On Saturday last week marked 45 years since President Idi Amin’s deadline for the expulsion of the Asians in 1972.
Amin claimed he had dream in which he was directed to expel the Asians. The President, who had run out of ideas of how to reinvigorate support for his presidency barely a year after he took power, lurched onto the envy of his henchmen as a way to give his popularity a boost.
Like in any another war, his “Economic War” registered the truth as the first casualty. The charge that the economy was floundering was because of the Asian businessmen who dominated retail trade was a convenient lie used to cover his motives that some say were driven by much baser instincts.
"And like war the damage was indiscriminate and we have never really recovered from it. The Asian expulsion accelerated the downward decline of the economy, gutted the civil, health and education services and while it led to a short period of affluence by those who benefited from the spoils, it never delivered on its promise...
Some people using some arm chair logic argue that if the Asians had remained the country would have been overran by them and the economy would be fully in their control. But that is to ignore or to be ignorant of the fact that by 1972 there were 180,000 Asians in Kenya as opposed to 50,000 that were in Uganda then. We don’t get a sense that the Asians have overran Kenya. They are key players in the economy, yes but that is not their fault. Blame it on their thrift and diligence. Values the Kenyan businessman has been quick to learn.
It is no wonder that Kenyan businessmen are more accomplished than our own. They have benefitted from the mentorship of the Asian businessman and it shows.
We are one of them most entrepreneurial countries in the world. Who can blame us. In the chaotic 1970s and 1980s when the economy collapsed relying on one job was not an option. Business was not for soe special class of people who knew the workings of money but everybody was in it.
Of course our businesses were and still continue to be predominantly about subsistence. As a result we also have a high attrition rate, with less than one in ten businesses making it to their tenth birthday.
We don’t know the meaning of once beaten twice shy, because no sooner have we buried one endeavour than we are off to start another. Which is how it should be.
The mentorship the Kenyan businessman has benefitted from is an understanding of how to separate capital from everyday expenses, how to utilise credit, the value of trust and customer care. And it shows on our supermarket shelves.
"So the Economic war laid waste not only to hundreds of millions of shillings – hundreds of billions of shillings today, commercial value but also obliterated decades of business intelligence about how to operate in the Ugandan economy...
The “lucky” few who inherited the illicit booty are nowhere to be seen today and have nothing to show for the manna that fell from Amin’s palms.
But the even bigger scandal is that the Asian community have trickled back and after two decades of putting their nose to the grinding stone now account for almost half of our tax collections!
It’s an old Indian trick Sudhir Ruparelia once told the Financial Times, you make ten shillings, eat one and plough the remaining nine back into the business. Repeat until rich.
Of course we have our excuses for why the Asians have prospered – again, and we are still spectators on the side-lines – they have cheap capital, they pay their workers peanuts, they cheat, we rarely acknowledge their work ethic or their financial prudence. They must have an unfair advantage that we don’t know about. What we are really saying is that we don’t want to do the work needed to get where they are, so we have blocked our minds to finding out how they do it and when we care to speculate about the tricks that bring in quick money.
As a result on last count there have been next to no successful transition of business from founder to the next generation by an indigenous owned business. This is telling because for a business to grow sustainably it does so over years even decades – except of course is you are a cyber entrepreneur.
As a result we have no indigenous business that has a presence across the east African community or even one with a national presence from Kisoro to Kabong and fro Arua to Kalangala.
A country is only as viable as its private sector. The private sector creates jobs, pays taxes, fosters innovation and brings in the hard currency.
"By nipping the growth of the business community in the bud Amin in fact, doomed our country to donor dependency and economic servitude...
Talk about unintended consequences!