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The new position of East Africa’s Asians: Problems of a displaced minority

1 November 1984

While an extended discussion on the issue of minority rights is impossible in a report that deals with one specific casehistory, it is not out of place to raise a few important issues for theoretical debate occasioned by the events under consideration.

Out of General Amin’s peremptory expulsion en masse of some 50,000 Asians from Uganda in August 1972 arises the obvious question of whether the General had overstepped the boundaries of human rights in this case. But in order to determine this we have to come to some agreement as to what these rights are, and whether these can be deemed to be inherent in minority groups just as they are deemed, in liberal theory at least, to be inherent in individuals. Indeed, is there anything called ‘minority rights’? Are not all rights, including protection against discrimination on account of race, colour, tribe, religion, language, region and class inherent only in the individual? Or is a minority’s right of protection against summary mass expulsion a special kind of minority right, so that it could be argued that while an alien individual of a certain race, etc., may at times have to be expelled for reasons of state (especially if he is involved in a criminal act) the same cannot be done to a whole minority community?

This would lead to a discussion of a different order: can an entire community be charged with generalised criminal behaviour? And by what process of law may they be tried for that? Preceding the Asians’ expulsion from Uganda, General Amin had launched a protracted and vehement attack on the Asian community for their alleged malpractices involving corruption, overpricing and undercutting, breaches of tax and foreign exchange regulations, and so on, amounting to ‘economic sabotage’ of the country. Is there a court anywhere, one might ask, that can try a minority on such a charge? And if individual instances might be cited as evidence, could the crimes of a few be a sufficient basis for sanctions against a whole community? Is there a sense in which a whole minority community can be deemed to be responsible for the crime of a few? This presupposes that the community has the means by which to bring to order those of its members whose negligent or criminal behaviour could bring down the house on the entire community. Indeed, General Amin apparently had implicitly given credence to this supposition. In a conference of the Asians that he had called in December 1971, he had uttered his collective charges against them and had asked them to find their own means of correcting their behaviour. What did the General have in mind then? Did he think that the Asians had the means at their disposal (perhaps an informal court to try the culprits, and informal social sanctions to bring them to book) to correct the situation? Or did he then think that in his scheme of things the Asians were doomed anyway, no matter what they did?

These are not speculative questions at all. They concern vital issues relating to a determination of criminal behaviour by a whole community that might then provide a reason for their mass expulsion. For if such reason for expulsion can be found, and be found to be justified, then it could still be maintained that a minority community does have a right of protection against mass expulsion, except where it may be collectively indicted on a criminal offence. The debate on minority rights would then shift its ground. Instead of discussing simply minority rights, we would then be discussing what constitutes a ‘criminal offence’ by a community, and by what processes of law or justice might this be determined. The Asians were accused not only of ‘economic sabotage’, but also of social exclusivism. For example, they refused to allow their daughters to marry Africans. It was a special or perhaps not so special kind of racial arrogance of the Asians. Was that also a crime suitable for punishment by mass expulsion?

The discussion of minority rights and the legitimacy of mass expulsion in terms of crime and punishment would lead the discussion to the narrow confines of legalistic and jurisprudential concepts. Indeed, much of the discussion following the expulsion of the Asians from Uganda did take place in these juristic terms. But there is another angle to the problem. This is related to the whole realm of thought centering round the question of historical justice. It goes much beyond the contemporary concepts of collective crime and collective punishment. It ties an explanation of contemporary action to a past injustice. It would embrace, for example, the general anti-colonial reaction of the colonised peoples of the world against their European powers. It would explain, to give a particular instance, the recovery of Goa by India by means of a quick military victory over Portugal in 1962. The question of historical justice thus raises wider issues than those of contemporary legal norms.

The overall point of the argument is that, whatever the merits of a juridical debate, there are, in addition, considerations of historical injustice that must enter into the discussions on the situation of the Asians in East Africa, and the decision by General Amin to expel them from Uganda. The situation is by no means as simple as will resolve itself by a resort to principles of ‘plain morality’.

Quite apart from the question of rights and morals is the purely sociological question of whether the Asian minority has a better future in a state that has declared itself in favour of capitalism (like Kenya) or one that has opted for socialism (like Tanzania). In the case of Uganda, the issue is no longer worth discussing. Uganda, under Amin, seems to have opted not just for capitalism, but for black capitalism. By definition, then, its brown residents, whether citizen or not, had no future in Uganda. The question is still worth discussing with respect to the other states in East Africa.

Please note that the terminology in the fields of minority rights and indigenous peoples’ rights has changed over time. MRG strives to reflect these changes as well as respect the right to self-identification on the part of minorities and indigenous peoples. At the same time, after over 50 years’ work, we know that our archive is of considerable interest to activists and researchers. Therefore, we make available as much of our back catalogue as possible, while being aware that the language used may not reflect current thinking on these issues.

Download (1984 edition, PDF, English)


Yash Tandon

Arnold Raphael