Comment & analysis
The Asian question again: A reflection
2007-05-09, Issue 303
Mahmood Mamdani analyses the underlying causes of anti-Asian actions in Uganda from a historical perspective, and the interplay of socio-economic and political factors.
I have been trying to make sense of the events of 12 April from the distance of New York and with the help of the internet and the telephone.
Some say these events are an unfortunate breakdown in law and order, best forgotten and put behind us.
Common sense, however, tells me that larger issues are at stake and, if not addressed, have the potential of fuelling further popular outrage.
The surest public indication of this is growing reference to the 1972 Asian expulsion in discussions of 12 April.
I was a teaching assistant at Makerere university in Uganda at the time of the 1972 Asian expulsion, and was among the last to leave in early November.
I had finished my O’Levels in 1962 at the senior secondary school, Old Kampala. I was one of over 20 students who received scholarships to study in the US.
The scholarships were part of America’s independence gift to Uganda. In the language of that period, I was among those who could claim to have literally eaten the fruit of independence. Certainly, without a successful struggle for independence, I would not have got the higher education that I did.
One of my first activities as a student was to participate in the civil rights movement in the US.
In less than a year, I was among bus loads of students going from northern universities to march in Birmingham, Alabama, in the south.
We marched through secondary schools, singing songs such as 'Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?' and 'We shall overcome', and asking students to leave classes and join us.
As we moved downtown, police on horseback and motorcycles, wielding metal-studded batons, jumped at us. Scores of other students and I were thrown in jail.
Allowed to make one phone call from jail, I called the Uganda ambassador in Washington DC. 'What are you doing interfering in the internal affairs of a foreign country?', he asked.
'This is not an internal affair. This is a freedom struggle. How can you forget? We just got our freedom last year', was my response. I had learnt that freedom knew no boundary, certainly not that of colour or country.
I returned home in early 1972 as a convinced pan-African nationalist, but was thrown out later in the year as an Asian.
Early in November, I flew to London and was admitted to a refugee camp. The British press was full of stories about Amin and the Asian expulsion.
Every story talked of Amin not as a dictator, but as a black dictator. With few exceptions, the British press racialised Amin. His blackness was offered as the primary explanation for his brutality.
Fresh from civil rights struggles in the American south, and anti-Vietnam war struggles in the American north, I had seen brutality in the white and was unwilling to accept this explanation.
Partly for that reason, I left London within nine months and took up my first job at the University of Dares Salaam. Although my physical being was in Dar es Salaam where both my parents had been born, my mind was preoccupied with Uganda: Why Amin? Why the support for Amin?
The years that followed confirmed that Amin was a demagogue and brutal at that. But that still did not explain the support for Amin. It was painful for me to realise that if Amin was originally popular because he had removed the Obote dictatorship, the reason for his continued popularity had to do with the fact that he, more than any other leader, had put the 'Asian question' at the forefront of the political agenda.
Every Ugandan understood in his or her guts that the secret of Asian business success lay not just in hard work, but also in a racially unjust colonial system which made it difficult for black people to enter trade, thereby confirming Asian dominance.
Handicapped in the marketplace, those aspiring to business turned to political organisation. It is through repeated political action — in 1945, then 1949, and then again 1959 — that the Ugandans were able to gain entry into the marketplace. The demand for political independence went alongside another — that for social justice for those who had been the victims of colonial racial discrimination.
A decade of independence increased this demand for one reason: it seemed Asian businessmen had been able to turn national independence to private advantage. Not only had independence liberated them like everyone else from the limits placed by colonial rule. Asian business tycoons seemed to have developed a comfortable alliance with big bureaucrats and top politicians who gave them political protection (what is today called ‘no change’) in return for lucrative bribes.
With its paan and sari shops, and cinema houses showing Bollywood movies, Kampala’s population got browner as the sun set and its black workforce left for satellite communities on the edge of town.
Pointing to this informal apartheid in a complacent post-independence Uganda, Amin asked uncomfortable questions, even if in a coarse and racist language:
'If Uganda is independent, why does its capital city look like Bombay on a Sunday?'
I realised that Amin spoke the language of justice, however crudely, and that was the reason he was able to ride the crest of a historic wave of popular protest.
I returned to Uganda in 1979 when Amin was thrown out. It is difficult to forget the shock of returning to a city where I had grown up and knew just about every street, but could no longer recognise a soul.
There were also other shocks in store. Most people I met supported Amin’s decision to expel Asians, though they disagreed on the details: the time given to wind up family and business affairs, the limits on what each family could take out, and so on.
Listening to them, I realised that even though they saw Amin as a brutal dictator, many also saw him as a nationalist. Even if they disagreed with his methods, they applauded his goal as a Uganda for Ugandans, particularly black Ugandans.
Could this new Uganda be a home for me? Determined to make a second beginning, I rejoined Makerere university. I recall the decade that followed 1979 as one of coming to political age for a second time. Even if ravaged by civil war and dictators, the new Uganda seemed a healthier society, less marked by the racial distortions of a colonial experience and Ugandans were proud of it.
As a person of Asian background, I felt more comfortable, even safer, in the new Uganda than, for example, did Asians in neighbouring Kenya. I was not the only one. The few Asian business persons I knew also seemed to realise that they were more secure in a society, where business persons were no longer a racially identifiable minority.
The new Uganda began to change under the NRM. The new president was determined to reverse the legacy of Idi Amin and return Uganda to his notion of a normal society.
Two big government-initiated changes followed. The first was the decision to return previously confiscated properties to its former Asian owners.
Asked by the Law Society to speak on the issue, I argued against a return of properties and spoke in favour of compensation. I said a return of properties would result in either absentee ownership or concentration of property in few hands, or both; in either case, it will be socially unhealthy. But the return of properties was part of a larger IMF package and it was the president’s wish, so nobody listened.
