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Ethnic Discord : Asians Return to Hope and Hostility in Uganda : Expelled 20 years ago by Idi Amin, they are starting to reclaim their land and property. But much has changed since they left.

August 17, 1993|TAMMERLIN DRUMMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KAMPALA, Uganda — Sherahi Jaffer had just opened a $1.5-million hotel in downtown Kampala when Idi Amin ordered all Asians to leave the country within 90 days.

"Someone from the military had told me I was a fool to build the hotel because they were just going to take it away from me," said Jaffer, 68, the Ugandan-born son of an Indian cotton trader who immigrated around the turn of the century. "But I never thought they would just take our property without compensating us and throw us out."

Yet on Aug. 9, 1972, Amin did just that. Accusing Asians--namely Indian and Pakistani immigrants--of exploiting blacks and "milking the economy," the former dictator stripped them of everything they owned, then deported them. More than a third of the 70,000 people affected were Ugandan citizens.

Jaffer, then a member of Parliament, joined the Asian exodus to Canada, Britain, the United States and India. Accompanied by his wife and six children, he eventually resettled in British Columbia and bought a poultry farm there.

Now he is among the 2,000 Asians who have returned to Uganda under a new government policy to reclaim the land and buildings that they left behind two decades ago. The 8,000 properties affected--now worth about $800 million--include mansions, apartment buildings, commercial complexes and tea and sugar plantations, many of which are empty and in a state of utter disrepair.

The official policy to return expropriated property actually began in 1982 under then-President Milton Obote. But it was only last year when the World Bank threatened to withhold a $125-million structural adjustment loan to Uganda that government officials began acting in earnest. Hoping to finally close this chapter in the nation's history, the authorities have set an Oct. 30 deadline for submitting claims. After that, any property that has not been spoken for will be auctioned off.

Many Ugandans believe the return of Asian investors is a crucial step toward rebuilding a nation still reeling from decades of civil war. Up until 1972, Asian entrepreneurs and industrialists were the backbone of the Ugandan economy, controlling key areas of trade and commerce.

But others resent the Asians' return to their former positions of economic dominance.

"A lot of people are bitter because Asians are taking back what they thought had become theirs," said Margaret Ndekera, a 35-year-old black Ugandan businesswoman. "Some people have even burned up buildings when they found out that they were going to be repossessed."

So far, about 2,000 of the confiscated properties have been returned to their pre-1972 owners. Entire blocks in downtown Kampala have changed hands, sparking a renovation frenzy.

But more than half of the properties have yet to be claimed, according to the Departed Asians Property Custodian Board, a government-appointed panel that acts on compensation requests.

Mumtaz Kassam, an Asian attorney who represents dozens of clients seeking repossession, insists that government officials should be doing more to locate the legal owners.

"We've asked them to at least make up lists with the addresses of the properties, but they say it would cost too much," said Kassam, 36, who first returned in 1986 to reclaim her family's 200-acre coffee farm outside Entebbe.

Forming a potentially volatile backdrop to the government's policy are racial tensions rooted in Uganda's colonial past.

Long before the arrival of the British in the late 19th Century, Indian merchants based in Zanzibar controlled much of the trade between East Africa, the Arabian peninsula and India. In later years, British colonials imported indentured Indians to build the Ugandan railway.

From the late 19th Century to the end of World War II, a key element of British colonial strategy was to promote the entry of Asians into the commercial sector while at the same time blocking the development of African trade. While Asians were granted exclusive rights to buy and market local produce, blacks were denied the same opportunities and relegated to peasant farming.

Over time, the gulf between the two classes widened, fueling anti-Asian sentiment. And by 1972, the pent-up frustrations of black Africans were ripe for exploitation by Amin.

"Amin spoke the language of nationalism," Mahmood Mamdani, an Asian political scientist, said in a 1992 speech. "At a stroke, the 1972 expropriation sliced off the dome of local privilege. . . ," added Mamdani, who was himself expelled.

But the move also plunged the country into economic chaos.

Many firms quickly collapsed due to a lack of capital, dwindling inventories and a lack of business experience on the part of the new owners. Within three years, the government was faced with a slew of bankrupt businesses and an economy in shambles.

"Shops were given to people who didn't even know where to order the new inventories from," Ndekera said. "Everyone just thought the money was coming from heaven."

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