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.
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.
Nairobi's commercial and industrial life today is largely dominated by Asian businesses. Many have plunged into industry, and have become very wealthy indeed.
Many Asians went on to colonial Uganda with the railway, starting businesses and shops, becoming lawyers, accountants, or doctors. They became solid, reliable citizens, mostly eschewing politics, but many entering the civil service where they became valuable servants of government.
Some of the Asians who had to leave Uganda under Idi Amin were born there and accepted Uganda as their home. Not all went to Britain. Some went to Canada, others to India, and few stayed in Kenya to go into business.
Over the years, thousands of Asians went to Tanzania (then Tanganyika) where they founded businesses and worked in the civil service. But after President Julius nyerere brought in his socialist plans, many were turned out and their businesses nationalized. There also are big Asian communities right down the east coast of Africa, in Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and in Natal, South Africa, where originally they were brought over from India by the British to work on the great sugar estates.
For years, Asians excited the envy and dislike of black Africans all over the East Africa. The "duka wallah" (shopkeeper) was often the only man in the village or on the farm who provided the commodities needed by the blacks: Sugar, salt, bread, groceries, milk, meat, and medicines. He gave credit and charged interest, sometimes extortionate. Some even loaned money.
In the old colonial color-bar pecking order, Asians were less touchable than the Europeans but more so than the Blacks. However, they were favored by the whites because of their skills and industry; few businesses and trades did not have Asian managers, accountants, and "fundis" (skilled men). Turbaned Sikhs worked as engineers and builders -- and still do.
When independence came, presures built up against the Asians in kenya and elsewhere in East AFrica. There were demands for their expulsion. Blacks wanted their businesses and for a time the Kenya government pursued a program of issuing quit notices against Asian shops, handing them over to black Africans, most of whom had no business experience. Some did well, but other quickly failed.
When Kenya became independent in 1963, its first leader, President Jomo Kenyatta, genuinely wanted to make Kenya a multiracial state. He offered Asians and whites who wanted to remain in Kenya permanently a chance to become citizens. Some 60,000 Asians were accepted. The others retained British passports, with the understanding that they would leave Kenya under an agreed quota system with the British government.
Today there are at least 100,000 Asians in Kenya, integrated into the business life of the country. But one criticism of the Asian families, some of which are large, is their unwillingnes to integrate fully into the life of Africa for religious and racial reasons. Many also are ostentatious about their wealth. Their bejeweled, sari-clad woman are sacrosanct, and intermarriage with the blacks is rare.
Now the wheel in Kenya and Uganda has gone full circle, and asians are not only being encouraged to come back with their money and skills, but in Kenya, Asian technicians in various skills are being imported from India -- becoming a new race of expatriates.
India has helped to establish a number of big industries in Kenya -- paper and textiles, for instance, which are run by Asians brought in with Indian capital to do the job. The huge Pan-African Paper Mill is entirely run by Indian technicians, with the proviso that they train black Africans to take over their jobs.