Uganda’s ‘Generous’ Refugee Policy: Museveni’s other Con Job on The West


South Sudan refugees fleeing to Uganda (AP photo)

Mr. Museveni is a cunning politician. In a ridiculously effective way. He has little legitimacy at home as he has done little for his impoverished people. So where does he look to improve it? To the West and its global elite, because unlike his helpless, impoverished people, if the West soured on him, that can potentially be dangerous for his 32 year old regime. That’s because the west still pays for a bulk of his national budget (forget the useless figures his Ministry of finance parlays to ignorant public that only 19% of its budget is donor funded. The 19% is due to insane corruption which forced most donors to stop providing most of their money through ‘Budget Support”, an international development parlance that simply means donors mixing their money with the government’s into its own ‘basket’ to run the country. Instead, especially after the unprecedented theft of donors’ money in the Office of the Prime Minister in 2012, almost all of them turned to what is called ‘Project Support’, i.e, running their own projects or channeling their money through local and international NGOs. USAID for example almost singlehandedly runs the healthcare system in rural Uganda in certain respects, complete in some cases with their own appointed  doctors and auditors. Uganda can collapse without Western Aid. Museveni knows this and the donors of course know this as well.

So how does Museveni keep donors happy/on his side? Unleashing masterstroke after masterstroke from his very deep art-of-deception pot of tricks. Becoming an internationalist, benevolent statesman; at the expense of his own people unfortunately. Let’s look at a few examples of this.

The ‘remarkably Humane’ refugee policy

This is one of the best orchestrated frauds Museveni has perpetrated on the Western donors, humanitarians, and other ‘save the world’ elites.

The Global media;The BBC, Telegraph, Voice of America, the Guardian, all  have named Uganda ‘One of the best places to be a refugee,’  The World Bank has christened the Ugandan refugee policy the world’s ‘most Progressive Approach to Refugee Management’

This PR was in part led by global humanitarians to get back at America and European countries whose refugee policies were getting harsher in the wake of the Syria imbroglio and the trans Mediterranean crossings of economic migrants from Africa. If a poor country like Uganda can do this much, surely EU nations can and must do better.  Except that other than providing land (which was previously largely dormant anyway), Uganda doesn’t and CAN’T ‘do’ anything for these people. It’s own people are starving. The whole operation is bankrolled by the UN and Western money and district officials in ‘host communities’ are remarkably ignorant of anything about these refugees, even the numbers, unless the UNHCR tells them as they are the ones that run the show. It’s highly probable that perhaps even UNHCR doesnt really know the actual numbers. Government officials most likely have fudged them to get money to pocket while bragging that their tiny country is managing ‘millions’ of refugees. Anyhow, the sales pitch by the West didn’t move a muscle in Europe, it seems. Hungary didn’t take the bait. Greece didn’t. Angela Merkel simply wailed, ‘If only time could be rolled back’ when even her ardent supporters began questioning the wisdom of her open door policy to middle eastern, Muslim refugees. And rightly so because besides the contexts being vastly different; politically, culturally, economically and otherwise, mass influx of refugees without proper planning, foresight, imaginative thinking can only be a recipe for disaster.

vvvvI went to one of the refugee camps in Yumbe district, North-Western Uganda

Not every detail on the Ugandan glossy refugee story is actually true.

First, let’s look at that much lauded ‘Policy’. Is it really ‘progressive? Is it unique in any way? As a researcher, I have read it in its entirety, many times. The Ugandan Refugee Act of 2006 is pretty much a standard law, one that could easily become Kenya’s or Nigeria’s if you substituted the name Uganda with those countries’. It’s an internationalist document that preambles international statutes on  treatment of displaced persons, then provides for establishment of offices, committees, and staff, plus a little local context. That’s it.

