Last Thursday’s rioting and mob violence in Uganda cannot but have brought a sense of déjà vu to the Asian community of the East African nation. The 1972 expulsion of Asians formed a key component of the foolish policies of Idi Amin that led to the virtual collapse of the country. Most of the Asians relocated to the United States and United Kingdom and have since prospered. After President Yoweri Museveni brought about a period of relative stability and economic growth, he was able to attract some of the Asians back to the country. The recent events in Kampala have, however, revived fears of the return to the bad old days when Asians were hounded out of Uganda and their businesses seized, only to be run to ground by inexperienced Ugandans.
The recent incident related to a decision, call it wrong if you will, of giving a company of Indian origin rights over the 7,900 hectare Mabira Forest. It is not unusual for people to get upset over decisions that would lead to the destruction of the natural forest and its replacement by sugar-cane plantations. In India, and probably anywhere else, this would have occasioned vigorous protest. But what happened in Uganda was that the protest by activists and opposition politicians degenerated into sectarian violence that targeted Asian properties and led to the death of three people, two Ugandans and one Indian, Devang Rawal.
There are other straws in the wind suggesting that the protests were used by President Museveni’s opponents to embarrass him. His decision to hand over the forest to the business group was not popular in his own government and opposed by his own Prime Minister, Apolo Nsibambi, and his country’s courts. The irony is that the violence in Kampala comes at a time when the Ugandan government has entered into a six week ceasefire with the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army that has ravaged the northern part of the country in a civil war that has gone on for the past 20 years.