Women ambassadors are not an unusual sight in the Indian capital; there are normally about half a dozen women envoys based here at any given time. But Uganda's current high commissioner to India comes as a surprise.
For, Uganda's representative in India, Nimisha Madhvani, is the first woman envoy of Indian origin from an African country.
To the ordinary Indian, Uganda is closely associated with its one-time dictator Idi Amin and his brutal expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972. Two and a half decades after Indians were expelled from Uganda, Kampala has chosen to send as envoy to New Delhi a person of Indian origin. Expelled from her country of birth as a teenager for being of Indian origin, Madhvani has now been assigned the task of enhancing trade, investment and political ties between Uganda and India.
A third generation Ugandan of Indian descent, Madhvani sees her appointment as a strong message about the Asian community and an effort to put Uganda back on the map in India. "It is a signal that the Asian or Indian community is recognised as a well integrated part of the country." It is also a reflection of the country, on how far it has gone to generate confidence about the nation as a safe investment destination, she added.
Uganda's main focus is on Asia, to look at the Malaysian and Singapore experiences on industrialisation for a modern state. In that context, Uganda has turned to India across the Indian Ocean for assistance and investment. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's announcement of a duty free tariff preference for least developed countries (LDCs) at the India-Africa Forum Summit earlier this month has been warmly welcomed by Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni. Uganda is one of the 34 LDCs in Africa.
Madhvani was 13 years old when Asians were forced to leave the country; she has vivid memories of leaving Uganda and going to Britain. In August 1972, Idi Amin ordered all Asians to leave Uganda within 90 days. He accused them of aiding corruption and sabotaging the economy, and confiscated all Asian businesses and properties in the country. About 80,000 Asians fled Uganda for Britain, Canada, Australia and America in those three months; their departure led to an economic collapse in Uganda.
In 1992, President Museveni sought to restore the war-torn economy and urged the Indians to return to Uganda and become part of the country's economic life. Laws were changed to allow the restoration of confiscated property to their Indian owners. Though most Ugandan Asians had made a new life for themselves after leaving Uganda, some Indians did return to take over their property and factories. There are now about 7,000 people of Indian descent living in Uganda and another 5,000 Indian nationals, who have found jobs and business opportunities in Kampala and other towns.
Nimisha's mother, Meena, returned to Kampala just a month after Idi Amin fled the country in 1979. "To many of us, though we lived in the UK or other places around the world, Uganda still held a place in our hearts, it was always home," according to Madhvani. Returning to Kampala, she became a career diplomat, and was posted to New Delhi as deputy high commissioner but a year later she was promoted as high commissioner and presented her credentials to President Pratibha Patil in February this year.
It is an important appointment that requires the approval of parliament in the Ugandan system for Madhvani is also accredited to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar.
At the summit in New Delhi, President Museveni made a strong pitch for Indian investment in Uganda. Relating an anecdote to illustrate the kind of opportunities awaiting in Uganda, he said Ugandans had a long history as cattle breeders and produced good quality beef and milk but most of the milk in Uganda was thrown away. An Indian-Ugandan joint venture, Sameer Dairy, had set up milk collection and cooling centres in several parts of the country to collect and process milk. Now Uganda is poised to become a milk exporter for several countries in Africa like Nigeria and Liberia.
Trying to recover from the mistakes of anti-private sector attitudes of the 1980s, Uganda is seeking to change from a rural economy to an industrialised, export-oriented one. While in Delhi, Museveni sought to interest a prominent Indian cigar company to look at the possibility of making cigars from banana leaves in Uganda. The confirmation of substantial oil deposits in western Uganda has opened the country for oil exploration and production; mining is another sector where there are investment opportunities for Uganda has sizeable deposits of iron ore, manganese and other metallic ores.
To make it easier to do business, Uganda and India have a double taxation agreement and Uganda offers the additional attraction of full capital account convertibility for taking funds out of the country. As Museveni said, "We don't need aid; we need market access and investment."
(Shubha Singh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )