The Despor’s Debtors: Why Uganda’s Indian-origin businessmen aid its authoritarian president
On an early March afternoon, the economist and amateur historian Vali Jamal, a slight, soft-spoken Ugandan Indian in his late seventies, showed me a draft of his book-a coverless tome of thousands of pages on Indians living in Uganda. Nine years in the making, the manuscript is a comprehensive history of the people.
Hundreds of pages of the draft covered a largely forgotten event: the 1972 expulsion of the country’s Indian community by the military dictator Idi Amin. Jamal and his family were among the 60,000 Indians thrown out of the country by the strongman. The draft details the chronology of the expulsion, with Ugandan newspaper clippings and many photographs of the barrel-chested Amin. Many pages were still full of corrections made with a red pen, but Jamal hoped the book would be published in India next year.
Yet one thing that does not feature in Jamal’s book is the relationship between Uganda’s president of 30 years, Yoweri Museveni, and the country’s Indian community, especially its businessmen. Museveni, known for his undemocratic ways, has been repeatedly accused of rigging polls to extend his rule, including in a general election this February. He has also cracked down violently on Uganda’s two main opposition leaders, arresting many of their supporters. And yet, Museveni enjoys unflinching support from many Ugandan Indians.
Several of the country’s most high-profile Indian-origin businessmen have allegedly financed Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party over the years. The extent of their funding of the party in the latest polls is unknown because of a lack of transparency in campaign finance. But according to Henry Muguzi, the head of the watchdog group Alliance for Election Campaign Finance Monitoring, Museveni received significant money from the Indian business community in these elections, supplementing money that he allegedly took directly from the national treasury. But this alliance between the president and the Indian business community isn’t simply an ordinary collusion of money and power. It has its roots in history.
In the early twentieth century, when Uganda was a British territory, the colonialists brought in the first Indians-mostly Sikhs-as indentured labourers to build railways. Gujarati traders and entrepreneurs soon followed, looking for business opportunities. The British regarded Indians as more skilled than the native Africans, and so gave them intermediary jobs in the colonial administration. Over time, Indians came to dominate the country’s economy, leading to resentment among the native population.
After the country gained independence in 1962, the political control of Uganda shifted several times through the barrel of the gun. In 1971, the then prime minister, Milton Obote, was deposed by Idi Amin, who went on to rule the country for the next eight years. In 1972, Amin branded the affluent Indian minority “bloodsuckers,” and claimed they were exploiting the local economy and denying opportunities to indigenous Ugandans. He ordered the Indians to leave within 90 days. During their expulsion, many of them endured sexual and physical violence.
Most of the refugees went to the United Kingdom, while around 6,000 were accepted by Canada and 4,500 by India. Jamal’s family ended up in Canada. The economic disparities between black Ugandans and Indian Ugandans, who made up a mere one percent of the population, were understandably a source of resentment, Jamal told me as we sat talking at a poolside restaurant at the Kabira Country Club, owned by Sudhir Ruparelia–an Indian-origin magnate who is currently the richest man in Uganda.
Amin’s reign ended in 1979 with the Uganda-Tanzania war, in which Tanzanian forces captured Kampala, Uganda’s capital, and Obote was reinstated. He was then deposed by General Tito Okello, who was himself deposed within six months, in 1985, by Museveni. The expulsion of Indian businessmen and successive civil wars had left the country in financial ruins. To reboot the economy, in the late 1980s Museveni invited the expelled Indians back. In the early 1990s, Museveni set up a Departed Asian Property Custodian Board and repossessed and started redistributing buildings and assets back to Indian families expelled during Amin’s regime.
Some of the families that returned, such as the Ruparelias and the Madhavanis, are among the wealthiest Ugandans today.
Since then, Museveni has enjoyed strong support from the Indian community. Ofwono Opondo P’Odel, the official spokesperson of the government, has said that the Indian community are big supporters of Museveni. “He’s very much our man,” Jamal told me, adding that major players in the business community supported Museveni and his re-election campaign. “Quietly, they have given a lot of money.” But when I brought up allegations of electoral fraud, Jamal dismissed them, saying, “All of this talk about irregularities is made up.”
