Idi Amin’s ‘economic war’ has claimed casualties among Africans and Asians in Uganda

Fifty years ago – in early August 1972 – President Idi Amin summarily decreed the expulsion of the “Asian” (ie Indian and Pakistani) community from Uganda. More than 50,000 people have had barely three months to wrap up their affairs and leave the country. There was a scramble to secure new homes for people rendered stateless by the Amin decree. For months, the European and American media broadcast reports that dramatized the human misery of Ugandan Asians.

All the attention to the plight of the Asian community has made it difficult to see the much larger and much more violent story of Amin’s economic agenda. It was Africans, not Asians, who were the targets of this massive campaign. Amin called it the “war for economic independence”; later it was named the “economic war”.

Over the past decade, I have worked with Ugandan colleagues to organize, catalog and digitize government records at risk. This work shed light on the political and organizational logic of Amin’s regime. The economic war was waged by government officials who suddenly upset whole sections of public life. It was a regulatory war, waged by authorities seeking to control prices and monitor the conduct of business. It was a war in which large numbers of Ugandans were unwittingly made enemies of the state.

The inhumanity of economic warfare has been experienced far more widely than the events marking the “Asian expulsion” can admit.

economic war

It was supposed to be a war of liberation. In the speech announcing it, Amin sang about economic warfare as follows:

The day of salvation for Ugandan Africans. It is the day of redemption for Ugandan Africans. All Ugandans must wake up, fully mobilized, determined and committed to fighting this economic war until it is won.

The economic war has made some Ugandans feel like they are living in memorable times.

By the end of 1972, 5,655 farms, ranches and estates had been evacuated by the deceased Asian community. Derelict properties fell into the custody of a new bureaucracy – the Departed Asians Property Custodial Board – which allocated homes and business premises to African tenants.

Here in the conduct of business was a theater where black Ugandans could fight for their freedom. The “days of negotiation are over,” reads the Voice of Uganda. The public expected of the “new merchant in his town or village to be dedicated and very hardworking”, a “man of integrity and honesty” (Voice of Uganda, December 9, 1972).

New procedures were created to oversee the conduct of black-run business. Amin himself took an active interest in the matter. In the months following the expulsion of the Asians, he made surprise visits to businesses in Kampala two or three times a week. On each inspection tour, he gave instructions: he told a businessman to change his method of working, to reorganize the stock or to better keep his records.

In the archives of the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation, there are hundreds of photographs of Abdallah Nasur, the governor of the central province. Canadian diplomats reported that he spent his time:

making surprise visits to the various business establishments, finding them in breach of various written or unwritten government regulations, closing their businesses and assigning them to new owners.

In the photos, Nasur is always at the center of the frame, immersing himself in the lives and affairs of the people of Kampala.

In this way, small brutality was made to resemble vigor.

Economic crimes

In early 1975, Amin issued the Economic Crimes Decree. He created a military tribunal called the Economic Crimes Tribunal. Its judges were empowered to punish profiteers, hoarders and others who acted against the economic interests of the state. The penalty was death by firing squad or 10 years in prison.

In April, traders accused of selling goods above the prices set by the government were arrested and executed. In one case, the court ordered the execution of two dozen men who were caught smuggling 500 bags of coffee out of the country.

The targets of the Economic Crimes Tribunal were people without connections: small traders, shopkeepers, people whose financial strategies went against government decrees. The most moving images in the entire photographic archive come from a series made in March 1975. The photos show people brought before the court in a military barracks. The cameraman took dozens of photos, most of which were close-ups of individuals facing the judges.

In one photo, there is a girl with her arms folded, staring defiantly at the camera. In another photo, there is a middle-aged woman, wearing a printed dress, staring at the ground with tears in her eyes, her hand on her forehead. The photos were taken to document the identity of the people who were on trial. What they have captured is rather their fragility, their emotion, their nervousness, their innocence. They bear witness to the arbitrariness of justice and the cheapness of life.

Of the hundreds of photos taken at the Economic Crimes Court, only one was printed or published in the government newspaper. Were the image makers of Idi Amin’s regime sensitive to the court’s draconian powers? Did they sympathize with the people whose lives were destroyed by the court?

Change diet

In 1992, Uganda’s new leader – Yoweri Museveni – announced that property seized from Asian owners in 1972 should be returned to them. Asians who wanted to recover properties could obtain the titles from the Departed Asians Property Custodial Board; the plaintiffs were obliged to obtain the eviction of the Ugandan tenants themselves.

Today, the council retains custody of several hundred properties. Its management is the subject of a parliamentary investigation: billions of Ugandan shillings have been stolen from its accounts, and its leaders are accused of having sold important buildings to well-connected owners.

Among the many wrongs of the 1970s, among the many lives that were disrupted or cut short by Amin’s regime, it was the expulsion of the Asian community that was the subject of ongoing efforts to redress and rectify . No one has apologized to the hundreds of innocent and terrified men and women who were photographed, in their final hour, on trial in the Economic Crimes Tribunal.

About William Moorhead

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