Powerful Dynasty : All in the Family Feud Rips Uganda

Times Staff Writer

From her majestic hilltop mansion overlooking Lake Victoria, Meena Madhvani has seen enough of the ups and downs of Ugandan life to justify her speaking with a certain tartness.

In her time, she has entertained such luminaries as Indira Gandhi. Idi Amin proposed to her and, it is said, infuriated at being rebuffed, expelled tens of thousands of Uganda’s Indian citizens. Rebels advancing on Kampala, the capital, camped in her fields of sugar cane. Her magnificent house was trashed in 10 years of civil war.

Yet all that is nothing compared to the contempt she has today for members of her own family. Adjusting the copper-hued folds of her sari, she observed recently:


“This is a total Mafia-type situation.”

Squabbling Relatives

It would surprise many people in Uganda to hear one of the nation’s great families compared to a Mafia clan. But then there are few here who would recognize the Madhvanis, who once filled the industrial and philanthropic shoes of African Rockefellers, in the collection of relatives squabbling today over the ruins of their Ugandan empire.

There have been family agreements struck and broken, litigation and accusations of high-handed schemes aimed at stealing one another’s share of the fortune.

It is a family squabble right out of “Dynasty”: Start with five sons of a pioneering, India-born Ugandan grower and trader. The oldest brother, Jayant Madhvani, dominates Ugandan business and his younger siblings with his commercial vision and his humanity.

Amin’s Depredations

Then comes Jayant’s death in 1971, along with the advent of the dictator Amin, and then exile, all working their destructive influences on what was once an empire of 70 companies. In the end, Jayant’s single-minded and imperious widow, Meena, and his four brothers are maneuvering to seize control of the little that remains after the depredations of Amin.

The peculiarly African aspect of the story is its potential impact on Uganda. In their glory days, the Madhvanis controlled fully 12% of Uganda’s gross national product through 22,000 acres of sugar cane, steel and textile mills, glass and soap factories, breweries, banks and insurance companies. There was no greater industrial clan in sub-Saharan Africa.

Amin did not spare the Madhvanis from exile in 1972 when he expelled the Indians, hoping to appropriate their assets. And during Amin’s bloody and inept reign, the Madhvanis’ properties fell into ruin.

The Ugandan leaders who succeeded Amin in 1979 asked the Madhvanis to return from London to rehabilitate the properties, and under an arrangement now in effect, the government retains 51%. The holdings are so extensive, covering such a range of industrial enterprise, that it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that Uganda’s economic future hangs in the balance.

But many bankers and government officials here complain that the family fight has put the rehabilitation project well behind schedule. This is not lost on the family, which fears that lagging progress might provoke the government to find another partner.

But it might be that 15 years of exile and civil strife have sapped forever the vision and commitment that characterized the Madhvanis at their zenith.

‘Not Pioneers’

“The Madhvanis of the ‘60s were different from these,” said Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan Indian who was exiled in 1972 but who has returned to teach economics at Uganda’s Makerere University. “These are not Ugandans. They’re not taking long-term risks. They can no longer be pioneers.”

The Madhvani saga also exemplifies the painful journey of East Africa’s Indian community, from immigrants to bourgeoisie to outcasts.

The Indians came to Africa when the British, finding themselves colonizers of a vast, thinly peopled expanse of African bush, imported skilled labor from their overpopulated South Asian empire.

Later they racially pigeonholed their African and Indian subjects: The Indians in Africa were not permitted to own land, the Africans forbidden to engage in commerce. So both developed roles still familiar today in much of the former colony. The Africans became the agrarian peasantry, the Indians a mercantile bourgeoisie.

It was as one of the latter that Muljibhai Madhvani, the family patriarch, arrived in Uganda in 1908 to trade in salt, flour and seashells. Presently he bought the great sugar plantation from which the family fortune sprang. By the time of his death in 1958, there were five operating companies.

At that point his son Jayant, Meena’s husband, emerged as Uganda’s pre-eminent industrialist. By all accounts Jayant lived up to his nickname, “Giant.”

“With Jayant around, everyone else was overshadowed,” a family friend remarked.

Philanthropist, politician, diplomat, Jayant expanded the five companies to 70, buying a brewery, starting the steel mill, acquiring land as far off as Florida and California.

