Shailesh Vara on Uganda

07:37 Tuesday 25th January 2011
Peterborough Breakfast Show BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PAUL STAINTON: Now it’s been 40 years since the dictator Idi Amin seized power in Uganda. We all remember the pictures of him in the ’70s and 80’s in his uniform. It’s thought between 100,000 people to 500,000 people died under his brutal regime. Conservative MP for North West Cambridgeshire Shailesh Vara was born in Uganda. He joins me on the line now. Good morning Shailesh.
SHAILESH VARA: A very good morning Paul, and a very good morning to all your listeners as well.
PAUL STAINTON: Thank you. You left I think quite early on didn’t you? What memories do you have of your country of birth?
SHAILESH VARA: Well I was very young. I was about four years old, and I had sort of the vague glimpses, as you do when one is four, although subsequently I did go back in 1985, and saw the devastation that occurred when Amin’s successor Mr Obote was running the country. And it was Mr Obote who Idi Amin ousted in the first instance, and Milton Obote the first time he was running the country was a decent enough leader. But after Amin had ousted him, and Obote came back, he became as brutal as Amin, but it’s just that he kept very quiet about it. But I have the odd memories, and of course my parents spent many years there, and of course I know many people who came from there. Can I just say that I think it’s very good that you rightly pointed out Paul that between 100,000 and 500,000 native Ugandans were killed by Idi Amin. Because often when this subject is discussed, people talk about the Asians, many of them who were of Indian origin. The story is often about them being expelled, and having to find new homes and make new lives throughout the world. But very little is mentioned of those poor people who were killed simply because they were the wrong tribe to Idi Amin, or he simply didn’t like them, or they were in the way, or whatever. So I’m pleased you did mention them.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. Obviously we’ve had the film recently, haven’t we, about the Scotsman who documented Idi Amin’s life? And that painted quite a brutal picture. But did it give any feel whatsoever do you feel as to what went on under Idi Amin?
SHAILESH VARA: It was a brutal regime, and I have spoken to many people who were literally terrified for their lives. And of course as well as expelling the Asians, some of them were killed as well. But the other thing is that many of them were harassed before they were expelled. There’s one particular individual who I know who was imprisoned, and he was imprisoned in a particular unit where really it was known more or less as death row. And every day he would hear screaming from cells nearby of people being tortured. Or suddenly poeople he’s seen one day, the next day they were gone. And in the middle of the night he’d heard doors opening and clanking and that was it. Ther were never to be seen again. But one of the good things is that many of the Asians who left Uganda because they had to, I’m pleased to say that in all the countries they went to, on the whole they’ve integrated very well. They, I’d like to think, have contributed to the host country, and in Britain certainly there are people who came here penniless, who now have businesses that employ thousands of people. There are people in all walks of life, doctors, lawyers, accountants, corner shops. You’ve even got the odd Member of Parliament.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. Do you still have relatives there Shailesh?
SHAILESH VARA: I have relatives in neighbouring Kenya, but certainly not in Uganda. And of course some people have gone back. But the problem is many of the people who have gone back were those who came to Britain or other countries, Canada, the US, Australia and so on, when they were in their forties and fifties. And they never quite settled in their host country. So they went back when it was possible to go back. But their children had become part and parcel of the new country. And as I say, Ugandan Asians particularly have been very keen that wherever they went in the world, they became part of the community, but also started contributing. Take me for example. I’m British through and through, as is my family and the next generation. And I think that’s the way it should be. But it’s nice that wherever they’ve gone, on the whole, they have made a positive contribution both to the economy and to the workforce, and also in terms of integrating well and getting on with the business of getting on.
PAUL STAINTON: Obviously your family came and settled here. Are there any more Ugandans that came to Peterborough that you know of Shailesh?
SHAILESH VARA: Yes there are. When they have the Diwali function, which is of course the Indian new year, they have a get together. And when I’ve gone to those events, some people have come up to me and said that they remember, or they know my parents, and so on. So yes, there are others in and around the area. And it’s amazing the stories that they have. They were literally given 90 days to leave Uganda. They were told to leave everything behind. There was no question of going to a bank and getting your money out, or anything like that. And people literally left with the clothes that were on their back, and suitcases and so on. They were only allowed to bring almost hand luggage. And what do you do, when you’ve got a whole family and so on? But incredible stories, and one or two books have been written of people who came without anything, but then worked hard and prospered again.
PAUL STAINTON: And a positive. You hear so much about immigration in this country, and how we deal with immigrants, that it’s nice to know that we welcomed people from Uganda with open arms and helped them resettle in this country, and find work, and find positive careers for themselves.
SHAILESH VARA: Oh absolutely. And I remember at the time, because at the time I was capable of understanding, because as I say my family came here a little bit before the actual expulsion, but yes, there were concerns by politicians, and by the media, about all these people coming here. But I’m pleased to say, and I think the vast majority of the public would agree, that there’s never been any problems with the Ugandan community that came here. And indeed as I say many of them are out there, whether they be shopkeepers or within the professions, or indeed running businesses which provide employment for our fellow Britons.
PAUL STAINTON: Just finally and quickly Shailesh, Uganda could have been a very prosperous, very fertile country. It could have been one of the leading lights in Africa, couldn’t it? Has it recovered anything of that?
SHAILESH VARA: That’s a very interesting point. Churchill called Uganda The Pearl of Africa. And when I went back on my second visit, in ’85, certainly the greenery of the crops, and the plants, and the weather, and indeed the niceness of the people, is something that is quite extraordinarly remarkable. Yes, Uganda has all the potential to be a really superb prosperous country. But for countries to thrive they need the proper political structure. And the President that we have at the moment, Museveni, who I met a while ago when he was visiting the United Kingdom, there are issues as to his re-election, and I think that there is concern there. But compared to many other African countries, Uganda is certainly a lot better. But that’s not to say that it can’t go even further. Because I think once you’ve got that freedom from the top, allowing people to flourish to the best of their abilities, then Uganda has got all the right ingredients, the resources, the people, the goodwill, the climate and everything. So yes, it has enormous potential, but it’s certainly nowhere near there. And of course, to conclude with, they’ve recently found oil on the border with Sudan. And that will of course lead to more prosperity. But of course we should also remember wherever oil is found on th borders of countries, there’s a tendency to conflict. Because each country tries to say, no that’s our oil and not yours. So one must pray that the Sudanese and the Ugandans don’t end up warring with each other. Because frankly in this world of ours, there is plenty, and there’s enough to go round. It’s when people and countries get greedy that all the problems start.
PAUL STAINON: Shailesh, lovely to talk to you this morning., Thank you for sharing your experiences of Uganda. Forty years since Idi Amin seized power there.