most frightening days of many Asians' lives. Everybody had guns, anyone could turn up at your step to demand jewellery, money and other assets. Army soldiers threatened to rape Asian girls and shoot on sight Asian boys. There was no question of getting a good night's sleep. Army trucks would relentlessly patrol the streets enforcing curfews against the Asians. In fact, there are some families that have literally vanished, no one having heard anything of them since those days. To the locals, fuelled by Amin's propaganda at the time that the Asians had an agenda to convert Kampala and Entebbe into the "Bombays" of East Africa, the Asian exodus could only benefit land which had always been their's. The Imperialists and their agents (the Asians) were finally being kicked out.

But against the odds, almost 40 years later, British Asians seem to be re-asserting themselves in Uganda. Case in point - the Madhvani family. Back in the 1970s, the Madhvanis employed over 10,000 locals in their industries ranging from sugar to steel. Within 7 years of their expulsion, the Madhvanis began returning from Britain to rebuild their businesses, and today, are stronger than ever. Today the Madhvani empire is vast, including tourism, construction, hospitality and sugar. Even in 1972, the Madhvanis were formidable industrialists. At the time, they contributed about 15% of Uganda's GDP.

Kakira Sugar, part of the Madhvani's immense business interests, is a popular brand in Uganda. In a recent interview with BBC reporter Vishwa Samani, Ronnie Madhvani, one of the family's younger generation, explains his belief that the benefits of the Madhvani's business model are far reaching, as they give back to local farmers and producers. He claims that they (the Madhvanis) play major roles in sustaining local communities where they run their sugar plantations. Ronnie's attitude to Uganda is complicated - on the one hand it seems to be the country where he can have the quality of life he wants, with a stunning mansion on a scenic Kampalan hill top, removed from the reality of life in Kampala's slums; and on the other, the opportunities for integrating with local Ugandans appear rare.

Many local Ugandans are, nowadays, candid about the re-emerging Asian community. Have you heard about the running joke amongst locals - the one where the reason why Indians cannot play soccer is because if they are about to score a goal, they look at the goal post and decide to set up shop there! So, is there a growing sense of resentment amongst today's generation of local indigenous Ugandans against the Asians?

Vishwa Samani's interview is illuminating. In her report, she describes how some Ugandans are actually respectful of the Asians' drive but sometimes frustrated with the lack of ambition in their fellow people. But, as part of her report, Samani also speaks to Mayur Madhvani, one of the older members of the industrial family, about his thoughts on the role of Asians in Uganda's economy today. When Samani visits the Kakira Sugar factory in Jinja to meet Mayur, she lands upon a factory worker's strike, policed by heavily armed officers, and driven by demands for higher pay. The anger from the workers and the forecful response by Kakira's management (police officers, tear gas etc.), explains Samani, seems very much at odds with Ronnie Madhvani's description of the collaborative working relationship between British Asians and Ugandans.

Leaving the strike aside, when asked of his connection with Uganda, Mayur Madhvani articulates what, I think, many East Africans feel. Mayur is very open about his identity - Uganda is his home, he was born in Kakira. For him, he is a foreigner in India, and even though he studied in Britain, it was just that for him - the country where he studied. Like many young members of large, successful East African Asian families, Mayur returned to Uganda to join the thriving business. But what is really key is Mayur's thoughts on the prospect of another expulsion. His thoughts on this, as described to Samani, are that the world has matured, and that nationalisation, certainly in East Africa will probably not happen to the scale seen in the Amin days. He claims that the East Africans have learnt their lessons from the aftermath that followed Amin's brash decisions; after all - it was they who suffered even more under the hands of tyrants such as Amin. Mayur's responses are indicative of how many East African Asians feel connected to the region. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are "home" for these families - India is just as foreign as Timbuktu!

But is there a case for arguing that the presence and dominance of the East African Asians benefits the locals? Most indigenous East Africans have realised that their problems (rising fuel prices, crippling infrastructure and underlying poverty) cannot be attributed to the Asians. The problem, in reality, lies with the administration of the region, namely widespread and deep-rooted graft and apathy.

As with all things, it depends on who you speak to. In Samani's report, she speaks to Andrew Rugasira, the founder of Good African Coffee, a company that takes fair trade coffee from the Western Ugandan town of Kasese to Ugandan, British and American retailers. Rugasira is clearly one of the foremost indigenous Ugandan businessmen operating in the country today. His take on Amin's expulsion of the Asians is somewhat different and measured. His analysis of the situation is deeper. Yes, at the time, there was a direct loss of commercial networks and trade, but the Amin regime negatively impacted any opportunities for the indigenous classes. The fact that the commercial space was cleared as a result of the expulsion meant that there was then room for a small group of indigenous businessmen to take over. Asked whether he thinks that Asian businessmen in Uganda hold back indigenous Ugandans from making some headway in commerce, his thoughts are qualified. Whereas Rugasira does not believe that the Asians hold back the Ugandans in a conscious way, he does note that their sheer size and dominance in business can indeed hold back local people from growing. He explains that Asians are able to share experiences, technology and suppliers through their community, thereby giving them a competitive edge. This means that an indigenous aspirant might not have that capacity and therefore finds himself in difficulty. Rugasira does not feel that there is resentment from the locals but that there is perhaps some concern in respect of the unfair advantage.

At the end of the day, if anything, both the East Africans and the Asians will have learnt (one hopes!) from the harrowing days of the Amin regime, and will develop a socio-economic consciousness that will genuinely include the interests of each other. Time only can tell whether lessons have indeed been learnt...or not.

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