Jayant and Meena functioned as surrogate parents to his four orphaned younger brothers--something that Meena rarely fails to mention today.

“The others,” she said dismissively, “were kids. They were babies. Whatever industry there was, my husband made, and he gave them each one-fifth.

“The ‘60s were our best period,” Meena said. “We were on the global scene. Time magazine knocked on our doors. They were really amazed to see one man’s accomplishments.”

Private Plane Ready

A private plane stood ready at the family airstrip on the grounds at Kakira, nestled amid its 22,000 acres of cane. Rarely did a state visitor to Uganda fail to make the pilgrimage up to the great house Muljibhai had built on the Kakira hilltop. Indira Gandhi, among others, stayed the night.

The house itself, a riot of swirling colors, exquisite mosaics, great fountains and towering glass, “embraced all its family like some magnificently dolled-up aunt,” one visitor marveled. The Madhvanis were collecting on Uganda’s promise.

“After my husband’s death in 1971, the group declined,” Meena said, scarcely resisting the impulse to point the finger of blame. “Manubhai, the oldest, couldn’t build up an atmosphere of trust within the family.”

Perhaps it is just as well that Jayant did not live to see what the 1970s ushered in. In 1971, just six months before Jayant died, Amin overthrew President Milton Obote.

Legend has it that Amin tried to marry into the Madhvanis by proposing to the widowed Meena. Asked about it today, she smiles mysteriously and says, “Some people said it was so.” Legend has it that her rebuff was what caused the dictator to order the expulsion, in 1972, of Uganda’s Indians.

The expulsion created unimaginable misery for most of them. Even those who were British citizens faced immigration quotas for non-white overseas subjects; Uganda was allotted 100 places. Eventually the refugees were taken in and housed in camps scattered across the English countryside.

The Madhvanis suffered in a more elevated way. Once the whole family gathered in London, they began facing up to their loss. Eventually the five family units reached an agreement to divide up the properties outside Uganda, and they prepared to take their separate paths.

The properties in Uganda fell into ruin like the country itself. The steel furnaces were dismantled for scrap, the rail lines demolished. Factory equipment was carted off. It would take four years of cultivation after 1985 to restore just a quarter of the old sugar land.

In 1979, Amin was overthrown by Obote, the man he had ousted in 1971. A law was enacted calling for the return of all the seized Indian assets to their owners, but there was much government turmoil at the time and from it sprouted the Madhvani battle.

The brothers charge that Meena and her elder son, Nitin, returned first and claimed all the family assets.

‘This Belongs to Us’

Mayur Madhvani, the youngest brother, said: “Nitin and Meena struck the deal (with Obote) and said, ‘This belongs to us.’ It was 1982, and people were distributing these assets to anybody who came along.”

When the rest of the family objected, Meena settled the dispute with an arrangement under which the youngest and oldest surviving brothers, Mayur and Manubhai, took over the Kakira sugar installation, perhaps the most promising asset. In return, she and Nitin were to rehabilitate most of the rest of the properties.

The brothers say she has failed to do her job and meanwhile has refused to let anyone else help. “She was in the forefront and these companies were not running, and other members of the family were not being permitted to participate in a meaningful way,” Kamlesh said.

The family also discovered that she had placed those companies under the corporate umbrella of a company she and Nitin owned.

Finally, in January, the family moved in on Meena. At a board meeting, with Nitin present, the family placed all the companies under the umbrella of Muljibhai Madhvani & Co. Exasperated by what they saw as Meena’s refusal to allow anyone else to participate in the rehabilitation, they hired outside executives to oversee it.

“We said, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” Mayur said.

The brothers insist that they have no intention of depriving Meena and Nitin of their rightful share of the fortune.

“No one would deny that her family unit is a one-fifth shareholder in everything,” Kamlesh, Manubhai’s son, said.

Meena chooses to view the changes as a power play on Manubhai’s part.

“All the wealth has deteriorated, and whatever’s left he wants to grab,” she said, suggesting that it is she who has bent over backward to give them what they want. “In 1985, we agreed to let them run Kakira (the sugar estate) because we thought it would calm them. But I think I overtrusted them.”