Samwiri Lwanga-Lunyiigo’s new book, Uganda an Indian Colony 1897-1972, is a revelation for many Ugandans who don’t know much about international capital movements and have been enjoying the illusion of economic independence.
The well-researched, provocative book comes as Uganda marks 50 years since the expulsion of Indians. Many people are still debating whether this was a fool’s act or a brave man’s actions.
The book explains how this minority group dominated the country’s economy as sub-colonialists until they were expelled. It also sparks debate about their return.
Arguably Uganda’s leading history scholar, Prof Lunyiigo gives insights into commercial life during the colonial era when native Ugandans were structurally locked into poverty and milked in taxes and labour as the 50 Indian families — whose descendants arrived in East Africa as paupers — benefited from their sweat.
With evidence, the book shows how the Indians, who were just one percent of the then eight million people who lived in Uganda, controlled 75 percent of the economy but only paid 5.4 percent in taxes and repatriated all their profits.
The author points out that between 1955 and 1972 there was an outflow of capital from Uganda of about £12 million a year, reaching a peak of £17.2 million in 1958.
But how did the Indians do all this? Did they have special business genius as is widely said? Lunyiigo simply states that Indians seized opportunities with legal backing from the British, perhaps as a reward for fighting alongside the them in the Middle East, Sudan, and Ethiopia.
The author writes that the Indians had come on the promise that East Africa was going to be their colony. When the promise was rejected, the British instead created a system that advantaged Indians’ associates.
The colonial authority repressed and eliminated indigenous socio-economic systems that had existed long before colonisation and ensured that Africans got no education that could help them learn a trade by which they could earn a living.
The book also gives evidence-based cases in which Indians stole the produce of the natives. Ugandans attempted to fight for ownership of their economy by creating co-operative societies, but their efforts were thwarted by the Indians. In the story, British Governor Sir Andrew Cohen, and then president Idi Amin, are heroes who put up authoritative resistance to Indian dominance.
Cohen created a suitable environment for Africans to get involved in economic activities, and Amin went to the extreme, and expelled them altogether.
The book also interrogates the matter of properties. Some Indians were expelled without compensation in Kenya and Tanzania, but in Uganda, the government paid them off. However, many returned and have been claiming properties. Some criminally claim what never belonged to them or their families.
By 1993, Indians returned and are currently the major movers and shakers of Uganda’s economy. In the past three decades, they have settled and are now pushing to be recognised as a Ugandan tribe.