Kampala | Sweetness and Power

A sugar crisis in Uganda has reignited a legacy of racial tension

A truck set ablaze during a protest on 12 August 2007 against plans to allocate forest land to a sugar company owned by the Mehta Group, which is run by Ugandans of Indian descent. WANDERA W’OUMA / AP PHOTO
01 October, 2011

ON THE MORNING OF 12 APRIL 2007, a coterie of environmental activists descended upon downtown Kampala to pay tribute to one of Uganda’s largest forest reserves, the 300-square-km area known as the Mabira Forest. Holding placards asserting their love of the land, they could be heard denouncing the name associated with a major Ugandan sugar producer, the Mehta Group’s Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited (SCOUL). All looked peaceful until, suddenly and overwhelmingly, things got out of control. The demonstration had been hijacked by angry protesters with a violent ambition—men and women who bayed, so to speak, for some blood.

This is what Devang Rawal, a 25-year-old sales agent who had spent nearly two years in Uganda, could not have anticipated as he rode his motorcycle down a crowded thoroughfare and into a mob eager for confrontation. They set his bike on fire, stoned him and beat him up—stopping only when they were sure he was dead.

In an atmosphere already poisoned by the imagination of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, of poverty versus riches, Rawal satisfied the mob’s hunger for quick revenge and a deeply felt desire for a fall guy. He was targeted because he did not look like the people who went after him. He looked like he might be Indian. And the Mehta Group, whose local subsidiary had been lobbying the government for a large chunk of Mabira—it proposed cutting down a third of the forest to plant sugarcane—is owned by Ugandans of Indian origin.

Now, more than four years later, events in Kampala eerily recall what occurred here that April day. Sugar production has been derailed by a severe drought. Not only that, but when workers at Kakira Sugar Works staged a strike earlier this year to demand higher wages, a more aggressive group of demonstrators set a sprawling plantation ablaze. The resulting sugar crisis, one in which the price of the sweetener doubled in a matter of weeks, has given President Yoweri Museveni an excuse to renew his wish to award a “degraded” part of Mabira to SCOUL. Though the case is due to be resolved in Parliament, and while much of the country rises in protest, Museveni vowed in August to settle the matter once and for all. “Tell anybody out there that I am ready for war on sugar,” he proclaimed.

To Museveni, sugar is a metaphor for success. It has played a remarkable role in shaping both his politics and his legacy, and—especially for Ugandans who vividly recall the relative prosperity of the 1960s—its absence as well as its presence have come to represent the massive political and economic transformations of the past 50 years.

But, in truth, the story of sugar in Uganda takes us back even further. In 1900, Nanjibhai Kalidas Mehta took the first of his many voyages from Gujarat to Kampala. A businessman with a wide range of interests—he went on to build numerous industries across Africa, India and Europe—he had established a sugar factory in the town of Lugazi, less than 50 km east of Kampala, within 24 years. His enterprise, SCOUL, was ambitious for the time, and grew to become the second largest sugar manufacturer in Uganda.

The patriarch died in 1969, leaving his remarkably successful business in the hands of his family. But in three years’ time, one man’s vision changed just about everything. The military officer and dictator Idi Amin, after having seized power in 1971, claimed the following year that he had been told in a dream to give unto the black natives what belonged to the brown merchants who had taken over Uganda’s commerce. In the unforgettable and harrowing account, he gave all Ugandans of Asian origin, most of whom were South Asians, 90 days to leave, threatening to arrest those who remained. Among those who were pushed out was the Mehta family. When the Asians of Uganda had fled, Amin and his thugs went about sharing the spoils, until the economy collapsed under the complete absence of a merchant class. Sugar manufacturing plummeted and the shops were soon empty.

Throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s, sugar was a rare commodity in Uganda, hoarded and consumed mostly by those who carried the written consent of local chiefs. When Museveni assumed office in January 1986, though, he saw himself as a Marxist revolutionary. He believed sugar was an essential item, not a luxury, and that it should be enjoyed by the vast majority of Ugandans.

