Uganda’s Growing Bonhomie with India augers well for the Global South

By Samir Bhattacharya
Article Uganda’s Growing Bonhomie with India augers well for the Global South

The first overseas Indian Institute of Technology campus was unveiled in Zanzibar in July 2023, an event that generated a great deal of media attention and set a new historical high for India's knowledge diplomacy with Africa, especially Tanzania. It was celebrated for the growth of cooperative educational relationships between Tanzania and India as well as broader cooperation between Tanzania and India.

However, in April 2023, well ahead of the IIT Madras in Zanzibar, Uganda became the first country to host India's National Forensic Sciences University (NFSU), India’s first overseas campus in the continent. The campus was opened in Jinja, Uganda, a hub of the Indian community in Uganda, where a bust of Mahatma Gandhi was installed in 1997 by then-Prime Minister IK Gujral with the inscription, "Universal apostle of peace and non-violence whose ashes were immersed in the river Nile in 1948."

A little-known fact: In Jinja, at the source of the Nile, a part of Mahatma Gandhi's ashes was immersed nearly 50 years ago, in 1948.

The discussion for opening the NFSU campus was going on for a while, but the process only really got going after Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni sent a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in August 2022 requesting urgent action. The campus was established in collaboration with the Ugandan People's Defence Forces and will offer courses in forensic sciences, behavioural sciences, cyber security, digital forensics, and allied sciences while also promoting research in these areas.

Historic relations between Uganda and India

The relationship between India and Uganda dates back to the time when Indian sailors traded goods in dhows across the Indian Ocean. As a matter of fact, the Swahili word ‘dhow’ is a generic term for the pre-European ships of the Indian Ocean, particularly from India. Eventually, many Indians settled in East Africa, and made Uganda their home. For example, the construction of the Uganda Railway involved only Indian labour; however, after the railway was completed in 1901, many of the workers returned to India. The Indian liberation movement also served as inspiration for early Ugandan activists, who fought colonialism until achieving independence in 1962.

In the early 1970s, when President Amin was in power, around 60,000 Indians and Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) were driven out of Uganda. But the anti-Indian attitudes were reversed when the present President, HE President Museveni, took office in 1986. Normalization of bilateral relations was ensured by several measures, including returning properties that had been taken from PIOs. The relationships are still going strong now.

Presently, the Indian population exhibits the most robust and long-lasting cultural and economic ties towards Uganda. There are 20,000 Indians in Uganda at the moment, making up less than 1% of the total population, but they pay almost 65% of total taxes. Indians and PIOs play a major role in the Ugandan economy, especially in manufacturing, trade, agro-processing, banking, sugar, real estate, hotels, tourism and information technology. They are among the largest taxpayers in the nation and provide jobs for thousands of Ugandans. Over US$ 1 billion is thought to have been invested in Uganda by PIOs and NRIs during the previous 20 years.

Historic visit of PM Modi in Uganda
As the second Indian prime minister to visit Uganda since 1997, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recognized the significance of Uganda for India's foreign policy and accepted the President of Uganda's invitation to make a state visit in July 2018. PM Modi spoke before the Ugandan Parliament during his visit and became the first Indian prime Minister. Although India lacks an exclusive Africa policy, Prime Minister Modi chose the Ugandan parliament to present a list of ten guiding principles that will govern India's interactions with the continent.

Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs)/Agreements were signed during the visit on the establishment of a regional material laboratory in Uganda, the waiver of visa requirements for bearers of official and diplomatic passports, and bilateral defence cooperation. The PM announced two Lines of Credits totalling US$141 million for the development of electrical lines and substations and US$64 million for the production of dairy and agricultural products. It was also reported that the Uganda People's Defence Force would receive further training at many Indian Army training facilities.

Additionally, financial support was offered for the East African Community (EAC), which Uganda was chairing at that time. Additionally, India announced the donation of vehicles to the Ugandan government and People's Defense Forces, as well as the Bhabhatron Cancer Therapy Machine, NCERT books for Uganda's school-age children, and solar-powered irrigation pumps to support the country's agricultural development.

Direct flight between India and Uganda

As a testament to Uganda's growing bonhomie with India, Ugandan Airlines inaugurated non-stop direct flights between Kampala and Mumbai on October 7, 2023, providing travellers with additional options in the East Africa-India aviation corridor,. The service, which was first announced in 2021, is only Uganda Airlines' 12th destination and the second off the African peninsula. Ugandan Airlines is now the fifth flagship carrier to link the capital of each of its respective countries with India, following Air Tanzania, Kenya Airways, RwandAir, and Ethiopian Airlines.

Currently operated by a wide-body Airbus A330-800 neo, the five-and-a-half-hour journey from Entebbe to Mumbai to Entebbe offers premium economy seating in addition to business and economy class. The airline already operates three weekly flights from Mumbai and intends to grow to include stops in Delhi and Chennai.

Future of Uganda-India Relations
Dr S. Jaishankar, India's minister of external affairs, will represent his country in Kampala, Uganda, at the next Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit. The 19th NAM summit, which is slated to take place from January 17 to 20, 2024, will be preceded by an important conference of foreign ministers starting on January 15. The Third South Summits and the G77 summit will also be held in the African nation from January 21 to 23.

NAM was founded in the wake of the Cold War to serve the interests of developing countries and those that wished to remain independent from both the Western and Soviet blocs. However, the organization's goals were reinterpreted after 1991. The movement is shifting its emphasis to promote South-South cooperation in light of the significant shift in the geopolitical landscape. This will give nations a platform to work together without the need for old alliances. Founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, India hosted the Seventh NAM Summit in New Delhi in 1983.

Currently, 53 countries from Africa, 40 from Asia, 26 from Latin America and the Caribbean, and one from Europe (Belarus) make up the membership of NAM. At NAM, there are ten international organizations and eighteen countries that are observers. With more countries than the UN, this organization is the second largest on the planet in terms of membership. Uganda's 2024–2027 presidency of the NAM grouping presents an opportunity for to further develop its relationship with India and to promote global south’s interest.

[1] [1] The author is a doctoral scholar of Africa Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University