There seems to be some confused thinking about the Idi Amin era.
Revisionists point to the building of the Nile Conference center – now the Serena Conference center and the Mpoma earth satellite station as some of the achievements of his eight year period.
Some for good measure throw in the expulsion of the Asians. To hear some of these people who were not born by 1986 speak about it, the Asians had a stranglehold on the economy and were it not for the Asian expulsion we would not be where we are today. Which is exactly nowhere.
The record shows that by 1979 when the Conqueror of the British Empire was overthrown the Ugandan economy was on its knees having regressed back to a subsistence economy, as all industrial capacity had ground to a halt.
"But the more you examine the period you realise that the breakdown in physical infrastructure was not the worst legacy of the era. The real tragedy was the break down of the spirit of a once proud people and the missed opportunities for development that cannot be recovered...
The spiritual, as opposed to the physical or material loss to this country was brought into sharp relief when a fortnight ago journalists were conducted on a tour of Kakira Sugar Works, the centrepiece of the Madhvani empire.
The 10,000 hectares that is the nucleus plantation – they also have an additional 25,000 hectares overseen by their outgrowers, the sugar plant, which produces 180,000 tons of sugar annually, the 50 MW power generation operation and a planned plant that will distill 20 million liters of ethanol from molasses, were all impressive in their scale but even more impressive was to imagine the work, organisation and perseverance into building this industrial complex.
Easily each of those four units is a multi-million dollar operation.
The patriarch of the Madhvani clan, Muljibhai came to Uganda in 1908 but only went into the sugar production business in 1930. So from a purely mathematical standpoint the sugar works have been in existence for at least 85 years. However I prefer to think that the sugar works were in the making for at least 100 years, because to ignore all the work done by Muljibhai in setting himself up to launch the project.
The lesson here is that given the size of our economy, which is not very big, the undertaking that we see at Kakira has taken 100 years and two generations to build. There are no shortcuts.
Which brings me back to the losses that go beyond the destruction of the physical infrastructure during the Amin era.
Kenya had many more Asians than Uganda did in 1972. At independence in 1963 the Asian population in Kenya was about 180,000, the number of Indians expelled from Uganda in 1972 were about 50,000 give or take a few thousand.
This single decision denied our businessmen the mentorship that would have gone on to launch thousands of indigenous businesses, as has happened in Kenya, which has a much more influential and vibrant indigenous capital base.
In fact our biggest indigenous businessmen learnt their craft from their Asian bosses in the 1960s and 70s.
"We celebrate the cronies of the state to whom businesses were dished to in 1972. But if you look for where they are now, you would be hard pressed to find a handful who parlayed those assets over the passing of the last 45 years into sizeable business with at least a national presence, live alone regional presence....
Anyone who has attempted business knows that serving apprenticeship at the feet of a more accomplished mentor, will serve you better than all the business management books listed on Amazon.
Of course the argument can be made, because of the collapse of the economy Ugandans are by default the most entrepreneurial people in the world. The flip side of this is that, few businesses ever make it to their fifth birthday. Maybe if the Asians had stuck around we would have fewer business men but better quality ones.
In expelling the Asians the loss to our economy was much more intangible than material and while the economy may have recovered to its 1971 level almost a decade ago, I fear we may never recover the otherworldly losses that arose out of, not only the expulsion of the Asians, but also the breakdown in ethics and cultural values during the time.