Asians of East and Central Africa

Name: East African Asians
Alternative names: Indians
Location: East Africa (mainly Kenya, Tanzania); central Africa
Population: Total 85,000; Kenya 40,000; Tanzania 20,000
% of population: Kenya 0.2%; Tanzania 0.1%
Religion: Hindu, Muslim (including Ismaili)
Language: English, Gujarati, Punjabi

The Asian population of east and central Africa is a small but significant minority group, which is largely engaged in trade and professions. They came to Africa during the British colonial period but since independence their numbers have declined.

The colonial period

Indian contact with Africa far predates that of Europeans; for over one thousand years the Indian sub-continent engaged in trade with East Africa. In the early nineteenth century coastal settlements were established at Mombasa, Malindi and Bagamoyo and by the mid-century the Asian population of Zanzibar was estimated to be five or six thousand. A combination of famines in India and plentiful opportunities for work in Africa as indentured labour on railways, led to many thousands of Indians, mainly agricultural labourers, immigrating to east, central and southern Africa. They were followed by “free immigrants” who came to trade, often running small general stores. The majority of immigrants came from Gujarat and Punjab.

European settlers soon recognized Asians as an economic threat and developed opposition to Asian immigration. Legislation restricting Asian immigration was prevented however because of the Imperial principal of common citizenship. In Rhodesia literacy testing in a European language was introduced as a condition of entry in 1904 and this reduced Asian immigration. Similar legislation was introduced in East Africa during World War II during which there was almost complete cessation of immigration, but there was a dramatic increase in the post war years.

Indians, like Africans, were categorized on racial lines and facilities set aside for their use were inadequate and inferior to those used by Europeans. The best agricultural land was reserved for Europeans and the remainder was set aside for African use so that Indians were effectively barred from agricultural work. Asians occupied most of the lower and middle grades of the public services such as railways, as they did in the larger commercial and industrial enterprises, but were unable to rise to higher positions. Indians saw education as a way of advancement; most of the early schools were established privately by the Asian communities themselves although the colonial authorities gradually provided more funding.

After the war many Asians went overseas where they qualified as lawyers, doctors, teachers and engineers, thus changing the character of the Asian workforce. In central Africa, where the communities were less numerous, opportunities and educational facilities were considerably less and as a result there were few professionally qualified people and most Indians remained dependent on commerce.


At the time of independence East African Asians were dominant in commerce and had also begun to move into manufacturing. There was inevitably a degree of hostility from Africans, many of whom themselves aspired to these positions; many Africans also felt that they had been exploited by Asian shopkeepers. There were also religious and cultural differences between the two groups and most Asians lived in more or less exclusive communities, partly as a result of the practice of caste exclusiveness in India. Africans felt that Asians had done little to further the cause of African nationalism although in East Africa there always had been a small group of Asians active on behalf of African independence.

Unlike European residents, who were generally protected both economically and by the new constitutions, Asians lacked such security. Before independence most residents of British East and Central Africa had been either British citizens or British protected persons. After independence an individual either became a citizen of the new country automatically or had the option to do so within a specified time. Those who did not qualify for citizenship retained their pre-independence status. Many Asians

All the figures quoted are estimates. It is very difficult (and in some cases impossible) to obtain accurate figures but the above figures do illustrate clearly a general trend for both the numbers of Asians in East and Central African countries and their proportion in the total population, to drop significantly over this period. - Asians of East and Central Africa

did not take up the citizenship option, partly as they felt that a British, Indian or Pakistani passport would offer protection in the event of persecution or expulsion. Africans were further alienated by the reluctance of Indians to assume African nationality.

