The fiftieth anniversary of the expulsion of Uganda’s Asian community by the Amin regime should make us pause and reflect on two things. Firstly, whom we classify as refugees, and how the refugee policies of the imperialist nations are driven by cynical political considerations. Secondly, people such as Idi Amin, rather than being evil aberrations of nature, are products of deliberate and calculated policies of the imperialist nations.
On August 4, 1972, General Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of Uganda’s Asian (mostly Indian) community. He gave them 90 days to leave the country. His decision was part of a marked deterioration in Kampala’s relations with the British government. Idi Amin himself, was a career British soldier.
Idi Amin was very much a creation of the British military. As a young man, he fought with distinction in the King’s African Rifles, a unit made up of African recruits and deployed to fight anti-colonial insurgents. He made his bones fighting for the British empire in various conflicts in Africa. He fought against the Kenyan nationalist insurgency of the 1950s, sometimes called the Mau Mau uprising. He also fought against anti-British Somali secessionists during the Shifta war in the 1960s.
During his service in the King’s African Rifles, Amin was promoted through the ranks by the British. After Uganda gained independence in 1962, Amin rose rapidly through the Ugandan military, becoming Commander of the Ugandan armed forces in 1970. Britain was not the only nation which deliberately cultivated relations with Amin – the other nation which supplied armaments and support for the newly independent Uganda was Israel.
During the presidency of Milton Obote, Uganda’s first President, the Americans and Israelis kept informed of developments inside Uganda, and cultivated close links with General Amin. Obote had been planning on nationalising foreign-owned assets, such as mines, in Uganda. In 1971, Obote was overthrown in a coup d’état, carried out by the Ugandan armed forces, with the surreptitious cooperation of the Israelis and British.
The 1971 coup by Amin was welcomed by ruling circles in London, and Tel Aviv. Amin had long-standing ties to Israeli intelligence, and participated a paratrooper training course run by the Israeli military. Another nation which accepted the rise of Amin in Uganda was Canada. While Amin’s expulsion of the Ugandan Asian community caused friction between Kampala and Ottawa, the Canadian government never actually broke off diplomatic relations with the Amin regime.
Ottawa had become increasingly concerned that Obote, Amin’s predecessor, had planned to nationalise Canadian owned mines in the nation. A copper and cobalt mine, Kilembe had reaped its Canadian owners millions of dollars in profits. After Obote’s overthrow, Amin pledged to maintain Canadian majority ownership of the mine. In another unsurprising move, Amin promises to break the African embargo of apartheid South Africa, selling armaments to the white supremacist regime in defiance of the majority of African nations.
It is important to keep these machinations in mind, because Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, when commemorating the expulsion of Uganda’s Asian community, lauded the alleged generosity of Canada in accepting thousands of Asians from that nation. Trudeau wilfully omitted any mention of Ottawa’s continued business dealings with the Amin regime, and played up the supposed compassion of Canada’s ruling circles. Trudeau’s cynical posturing as a generous benefactor of desperate refugees falls flat in the face of the documentary evidence.
Amin may have been ‘deranged’, but this alleged condition was not recognised until after the Amin regime became a disobedient and troublesome child for British interests. The image of Amin as this onerous, mentally ill lunatic with no friends – the stereotype of the ‘cannibalistic’ African – does not stand up to scrutiny. The purpose of this propaganda campaign turning Amin into an ‘evil’ monster is to dismiss the capability of African nations to govern themselves independently. The ‘look what happens when you give Africans power’ is a historically ignorant and cynically deployed claim to undermine African attempts at self-governance.
The UK took in around 27 000 Ugandan Asian refugees. While this has been upheld as an act of generosity, there were definitive political calculations behind the move. Gaining economically prosperous groups of refugees is a financial boon to a flailing economy. Priti Patel, UK Home Secretary and of Ugandan Asian heritage herself, launched the Britain-Rwanda relocation scheme, forcibly sending refugees to the African nation of Rwanda.
Britain’s refugee policy has never been about compassion, but about providing for imperial service refugees. Let’s not pretend, fifty years after the expulsion of Uganda’s Asian community, that the UK has suddenly adopted a spirit of generosity.