Jamal expressed no concern for the government’s authoritarian ways in this election, which many observers have described as unprecedented for their levels of electoral fraud and violence against the opposition. The local US embassy described the elections as “deeply inconsistent with international standards and expectations for any democratic process,” and said the “Ugandan people deserved better.” A European Union observer mission said that the NRM’s “domination of the political landscape distorted the fairness of the campaign,” and that the authorities created an “intimidating atmosphere for both voters and candidates.”
A court case initiated by the former prime minister and opposition presidential candidate Amama Mbabazi, alleging fraud, intimidation and ballot-stuffing, is underway. Warren Kizza Besigye, the leading candidate of an opposition party called the Forum for Democratic Change, or FDC, was arrested the day before results were announced, because the NRM feared he would challenge the election’s outcome before the electoral commission. The headquarters of the FDC in Kampala were tear-gassed, and military troops and armoured police vehicles roared up and down a main road nearby, sending out a stern warning to anyone seeking to demonstrate. Despite calls from the diplomatic community for his release, Kizza Besigye is still in detention.
Museveni and his regime’s growing insecurity was evident in his strangely Orwellian rallies, which were heavily policed and where media access was curtailed and controlled. I attended his final rally, at Kololo airstrip in Kampala, which seemed more North Korean than African. A sea of sweating people stood unflinching under the hot sun, in identical yellow T-shirts emblazoned with Museveni’s face. Agents dressed in plain clothes carefully policed the international press and the speech of attendees; Ugandans flapped yellow flags as Museveni waved from a black bulletproof SUV; a band of reformed “defectors” who had recently changed parties from the opposition stood looking awkward behind a thick banner. A camera drone flew overhead, capturing footage of this manufactured moment. Until this rally, Museveni’s press team had made sure the shots captured by the drone were the only moving images of his rallies that were televised in Uganda, save for those from one other news channel that was allowed to film.
But many Ugandans want change, if only for the fact that Museveni has been in power for 30 years. His government has become mired in corruption scandals, and is currently facing the challenges of a lagging economy and 83-percent unemployment among youth. Almost 78 percent of Ugandans are below the age of 30, giving Uganda one of the youngest populations in the world, meaning that 78 percent of the population has known only one president: Museveni.
But these issues have failed to diminish the support Museveni enjoys among Indian businessman. “Why NRM? They called us back,” Sajiv Patel, a businessman who is the public relations officer for the Ugandan Indian Society and an NRM member, told me. “My father was born here, I was brought up a little bit over here, my children were, so this has become our home. So we don’t see ourselves as…” Patel skipped over the rest of the sentence. “Yes, our origins are there and we won’t forget that, but India becomes a bit of a tourist place.”
Traces of Indian influence are present throughout Kampala. Gurdwaras, temples and Ismaili mosques dot the city, and chai, chapattis and samosas are staples of its cuisine. But there is very little cultural integration between Indians and black Ugandans, and intermarriage between the communities is rare.
The return of Indian businesses to Uganda has also been met with some resentment, especially given the massive youth unemployment. “There is a bit of an undercurrent, because people think these guys just came, how did they become so rich? Why have they made it?,” Patel said, adding that he was concerned that Besigye’s rhetoric was anti-Indian and anti-foreigner. However, when I asked him to cite examples of Besigye’s anti-Indian rhetoric, he couldn’t.
Patel’s views raised an important question: has the Ugandan Indian business community compromised the democratic rights of native Ugandans for its own interests and security? It’s not something Patel obsesses over. He said he found the West’s calls for democracy ill-conceived. “During election times,” he said, “people come and say we want democracy … the ground reality is a lot different than your philosophy.”
The website of the Indian Association of Uganda outlines the economic dominance of the community in the country: “More than 70% of the top taxpayers of the country are businesses owned or managed by Asians, contributing in excess of 65% of the domestic revenue.”
Patel echoed these figures to me. “You cannot disregard us,” he said.
Corrections: 1. The print version of this article incorrectly mentioned that Yoweri Museveni invited the expelled Indians back in 1986. In fact, he invited them back in the late 1980s. 2. The print version also implied that Sajiv Patel was asked whether he thought the Indian community was compromising the democratic rights of native Ugandans. He was never posed the question directly. The Caravan regrets the errors.
Clair MacDougall is an independent journalist and writer who currently lives in Monrovia, Liberia. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Vogue, Newsweek, Time, Stern, Al Jazeera America, and Foreign Policy, among others. She travelled to Uganda on a fellowship with the International Women’s Media Foundation.