But the regime saw a good opportunity with the refugees situation. Even when no one really knew what the scale of the problem would be (like how many refugees would come over – No one really has the right figures even now. Like I said, the ‘over 1million’ figure is probably ballooned by a few hundred thousands, for the benefit of corrupt officials), we opened the doors. Like we offered to host Israel’s deported asylum seekers, there is nothing ‘humane’ about Uganda’s hosting of refugees. It’s part of an important local, regional and international political calculus by Mr. Museveni to remain in power.

For the uninitiated, Uganda, it must be stated, like other hybrid regimes whose political order is sustained by patronage, political clientelism and fiefdoms; does not operate on ‘policies’. Ugandan’s, on account of our war charred past, are remarkably sympathetic to people freeing conflict, because since independence in 1962, through 9 presidents, we have hard our fair share of conflicts and neighboring countries welcomed us with kindness too. Mr Museveni is just taking advantage of this certainty to claim all the credit. And he wont allow anyone looking for nuance in this glossy story to spoil the milk:

The president’s word at a campaign rally can become law overnight which can be enforced with frightening swiftness than a  law that has been on the books for 70 years. He may informally chide his ministers for not working on certain elements of his statecraft and officials the next morning will roll over each other ‘implementing’ what the president asked to be done. It’s a one man dictatorship. Like in most kleptocracies, there is very little organisation of the State, and most bureaucrats and civil servants, besides stealing, don’t really do any worthwhile work, which is why most public goods are in shambles.  Things are run very informally especially in State House, the president’s residence where he distributes patronage from. The government is most efficient at suppressing threats against its own survival. Hence the Army, The Police and a myriad of other security agencies are a little more efficient, though that is also coming into question in light of recent high profile murders   . (Security is the only public good that, until recently was working, if you forget for a while the 20-year LRA and ADF’s rampages in Northern western Uganda respectively. The country otherwise has been peaceful over the last 15 years).

Our approach to refugees is not based on ‘policy’ at all. It is not ‘humane’ or ‘Progressive’. It is stupid in a way that benefits the president. The president realised that having an open door policy for these refugees boosts Uganda’s image abroad as a humane country, and ensures that that same world forgets his political ruthlessness: Jailing of opponents, suppression of political dissent, and disappearances of regime critics.

m7Ugandan President, Gen. Yoweri Museveni

Uganda being ‘one of the countries hosting the highest number of refugees in the whole world today’ therefore is an alluring headline.

Uganda has pretty much an open door policy when it comes to its immigration enforcement in general, and this is not by design but rather by incompetence. Our borders are remarkably porous. Almost anyone can come in and get out. It’s like a toilet (even toilets have rules actually – ). I move across most borders in the region in the course of my work. I am ashamed by our lack of guard. When even DRC, a vast country where the authorities in Kinshasa have little control over the rest of the country does a better job than you, you know you are really bad. The country subjects you to rigorous checks and due diligence before letting you in. I can’t even begin to talk about Rwanda’s efficiency at screening visitors into their territory. It’s unrivaled. Uganda does very little of that. That’s why cross border criminality is very common. Criminals can be caught on CCTV cameras and are never caught because they simple vanish back to wherever they came from, lie low for a while and return to commit more crimes. Surely that can’t be progressive. It is incompetence at its worst, in running a state.

I was recently part of an assignment to conduct an assessment of the Humanitarian situation in the country. Since independence in 1962, Uganda has had a tumultuous sociopolitical history that, to give credit where it is due, abated with the coming into power of Museveni’s National Resistance Movement in 1986. Shortly thereafter however, a civil war in which the Lord’s Resistance Army and the government fought in Northern Uganda caused mayhem until hostilities ceased in 2005. In addition, the country has faced, and in many ways continues to face natural and man-made disasters such as floods, landslides, tribal conflict, cross-border skirmishes in the North East, and an edgy political environment.

The volatile great lakes region Uganda is in the middle of has also meant that for many years the country has hosted and continues to host refugees from the neighboring countries of South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda and DR Congo. These, among other factors have made the country a hotbed of humanitarian action over the years, and a focus of the global humanitarian elite.