After independence in the 1960s each country adopted different policies towards Asian residents but two common factors were the distinction between citizens and non-citizens, and “Africanization” policies whereby key areas of economic and governmental activity were gradually assumed by citizens, the vast majority of whom were indigenous Africans. Legislation was passed restricting residence, trade and employment for non-citizen employees. The Zambian government decreed that from 1970 non-citizens would not be given licences to operate in rural areas and from 1972 they were also forbidden to operate in urban areas; in Kenya and Uganda Asian trading was restricted to scheduled areas and trade in certain commodities such as staple foodstuffs was restricted to citizens only. In Tanzania the major economic institutions were nationalized, one effect of which was to make Asian private enterprise redundant. In Malawi deportation at short notice became common. The pressures placed upon non-citizens created much insecurity and caused many to look for resettlement opportunities elsewhere. Foreign exchange regulations permitted only a limited amount of capital repatriation on emigration and many of the wealthier Asians began to transfer money abroad while it was still possible.

The citizenship crisis

Most Indians had assumed that those with British nationality would be permitted free entry into the UK and in 1965 and 1966 nearly 13,000 did enter; however the British government, alarmed at the direction African governments were taking with regard to their Asian residents and fuelled by fears of increased tensions at home, introduced a new Act in 1968, the purpose of which was to restrict the entry into the UK of certain categories of British citizens overseas. The Act excluded those who, despite their British nationality, had no close connections with Britain (defined as either a father or grandfather born in Britain). The UK government introduced a quota voucher system whereby 1,500 families were permitted entry to the UK annually. Waiting lists were predictably long and this created major problems for many; in 1971 the number of annual quotas was doubled. Before the 1968 Act few Asians had opted to return to India but when many attempted to do so, the Indian government halted their policy of free entry to all Asians making it much more difficult for those Indians with UK passports to obtain access to India.

In 1971 a military coup in Uganda brought Idi Amin to power. Eight months later it was announced that all Asians, including 12,000 still awaiting citizenship, were to leave the country within 90 days. It was later stated that only non-citizen Asians were obliged to leave but subsequently some 15,000 Ugandan passport holders had their passports withdrawn and others were intimidated by Amin’s soldiers. Within the last six weeks of the period of the ultimatum, 50,000 Asians left Uganda, with no property and £55 in cash each. 27,000 of them fled to Britain, which temporarily waived its immigration laws to deal with the crisis, 10,000 went to India (including 6,000 UK citizens), 6,000 to Canada, 4,000 to UN camps throughout Europe and others to the USA, Pakistan, and elsewhere including Kenya and Malawi.

In 1968 there were 344,000 Asians resident in the five countries; by 1984 the probable number had fallen to about 85,000 of whom 40,000 were in Kenya; 20,000 in Tanzania; Zambia 3,000, Malawi 1,000 and Uganda 1,000. Of these about 20,000 Asians were British citizens with about 8,000 each in Kenya and Tanzania. In 1982 the British Nationality Act was passed and UK Asian passport holders were reclassified as British Overseas Citizens with restricted rights of entry. The UK was issuing an annual 5,000 vouchers to British passport holders but there was no longer much demand for them.

The present situation

Few of the Indians who remain in East and Central Africa can expect more than middle-ranking careers in the civil service, police or armed forces, but the private sector remains open to them although it is now dominated by an African mercantile class. Since the overthrow of Idi Amin in Uganda in 1979 several Asian companies have returned to Uganda but on a corporate rather than an individual basis, and few other than Indian and Pakistani contract personnel have resided there. The Museveni government however has indicated its willingness to pay some compensation for the losses of 1972 and the Asian community has welcomed the move towards reconciliation, although few will probably wish to return on a permanent basis. Since departure of the non-citizen (and many citizen) Asians, thousands of Asian doctors, teachers, accountants, railway workers and engineers have come into the region on two year Indian and Pakistani technical assistance programmes.

Although Asians in East and Central Africa are not in general optimistic about their long-term future in the region, they cannot be described as a persecuted or harassed minority. They are however a visible one and could become a scapegoat in a violent situation or economic crisis, as appeared to happen in the abortive coup in Kenya in 1982 when some Asian women were raped and Asian shops looted. Yet Kenya also has an Asian MP, elected on a multiracial basis. For most Asians their present situation is reasonably comfortable, their standard of living is good and they have complete religious and cultural freedom. Many Asians commute between the USA or UK and Africa and almost all have relatives established outside Africa.

(See also Indian South Africans; Uganda)