The stories of racial minorities in Africa is well told. Questions about just “how African” the descendants of white settlers continue to be debated. But what is less discussed is the sense of belonging among another non-black groups in Africa, namely the South-Asian diaspora.
The migration of South-Asians to Africa happened well over a century ago. Hailing from the Indian subcontinent and providing the muscle for implementing colonial infrastructure such as the railroads, majority of these groups settled in modern day Kenya and Uganda and were as ethnically diverse as the regions they moved into. Coming from Sikh, Hindu as well as Muslim backgrounds, Asian migrants entered a region that was already religiously pluralistic with both Islamic and Christian communities.
Eventually experiencing a better standard of life under colonialism than their black counterparts, Asian communities became heavily invested in the business economies of their adopted nations. However, the adverse happened when these nations welcomed black majority rule and independence. And whilst indigenous Kenyans and Ugandans became socially and politically enfranchised in their independent states, their Asian populations were having their rights taken away.
The decolonisation processes in Kenya and Uganda was anything but egalitarian. It led to policies carried out by post-colonial parties that advocated for race-centric policies similar to their old colonial powers.
By the time of independence under the Kenya African National Union in 1964, a series of laws were passed to make living and working in post-colonial Kenya as difficult as possible for Asians. The first step was the Immigration Bill and the imposition of work permits. In 1967, the bill required all non-citizens to either take Kenyan citizenship or leave the country. This was followed by the targeting of Asian shopkeepers by the government in the 1970s. Prior to this, Asian families had relied on the “lifetime” stamps on their British passports that gave them leave to stay in the country indefinitely. Although under the terms of the bill Asians had the option to apply for Kenyan citizenship, it was clear that the government was deliberately creating a hostile environment for Asian groups in the newly independent country in order to encourage them to leave.
By 1971 in Uganda, leader Idi Amin was also peddling a nationalist mono-racial agenda in order to strengthen his regime. And similar to Kenya, the Asian community would become his scapegoat. In 1972, he would order their expulsion, and if they dared to remain Amin declared;“ I will make you feel as if you are sitting on fire”.
Like many populist political movements, the targeting of Asians was borne out of what some may call a viable resentment, namely their high participation in the economy of their adopted countries. In Uganda, Asians owned 90% of the country’s businesses before they were expelled. And since being welcomed back by the country’s leadership in 1986, they contribute an estimated 65% of Uganda’s tax revenues.
Although the communities did dominate the economic sector in both nations, they hadn’t always been In such a strong position. As mentioned, Asians first arrived in the region as indentured labourers and had built the countries, and their own economic prestige themselves. And whilst these efforts were in the service of the British, they had come as indentured servants from another colonial territory and remained the manipulated subjects of British colonial policy in their new homes.
Whilst it may have not been fair that the Asian communities in Kenya and Uganda dominated the industries compared to black Africans, and still do; it is up to post-colonial governments today to pursue stronger education policies and initiatives that promote black owned businesses and the inclusion of black Africans in Asian businesses. The newly independent nations at the time should have pursued such policies. But this would have been reliant on the respective governments using their budgets for civic purposes, which especially in the case of Idi Amin, we know did not happen. As we know, right wing nationalist governments need large scale support, and a scapegoat in which to summon it, and this, unfortunately would be the Asians in early post-colonial Kenya and Uganda.
If any progressive lessons can be learnt from colonialism, it should be that politics based on racial supremacy and uniformity never work. Whilst it was a natural political reaction for post-colonial states to advocate for its once subjugated population, this also included Asians, who also experienced racialised rule. By promoting race-centric policies that state you are only Ugandan or Kenyan if you are indigenous follows the same dangerous blueprint that the colonial powers brought to Africa initially.
In 2017, the Kenyan government declared that its South-Asian community would become the country’s 44th ‘tribe’. This progressive move should show that a sense of African nationhood can and should be underpinned by the unifying elements of national culture rather than by race.
Colonialism has enacted too many changes across Africa for its nations to revert back to any kind of mono-racial existence. Africa has always been multi-ethnic and home to cross-sections of different communities, and even today, each nation state if made up of multiple ethnic groups.
There is no one way to be Kenyan, Ugandan or any other nationality in Africa. The continent was and always will be a diverse place, so let’s hope the move made by the Kenyan government will be applied to other minority groups in Africa. As by doing so Africa will move away from its colonial past to an existence more in line with the diversity of how it always was.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.
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