It is this history that has, in part made the country to enact robust Humanitarian policies and frameworks with the help of the UN system and Western donors, many of which are then considered best practices internationally but which are never put in practice. As the adage goes, policy and practice are two different things.

Having a Ministry for refugees, which would immediately collapse without the UNHCR funding (because the ministry is not a government priority when allocating the national budget) does not show a country committed at heart to the plight of refugees. Having a minister for refugees, appointed as part of the wider complicated calculus of the president’s patrimonial distribution of jobs to different tribes to hold onto power in this country of 65 ethnic groups and 43 languages is no deliberate effort to help refugees. After all, our 80 ministers include The Minister for ‘National Guidance’, The Minister for ‘Ethics and Integrity’, and ‘The Minister Without Potfolio!’

Having refugee committees in districts that are entirely useless without the UN and Western donors, denotes the same cosmeticism.

I have been to refugee ‘host communities’, districts bearing the blunt of the South Sudan refugee calamity. In Adjumani and Moyo districts, has anyone spoken to these natives on what they make of the mammoth fracas that has engulfed them? Some of these districts are some of the poorest in the entire country. The enormous burden refugees are adding on the already barely existing public services is indescribable. A school that already had a terrible teacher:pupil ratio, say 1:300 per class is now forced to fit 1000 kids in that same class. A small health center/clinic that barely had enough supplies for the local population has to make amends with a multiplication of numbers of clients it has to serve, most from the refugee population. The devastation of the environment as a million people collect firewood and till a small piece of land, the destruction of the already impassable roads by heavy relief carrying trucks, is too much for the local people to stomach. The government or donors do very little, if anything to increase dispatches of materials to cater for this avalanche of increase in population. Yet the local people have no right to even complain about this injustice. Recently I was in Yumbe district, the epicenter of this crisis (the famous Bidi Bidi, Africa’s largest refugee camp is found here), and local youth were staging a demonstration, a rarity in this reclusively brutal regime, attacking the big international charities that have blanketed this area, complaining that they bring their own workers and do not give any jobs to the locals who are qualified for them. They destroyed signs (there are so many signs in this area, you can call it the signpost capital of the world; many fighting for visibility). The RDC (Resident District Commissioner – The president’s ear in each district, normally a paramilitary officer, part of the complex patronage system the regime uses to police the state) easily quashed the protest before any international news picked it up. Because of these frustrations, resentment of local communities is not far off the surface and can you blame them? Some see refugees and the ‘largesse’ from the UNHCR given exclusively to them as unfair (Some refugees sell their relief items to their poor hosts!). People in many parts of Uganda are dying of hunger and others are in serious food shortages and yet we continue this international charade of ‘welcoming’ the helpless we cannot afford to look after.

hungerThe Daily Monitor last year reported of people dying of Hunger in Uganda. This year, the crisis has worsened

Don’t get me wrong; Ugandans understand what it means to be displaced due to our tumultuous history. I personally come from Kisoro, a tiny enclave in the extreme south west sandwiched between the Democratic Republic of The Congo and Rwanda. I was a refugee onetime, an internally displaced person when the RPF-Habyarimana bombs in 1994 could spill over and kill some of our people. At some point during that time we hosted 3 Rwandan refugee families in our own home.

What is disgusting  in this international chorus of praise of Museveni’s ‘progressive’ refugee policies is its lack of context and understanding of Museveni the politician. His incursion into South Sudan on the side of Salva Kiir’s SPLA when he fell out with his Veep Riech Machar in 2013 exacerbated this refugee calamity in the first place. Many analysts believe Riech Marchar would have won that war in weeks had Museveni not intervened since most principals in the conflict disagreed with Kiir’s ‘sole candidature’ plot and his unconstitutional tendencies and, in the beginning at least, Machar had the upper hand. Museveni’s intervention may have reduced deaths at the start but was actually catastrophic in that it prolonged the war and led, in part at least, to the current crisis.