But Museveni’s Marxist ideology soon gave way to a more neoliberal mentality, in many ways forced upon him by the International Monetary Fund in return for foreign aid. His privatisation campaigns of the 1990s coincided with his decision to give back to the South Asians what Amin had taken from them. In an attempt to boost commerce and end the days of scarcity, he formed significant alliances with businesses like Mehta’s SCOUL, paving the way for the return of many South Asians, from London and elsewhere, to Uganda. Thanks to Museveni’s efforts, Mehta’s sugar business was fully rehabilitated.

Now a global enterprise with headquarters in Mumbai, the company wants to grow a larger bulk sugarcane and escalate production in its factories, and the vast forest that abuts its plantations has caught its attention. The simple fact that sugar is now scarce in Uganda suggests to Museveni that the sweet dreams of the country's economic recovery are over. It’s an unacceptable reality, one that has had him turning to Mabira as well. And as he does, many natives—black Ugandans, for that matter—are turning against the Mehta Group with racist-tinged doubts.

Some worry that Museveni’s renewed effort to tamper with Mabira could have the unintended consequence of putting the South Asians of Uganda in a treacherous place. The social critic Timothy Kalyegira told me that the angst surrounding Mabira is political before it is anything else. “The Indians have been seen as people who have ganged up with Museveni,” Kalyegira said. “It’s now like ninety-nine percent anti-Museveni. Mehta is just an extra.”

Writing in the local newspaper, Saturday Monitor, columnist Bernard Tabaire asked: “If the Mehtas are dying to expand their cane acreage, why don’t they buy land elsewhere?”

So large is the spectre of turmoil that a local businessman, Sharad Patel, has offered the government his vast sugar plantations as an alternative to Mabira. SCOUL, for its part, will only entertain offers of land that fall within a 25-km radius of its factory.

But how threatened, practically speaking, is the Indian community here? Are they going about their lives as they normally would? Are they taking precautions?

Sanjiv Patel is a 46-year-old businessman who speaks for the 89-year-old Indian Association of Uganda. A gregarious man who trims his moustache neatly, Patel was a child when Amin expelled the Asians. He returned as an adult in 1988 and has since lived here with his wife and two boys. He has an office on the first floor of a colonial-era building owned by the Muljibhai Madhvani Foundation, a charitable trust associated with a storied family of Indians, in the heart of Kampala. When I asked him what he made of the racist undercurrents of the Mabira saga, he gave a sigh and launched into why he thinks it’s not simply a Ugandan phenomenon. “Racism is practically all over the world,” he said. “But in Uganda many people are economically challenged. They need somebody to be a scapegoat.”

In 2007, Patel worked in an office not far from the intersection where a mob attacked Rawal. He recalls that it was a Saturday morning and a scooter was burning in the distance. More than anything, however, he remembers a placard that read ‘INDIANS GO BACK’.

“That took me a little bit back,” Patel told me. “That was not Uganda.”

The Indian Association of Uganda exists to unite the roughly 22,000 Ugandans of Indian origin, and Patel says the group must “build bridges” with the wider Ugandan community. He senses the hostility, but he doesn’t feel threatened by anyone.

When I asked him why, he looked me in the eye and said, “This is my home.”

There is no doubt that Patel believed what he said, but whether it’s steeped in truth is another matter. The stereotype that the Indians of Uganda are increasingly in love with Museveni—and have reaped handsomely from his policies—has forced many of them to overcompensate for their ostensible foreignness. In July, just before the Mabira saga was resurrected, Kampala’s traders were up in arms over the shrinking value of the Ugandan shilling. Protesters demanded that all shops remain shut, the kind of edict Indian storekeepers had tended to ignore in the past. This time, walking down Kampala Road when the strike was on, it was easier to find an open shop run by blacks than one operated by browns.