Starting this August until November, intellectual symposia and cultural festivities will be held in different western cities to commemorate the golden jubilee of the expulsion of Indians from Uganda. The commemoration marks a dark period of Uganda’s and East Africa’s history of ethnic cleansing and genocidal massacres which we can learn from as the East African community to ensure that such shameful events are never repeated again.
In August 1972, Uganda’s president Idi Amin gave 90 days to the Indians who then constituted 1 percent of the country’s population but controlled most trade and industrial activities, to quit the country in which nearly all of them had been born. Many of them knew no other home. Amin accused them of perpetuating capital flight and justified his act by the fact that most of them held British passports anyway.
The functions to be held from Toronto to London to Melbourne are celebratory, not lamentations, lauding the remarkable prosperity attained by the Indians who arrived there penniless as they weren’t allowed to carry any of their money. The BBC World Service will also be airing a series on the East African Indians (All East Africa was chasing them away in the late sixties but Amin’s move was dramatic and hence most remembered.)
As the now affluent Diaspora Indians celebrate, for Ugandans whom they were accused of impoverishing, suffering started immediately after Amin’s decision as manufacturing ground to a halt, and basics like soap, toothpaste, and sugar became a luxury. To date, while there is affluence, even opulence in parts of Kampala city, the distribution systems and infrastructure the Indians were manning 50 years ago have never fully recovered. As a result, the news today in Uganda is about hundreds dying of hunger in the north eastern region while in the south west farmers are distressed with food surplus. This crisis with tragic consequences is an embarrassment to a country with huge agricultural potential. The US has already rushed in to give $21million for aid relief. The Executive Director of trade rights group SEATINI – Uganda, Jane Nalunga, says that with proper resource allocation Uganda today would be producing enough food to mitigate the global food crisis caused by the conflict in Europe instead of getting relief aid to save its people from starvation.
Ugandan leaders who immediately replaced the Amin regime didn’t learn from the 1972 expulsion, that ethnic cleansing doesn’t solve problems. In 1980, they drove out all the people in West Nile – the region at the country’s north Western confluence with Congo and Sudan – because that was Amin’s home area and it was feared people there wouldn’t vote for the powerful political faction of the day in the December 1980 elections. The “Amin’s people” joined hands with the forces of resistance to the new government and in five years, the dictatorship collapsed and they returned to their country.
After evicting the north western citizens in 1980, the state turned onto the Banyarwanda in 1981-82. Regardless of whether they were citizens of Uganda or bona fide refugees from the Republic of Rwanda, they were being driven out of the country. Those in the western region suffered most, losing their land among other things including money and even life especially young men who it was feared would join the armed resistance. And that is what happened. They joined and accelerated the fall of the Kampala regime.
Next door in Rwanda, the regime that had cleansed out their parents maintained a firm stance against their return home. But now forming the core of Uganda’s victorious National Resistance Army, the victims of cleansing in Uganda and Rwanda courageously fought their way back home as other compatriot victims of the cleansing from countries as far as Canada and Scandinavia joined the Rwanda Patriotic Front over its four-year campaign, putting an end to the final cleansing – a genocide that claimed nearly a million Tutsi lives in a hundred days. The RPF is so far one of the about two political formations in the region that have moved to ensure full national socio-political integration so that cleansing and genocide do not happen again. The government has also heavily invested in programmes such as “Come and See; Go and Tell” aimed at facilitating the repatriation of Rwandans living outside the country.
The early 1980s were open season for ethnic cleansing and even genocidal pogroms in the region. In Kenya, the government decided in early 1984 to “tame” the ethnic Somali citizens from the country’s north eastern region, who were already emerging as an astute business community in Nairobi and the rest of the country. They were brutally repressed and it is widely believed that on a single day, the 10th of February 1984, the Kenya Army executed five thousand Kenyan Somali at an airstrip, after starving them for five days. It is the notorious Wajir massacre.
Subdued, routinely denied national IDs and discriminated when seeking government sponsorship to educational institutions, the Somali people lied low, concentrating on business and their professions. Three decades later, they are not only dominant players in business, they are also seen as the stabilizing factor in Kenya’s openly ethnicised public affairs.
In Africa’s 54th state, South Sudan, ethnic cleansing efforts have been so disastrous they don’t need much elaboration. After winning independence from Khartoum, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army split into two major ethnically based factions which became committed to cleansing each other off the map. At the lowest point of humiliation, the two submitted to mediation by Khartoum and their leaders were lectured to by Gen Omar Bashir, whose government they had fought bitterly for a generation, on the need not to kill each other so soon after independence. To date, South Sudan has not started on any serious post-independence economic development – ethnic cleansing continues unabated.
In East Africa’s extreme East we have Zanzibar, where a revolution that overthrew the ruling monarchy of Arabic origin occurred in 1964. Thousands of Zanzibari Arabs were slaughtered, women were raped and those who managed fled to Middle Eastern destinations, mostly to Oman. But the bigger Tanganyika moved smartly to reconcile the situation and created the Union that came to be known as Tanzania in which the Zanzibari are guaranteed semi autonomy and it is now six decades of peaceful cohabitation between the citizens of Tanzania.
The East African Community has now admitted a new member, the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is hoped that having seen the futility of ethnic cleansing in the older EAC members over the decades, DRC has learnt the lessons there are to learn and will not indulge in any madness of trying to cleanse any single community in the extra-large country which has enough resources to support several times more people than its current population.
Ethnic cleansing hasn’t worked anywhere. And Congo can’t be an exception.