20170809_150142There are ‘too many’ NGOs, local officials told me, that they barely know who is doing what – Picture taken in Yumbe District, near the Uganda-South Sudan Border

Finally, those that initially praised Uganda’s efforts are now starting to raise important questions, questions which should have been raised from the very beginning. Questions of readiness. Headlines have now flipped to read; “Uganda at Breaking point with South Sudan Refugees”; ‘Fear of Disease Outbreaks’, ‘Chaos on the Horizon as Uganda struggles with refugee influx’, etc. How anyone couldn’t have seen this coming in 2013 is beyond my comprehension. Uganda’s refugee policy therefore is incompetent and naive to say the least, and this is neither good for the refugees nor the long suffering Ugandans hosting them. Once you tell this one sided story of success, you deny the world a chance to critically look at the situation and help Uganda to do a better job.

Let’s look at other cunning acts president Museveni has done to placate the Western World so it turns a blind eye to his dictatorial tendencies at home.


There is no sadder story than the incursion of UPDF into Somalia to the Ugandan citizen. Our army was the first to put boots on the ground when Somalia was literally a failed state, ungovernable, and when the medievally brutal Islamic Courts Union (now Alshabab) were still fully in charge of most of that country. Our poor sons and daughters were bundled on old Russian planes and flown to Mogadishu so we could start our bidding for the U.S and other Western ‘Allies’ as our president is a champion of the ‘war on terror’ in the great lakes region and The Horn Of Africa.

Museveni did not seek parliamentary approval for such an undertaking that was soon going to result in thousands of body bags containing barely 21 year old Ugandan infantrymen dying for a project whose objectives they barely knew. Of course Museveni sold this whole thing from a pan African perspective. A fellow African country (well Somalia then was really not even a ‘country; there was no State to talk about) is in trouble so we have to help. With no regard to the casualties he surely knew would be of tragic proportions, our strongman sent our young boys and girls to die so he could burnish his international credentials as the stabilising factor of the Great Lakes region and the Horn Of Africa. Sure enough the American Dollars and the EU Euros poured in. Our long suffering rank and file troops would soon be lucky to be among those with such an abrupt chance to go and earn $400 a month. Who could blame them when the average salary among these long suffering troops is about $100 a month when they are serving at home?

And so the body bags began returning. Unlike in America where a town comes out in force to welcome the remains of a young hello that has fallen fighting overseas, ours return in the dead of the night. Wailings take place in far-flung villages by inconsolable mothers in their hurts, quietly burying sons they barely knew the cause for which they died. Nobody knows exactly how many Ugandan troops have died in Somalia since our first incursion there in 2007. But conservative estimates put the number from low thousands to over ten thousand. Who are these dead troops? What are their names? Which part of the country do they come from? Do/did they have families, kids? That we have no privilege of ever knowing.

Uganda now has troops in South Sudan, Central African Republic and Of course Somalia under the same ‘Pan Africanism’ mantle. Few of those missions, if any are in the national interest. But they serve a very important purpose for one man. Selling Museveni’s  ‘Strong, anti-terrorist, statesman, pan-African’ image to the West and the Rest of Africa, which keeps the dollars coming in, which dollars subsidize the runaway corruption of his generals and provide a little bit of public goods where his thieving henchmen has meant that it is impossible for the state to provide those goods sufficiently on its own.

And so he stays in power because at least a significant chunk of the population doesn’t go hungry, a few kilometres of roads are built, and the Ugandan, instead of erupting at the colossus of his exploitation, now is a little content that he can ‘at least sleep’ (unlike in the Idi Amin days), and eat, even if barely, so he chooses to keep quiet, to die another day.

The ‘Progressive Refugee Policy’ farce serves the exact same purpose for the Museveni regime.


Bernard Sabiti is a Ugandan researcher and analyst of African politics

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