'Come back, Asians,' Uganda's Obote asks

In East Africa, the Asians -- often wealthy, shrewd businessmen -- are not usually regarded with a great deal of favor by the Africans. But Uganda's new President, Milton Obote, is going against the tide by trying to lure the Asian businessmen back into battered Uganda to restore its economy.

When former President Idi Amin expelled the entire Asian community in Uganda in 1972, taking over Asian-owned businesses and giving them to Africans, the move was not regarded with disfavor, though he wrecked the nation's economy in doing it. In Uganda, the Asians were the heart of the business community, running the bulk of commerce and industry.

Under Mr. Obote's previous presidency (he was ousted in a coup by Mr. Amin in 1971), the Asians prospered. They ran the large coffee, sugar, and cotton estates, along with most of the shops and stores. They gave employment to thousands.

During Mr. Obote's years in exile, many prominent Asians hoped and worked for his comeback. In the December 1980 election, when Mr. Obote was returned to power, Asian money was contributed to his campaign.

Now, with President Obote campaigning hard to restore the Uganda economy and to rehabilitate the country, he is going all-out to restore the Asians' power and prestige as the key to future prosperity.

And he has gone further than most African presidents would dare to go. He has appointed a prominent Asian, Shaffiq Arain, as high commissioner in London, The top diplomatic post. Another prominent Asian, Gurdial Singh, has been appointed high commissioner in India. Both moves are interpreted as a shrewd attempt to restore investors' confidence in Uganda and to lure Asians back to take up where they left off in the bad old days of Idi Amin.

Many Asians expelled by Amin established businesses in neighboring Kenya or already had connections there. Some of these men now are setting up again in Uganda and can be useful in encouraging Kenya-Uganda trade. From Kenya, Mr. Obote is already getting a flow of consumer goods to restock the empty shops, stores, and warehouses in Kampala.

Uganda's biggest problem is foreign exchange. If, with the help of Kenya railways and road transport, Uganda can move its 70,000 tons of coffee to the world market, at least some foreign exchange will trickle in to pay for Uganda's huge import needs for oil, trucks, spare parts, machinery, and equipment, not to mention consumer commodities such as soap, su gar, batteries, and cooking.

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