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East African nations putting out welcome mat for Asians to return

By John WorrallSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 17, 1981



Nairobi, Kenya

When Uganda's President Milton Obote sent out strong messages urging Uganda Asians to come back to his country to help in rebuilding and to share in its future prosperity, it marked a pronounced change in the fortunes of the Asian communities in East Africa.

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Other overtures for Asians to come in -- or come back -- are being heard elsewhere in East Africa. Kenya and TAnzania, for example, likewise now are turning to the once-maligned Asians for help in getting their troubled economies to function.

Farther south, in Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and even white-ruled South AFrica, Asians still play an important role in the economic and business communities.

In uganda, President Obote already has broken with tradition by appointing a Uganda Asian, Shaffiq Arain, as high commissioner (ambassador) in London. That was because most of Uganda's asians joined the immigrant queue in London after they were expelled by former President Idi Amin in 1972.

Mr. Obote has also appointed a Uganda Asian as high commissioner in India. A british Foreighn Office minister, Richard Luce, who recently visited Mr. Obote in Kampala, told me that the Uganda leader wants the Asians to come back to inject their business and technical skills into the ailing Uganda economy.

It was an admission that the departure of the Asians deprived Uganda of essential skills in many sectors apart from business. Included are the post office, the railways, the Ministry of Works, and other essential areas for where black Africans had enter for various reasons.

Mr. Obote also has encouraged the great Uganda Asian industrial dynasties, the MAdhavanis and the Mehtas, to rehabiliate their coffee, tea, and cotton estates. Where the madhvanis and the mehtas go, it was felt, others Would follow and are following.

One of the reasons for Uganda's great economic disaster under Idi Amin was his wholesale explusion of these industrious, skilled people. Some 30000 Asians left in 1972.The Amin theory (which proved incorrect) was that black Africans could take over the Asian shops, businesses, and industries without any preparation or training. But most of the Asian businesses he gave to his friends, relations, and supporters, including many Army and Air Force officers, who put untrained and inexperienced blacks in managerial positions.Businesses are not run that way, Uganda quickly found.

Some hundreds of millions of dollars still are owed to the Asians in compensation. Mr. Obote has accepted that obligation, but in the present state of the Uganda economy, he obviously cannot pay up. Some returning Asians have waived compensation for the time being.

What of the rest of East Africa? The election to parliament of Asian lawyer Krishna gautama by an almost all-black contituency caused a sensation in Kenya. That gave another lift to the Asians in Kenya, who for years had not been satisfied with their position as the least popular community in Kenya among the blacks. Ironically, the white Europeans -- many of them ex-colonial settlers -- had long been accepted in independent Kenya. The Asians first came to Kenya as merchants in the early 19th century to trade with the arabs along the arab-dominated east coast of Africa. Many prospered , built fine houses, founded wealthy families. In later days, thousands came as coolies," brought by the british to build the railway from Mombasa, on the Indiana Ocean, to Uganda because it was believed they worked harder than the black African Tribesmen. When the railway was finished, many started shops and stores, with hundreds of Asian families establishing themselves in Nairobi when it was merely a construction point on the railway.