On the 4th August 1972 Ugandan president, Idi Amin announced that those living in Uganda who were of Asian descent had 90 days to leave the country.
At that time, the vast majority of businesses in Uganda were Asian-owned, with African Ugandans in their employ, many working as house servants to the affluent Asians. The president accused the Asians of commercial exploitation of the country. Amin also accused them of disloyalty. He said they were depriving Africans of opportunities and wanted to give Uganda back to the ethnic Ugandans, a point he used as propaganda to gain support from his people. There was already resentment of the Africans towards the Asians due to their exclusivity and the fact they didn’t mix. Amin used this to his advantage to gain support for his cause.
The Ugandan Asian immigrants mainly came from India and had first come to Uganda to help build the railways when the country was part of the British Empire. The general consensus among the African Ugandans at the time Idi Amin was in power, was that the Indian population of their country belonged to the British. We were the ones who had brought them to Uganda and as far as they were concerned, we had abandoned them when we left.
Although by 1972, Uganda was no longer ruled by Great Britain, many Asian Ugandans had British passports and that meant they looked to Britain for help.
In the run-up to the expulsion date, the Ugandan Indians were forced to spend hours, even days, queuing to fill in the paperwork necessary to leave the country. Yet leaving the country was no easy task – they were not allowed to book trains, there were no seats on the planes for them and, it seemed, no way of getting out. At the same time, there hung over them the threat that if they didn’t leave, they would be sent to concentration camps run by the army. Soldiers were already physically and sexually abusing them, along with stealing their belongings. The Asian people were confused and frightened not knowing what would happen and when.
Around 5000 businesses were confiscated and reallocated to native Ugandans. Assets were seized, bank accounts closed. Many fled Uganda with only the clothes they had on their backs, their primary concern at that time being for the personal safety of themselves and their families.
Some 27,000 Ugandan Indians came to the UK. Hundreds of specially commissioned flights carried out the evacuation to help them flee the country they had called home but which by then was becoming too dangerous a place to stay.
Why did Idi Amin do this?
There are many reasons cited for why Amin did what he did. There are theories that it was to get back at Britain for its lack of funds. Some say he had a dream where God told him what to do. He was quoted as saying:
“… we are determined to make the ordinary Ugandan master of his own destiny, and above all to see that he enjoys the wealth of his country.”
As a result of the expulsion and the takeover of the once-successful businesses by people who didn’t have the experience of running a company, the economy slumped. Most of the businesses failed soon after they were taken over. Uganda was no longer the prosperous country it had once been.
Idi Amin is long gone and those whom he expelled were eventually invited back. Not many went, though. Despite arriving in Britain with nothing, and being put up in army camps until they were re-housed in the UK by the Ugandan Resettlement Board, many went on to make successful lives for themselves. The reception, at first, was somewhat frosty. There were National Front marches in protest of the arrival of the immigrants. Leicester council even took out newspaper advertisements warning them not to come to the city seeking jobs and homes. As testament to their resolve, the Ugandan Indians who came to the UK have gone on to be one of the most successful groups of immigrants anywhere in the history of the world.
Time School: We Will Stand with Them is the third book in the Time School series.
In Time School: We Will Stand with Them, Ash’s father is one such person. He came from Uganda when he was 12 years old to a country that wasn’t as welcoming as he’d expected. This is often the case with immigration. While some people are sympathetic to the plight of those displaced by conflict, others feel threatened. The 1970s was a decade of upheaval in the UK. Many people lost jobs in industries that had supported them, and generations of their families, for years. When this happens, people look for someone to blame, and at that time, it was the people of Asian descent who had immigrated into the country who became targets.
For Ash’s father, arriving in Britain at this turbulent time was never going to be easy and for Ash, going back in time to experience it for himself, was a real eye-opener. As with all the books in the Time School series, I aim to highlight a moment in history that might not be familiar. At the same time, I aim to give the four characters the opportunity to learn something about themselves as individuals and about their family histories too. They are all connected to the (fictional) town of Hickley and the school that they attend there and they each get to experience the changes that have gone on both within the school since it first opened and around it.
Ash was the one who knew the most about his family’s background yet he hadn’t really appreciated or understood quite what his father had gone through until he experienced it himself.
And that’s the thing really, isn’t it? We don’t all get the opportunity Ash did. We have to educate ourselves and exercise empathy when it comes to understanding the experiences of others. We can’t truly claim to know or understand what they have gone through, but we can at least try.