Once it faced opposition, the NRM too discovered the advantages of dealing with a business class which had few links within the country and could easily be isolated and kept on a short leash. Once again, close links began to develop between individual Asian tycoons and prominent politicians in the government, as they had in the Obote period.
The second big change was born of this corruption and was more the result of unofficial than formal decisions. Though the network of corruption focused on government departments that handled immigration and was clandestine, its effects were publicly visible.
The number of Asian residents of Uganda began to multiply, from less than 5,000 when the NRM came to power to an estimated 20,000 today. Of these, only 2,000 came from the pre-1972 generation. The largest section was brought in to service big Asian businesses which preferred to hire their core employees from outside, so it would be easier to keep them on a short leash.
Not surprisingly, the new arrivals were mainly petty traders and semi-skilled employees. The new official terminology that identified just about every person of Asian origin as an ‘investor’ could not hide this fact.
Neither was the change confined to the capital city, Kampala. It was even more visible in smaller market towns, such as Lugazi, Kakira, Kamuli, or Iganga, or other places where the number of traders of Asian origin mushroomed in just a few years from just a handful to many more.
Even before the scandal around Mabira came to light, signs of rising tension were evident on the social and political landscape of Uganda.
Mabira turned into a major scandal because it symbolised a collusion between an increasingly unaccountable president and an arrogant tycoon from a racialised minority. The president had taken to treating the country as his private preserve; the grant of Mabira was simply the latest in a series of grants (of a school in one case or an information ministry facility in another) by the president, always claiming that his personal will represented the interests of ‘development’.
The tycoon too claimed to be doing the country a favour — once again, ‘development’ — rather than lining his own pockets. Mabira outraged just about everyone, from the Kabaka to the mukopi, the mwami to the muyaye.
No doubt both the political opposition and the muyaye on the street took full advantage of this public outrage. And yet, it is a mistake to hold them responsible for creating the issue and the grievance of which they took advantage. Nor was the 12 April demonstration mainly a protest about Mabira. It wasn’t, which is why public protest about the Asian question will continue even when the Mabira issue is resolved.
The Asian Question
So what is this 'Asian question'? It is a different question for different groups of Ugandans. For those in urban and peri-urban areas looking to join commerce, it has to do with the crowding of the market place by immigrant traders, even hawkers — Indian and Chinese — often entitled as ‘investors’.
For the middle and the lower-middle classes who have put their energies and assets in secondary and even higher education in the hope of securing their children a white-collar job, it is about the ease with which immigrants seem to be able to get residence and work permits at the expense of jobless nationals.
For business persons of substance, it is about unfair competition and unequal access to officially sanctioned resources and connections. All of them complain of unfair treatment, and all expect preferential treatment for nationals in an independent country. For all of them, this is a question of nationalism, of meaningful independence.
In their conscience and sometimes in private conversations, most Asian residents of Uganda realise that these grievances are just. For these aspirations are not confined to Uganda and Ugandans, but are common throughout the formerly colonised countries in Africa and Asia.
For ordinary Asian residents, it makes sense to demand that tycoons in the community respect the aspirations of ordinary Ugandans, and to disassociate themselves publicly from those who fail to do so.
All the talk about ‘the Asian community’ should not hide the fact that not all Asians have the same interest. Of particular importance is the difference between those who see Uganda as home and those who don’t.
Many of this latter group are essentially carpetbaggers (in the Asian community, they are known as ‘rockets’ that land and take off at will). Whereas it makes sense for these temporary sojourners to rely on the police for protection, such a strategy would be foolish indeed for those who see Uganda as home. This group, the Ugandan Asians, need to think of how to build a future as part of the Ugandan majority.
If we can draw one lesson from the Amin period, it is this: how the Asian question is defined and resolved will affect not only the Asian minority, but all Ugandans.
The Asian question can be defined in a racist and exclusive way, as it was by Amin, so that the fact of colour blurs that of citizenship and commitment.
Or it can be defined in a non-racial and inclusive way so that we make a distinction between different types of Asian residents in today’s Uganda, legally between citizens and non-citizens; and socially between those for whom Uganda is no more than a transit facility (the ‘rockets’), and those for whom Uganda has been a home for generations.
12 April represents a wake-up call that we are dealing with a social question of national dimensions, one that will critically shape Uganda’s politics over the coming period.
For one, it is rapidly undermining the unity of the government in power. The NRM, including its MPs and members in the cabinet, are already split on this issue. Should the presidency continue to disregard popular opinion on this question, it is sure to find itself further isolated.
The more popular agitation grows, the more it will teach the electorate that democracy is less about elections than about holding those elected accountable to the citizenry on a day-to-day basis.
Political accountability has to begin with the right to simple information. Whether it is the transfer of public resources (such as in the case of Mabira) to private persons or the issue of residence and work permits to non-nationals, all relevant information must be made public, and done so regularly. The first principle of democracy is that every policy be open to public debate and scrutiny.
The demonstrations have also brought to the fore a key weakness in the opposition. Even if it has the capacity to organise demonstrations, the opposition clearly lacks the foresight and the capacity to give it direction.
The real significance of 12 April is that it has ushered in a period of open competition on who will lead the opposition to an unaccountable presidency. The cutting edge of this competition is likely to be the Asian question. More than any other, it will set apart demagogues from democrats, and pose a challenge to Ugandans, black and brown, as to whether or not we have the foresight and the capacity to forge a tolerant and inclusive society.
* This essay was first published on 28 April 2007 in the Ugandan Sunday Vision.
* Mahmood Mamdani is Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and professor of anthropology at Columbia University. His most recent book is Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror (Random House, 2004).
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