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Powerful Dynasty : All in the Family Feud Rips Uganda

April 04, 1989|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | Times Staff Writer

KAKIRA, Uganda — From her majestic hilltop mansion overlooking Lake Victoria, Meena Madhvani has seen enough of the ups and downs of Ugandan life to justify her speaking with a certain tartness.

In her time, she has entertained such luminaries as Indira Gandhi. Idi Amin proposed to her and, it is said, infuriated at being rebuffed, expelled tens of thousands of Uganda's Indian citizens. Rebels advancing on Kampala, the capital, camped in her fields of sugar cane. Her magnificent house was trashed in 10 years of civil war.

Yet all that is nothing compared to the contempt she has today for members of her own family. Adjusting the copper-hued folds of her sari, she observed recently:

"This is a total Mafia-type situation."

Squabbling Relatives

It would surprise many people in Uganda to hear one of the nation's great families compared to a Mafia clan. But then there are few here who would recognize the Madhvanis, who once filled the industrial and philanthropic shoes of African Rockefellers, in the collection of relatives squabbling today over the ruins of their Ugandan empire.

There have been family agreements struck and broken, litigation and accusations of high-handed schemes aimed at stealing one another's share of the fortune.

It is a family squabble right out of "Dynasty": Start with five sons of a pioneering, India-born Ugandan grower and trader. The oldest brother, Jayant Madhvani, dominates Ugandan business and his younger siblings with his commercial vision and his humanity.

Amin's Depredations

Then comes Jayant's death in 1971, along with the advent of the dictator Amin, and then exile, all working their destructive influences on what was once an empire of 70 companies. In the end, Jayant's single-minded and imperious widow, Meena, and his four brothers are maneuvering to seize control of the little that remains after the depredations of Amin.

The peculiarly African aspect of the story is its potential impact on Uganda. In their glory days, the Madhvanis controlled fully 12% of Uganda's gross national product through 22,000 acres of sugar cane, steel and textile mills, glass and soap factories, breweries, banks and insurance companies. There was no greater industrial clan in sub-Saharan Africa.

Amin did not spare the Madhvanis from exile in 1972 when he expelled the Indians, hoping to appropriate their assets. And during Amin's bloody and inept reign, the Madhvanis' properties fell into ruin.

The Ugandan leaders who succeeded Amin in 1979 asked the Madhvanis to return from London to rehabilitate the properties, and under an arrangement now in effect, the government retains 51%. The holdings are so extensive, covering such a range of industrial enterprise, that it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that Uganda's economic future hangs in the balance.

But many bankers and government officials here complain that the family fight has put the rehabilitation project well behind schedule. This is not lost on the family, which fears that lagging progress might provoke the government to find another partner.

But it might be that 15 years of exile and civil strife have sapped forever the vision and commitment that characterized the Madhvanis at their zenith.

'Not Pioneers'

"The Madhvanis of the '60s were different from these," said Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan Indian who was exiled in 1972 but who has returned to teach economics at Uganda's Makerere University. "These are not Ugandans. They're not taking long-term risks. They can no longer be pioneers."

The Madhvani saga also exemplifies the painful journey of East Africa's Indian community, from immigrants to bourgeoisie to outcasts.

The Indians came to Africa when the British, finding themselves colonizers of a vast, thinly peopled expanse of African bush, imported skilled labor from their overpopulated South Asian empire.

Later they racially pigeonholed their African and Indian subjects: The Indians in Africa were not permitted to own land, the Africans forbidden to engage in commerce. So both developed roles still familiar today in much of the former colony. The Africans became the agrarian peasantry, the Indians a mercantile bourgeoisie.

It was as one of the latter that Muljibhai Madhvani, the family patriarch, arrived in Uganda in 1908 to trade in salt, flour and seashells. Presently he bought the great sugar plantation from which the family fortune sprang. By the time of his death in 1958, there were five operating companies.

At that point his son Jayant, Meena's husband, emerged as Uganda's pre-eminent industrialist. By all accounts Jayant lived up to his nickname, "Giant."

"With Jayant around, everyone else was overshadowed," a family friend remarked.

Philanthropist, politician, diplomat, Jayant expanded the five companies to 70, buying a brewery, starting the steel mill, acquiring land as far off as Florida and California.

Jayant and Meena functioned as surrogate parents to his four orphaned younger brothers--something that Meena rarely fails to mention today.

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