Exiled Asians return 'home' to help Uganda rebuild

Meenabeen Madhvani has come back ''home'' to help rebuild her country. ''Uganda is our identity,'' says this businesswoman, one of the 70,000 Asians expelled from Uganda by former Ugandan President Idi Amin Dada.

''We have lived here for three generations. It's a challenge to come back to a country you love so dearly and do something for it.''

When Idi Amin kicked out the Asians and nationalized their property in 1972, most of them closed up shop for good, making new lives in India, Britain, or Canada. But some of them were among the first to return to Uganda after General Amin was overthrown.

Mrs. Madhvani was one of those who accepted the invitation of new Ugandan President Milton Obote to return. Her family owns the largest sugar plantation in Uganda. At one time the Madhvani industrial group controlled 38 percent of the industrial investment in the country.

The late Jayant Madhvani, a third-generation Ugandan of Indian origin, had expanded the farm-based industries his father began. He built a cottonseed oil factory, several cotton gins, a soap factory, a mill for grinding maize into flour and cattle feed, and a candy factory.

He operated this business empire from his estate at Kakira, eight miles from Jinja, the industrial center of Uganda, where Col. John Speke discovered the source of the White Nile.

The Madhvani group continued to expand: into steel, glass, and paper in Uganda and into industries in Kenya and Tanzania. Mr. Madhvani even became a member of the Ugandan Parliament.

Next door at Lugazi, the Mehta family, another Asian conglomerate, became one of Uganda's biggest producers of coffee and tea for export.

When the Madhvanis and the Mehtas returned to Uganda, they found their old business empires in shambles.

The Madhvanis had left a fleet of 120 tractors in 1972. Only one was in working condition when Mrs. Madhvani returned eight years later.

The pipes in the sugar mill leaked steam and cane juice. Machinery everywhere had broken down, and there were no spare parts.

Of 21,000 acres on the Madhvani estate, 18,000 acres that once produced sugar cane had reverted to bush. Much of the eucalyptus forest that provided firewood for the factories had been cut down.

''We were producing 3,000 tons of sugar a day in 1971, and now we are producing 300 tons a month,'' said Mrs. Madhvani, interviewed in the mauve and burnt orange bungalow her husband built on this estate overlooking Lake Victoria.

During her exile, Mrs. Madhvani sought refuge with her three children in London and then in the United States. In Pennsylvania, she joined Ugandan exiles organizing against the Amin government.

When she came back to Uganda, bandits, guerrillas, and armed gangs still roamed the countryside. ''We heard gunfire . . . when we came back to the estate ,'' she said.

The government has agreed to help many of these estates. It is entering into agreements to help with the enormous rehabilitation costs and to improve the country's foreign exchange situation as quickly as possible. Priority commodities include coffee, tea, tobacco, cotton, and sugar.

The Madhvanis' own agreement with the government covers six industries - sugar, steel, soap, oil, confections, and glass. Mrs. Madhvani estimates that restoring the sugar industry to 1971 production levels may cost $61 million. She thinks more than $31 million will be required to rehabilitate the other industries.

The Ugandan government is also raising producer prices for export crops - coffee, tea, cotton, and tobacco - as an incentive to smaller farmers.

Industries are still plagued by operational problems. Frequent electricity failures bring factories to a halt. It can take more than a year to receive desperately needed spare parts.

During the Amin period, as agricultural exports declined, more and more Ugandans returned to subsistence farming. And during the liberation war in 1979 and 1980, the Madhvani industries ground to a halt.

''Between 1979 and 1980,'' Mrs. Madhvani said, ''people almost lost the perception of their power to do anything. Life had almost come to a standstill after the war.''

Aside from the Madhvanis and the Mehtas, there is still much confusion about the status of property once owned by Asians. About 1,000 Asians have returned to Uganda to reopen businesses. The three-month deadline for applying for compensation or reclaiming businesses ended May 21. The terms for compensation are vague, worsened by bureaucracy. And disputes over Asian property seem likely to continue.

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