As Afghan refugees grow increasingly desperate, Museveni's Uganda sees lucrative gains

A supporter of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) wears a protective face mask printed with the portrait of President Yoweri Museveni [Getty Images]
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Yoweri Museveni, the Uganda dictator will reportedly take in 2,000 Afghan refugees at the request of the US. Uganda's people are generous, but this is a crowning moment for Museveni, long a 'useful autocrat' for the US.  

Uganda has granted these Afghan refugees temporary asylum, upon the basis that the US will get a breather to examine the refugees’ complex protection claims, and possibly resettle them in America or elsewhere around the world.

For starters, Museveni, is a beleaguered autocrat who has ruled Uganda for 35 years. In January 2021, he won a bloody election littered with serious allegations of torture, police killings, abductions and ballot fiddling. However, the geo-political relevance of Uganda in Africa's volatile Great Lakes and Horn of Africa region puts Museveni in that special class of despots the US cannot afford to stop working with.

After a disorganised and humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US seem not to care much about who it reaches out to as long as it can get a relief on the overwhelming refugee dilemma on its hands.

"Museveni, the president of Uganda, has weaponized his people's generous attitude towards refugees to hide his brutal tactics towards pro-democracy rivals in Uganda"

Uganda's warm spirit

Ugandans have won wide acclaim over the last decades for sheltering millions fleeing strife in Somalia, Congo, South Sudan and elsewhere. According to the UNHCR Uganda is home to Africa's largest refugee population. 1, 4 million currently refugees reside in Uganda. The warm spirit of Ugandans cannot be praised enough.

On top of this number, Afghans have started arriving. On 25 August, the first batch of Afghan refugees to be transferred to Uganda landed aboard a private chartered plane and would be housed in hotels, The New Arab reported.  “Uganda people have a long tradition of welcoming refugees and other people in need,” tweeted the US embassy in Uganda excitedly.

Clever autocrat

Therein lies the problem.

Museveni, the president of Uganda, has weaponized his people's generous attitude towards refugees to hide his brutal tactics towards pro-democracy rivals in Uganda, thus cementing his damaging grip on power.

“Yoweri Museveni is an autocrat, through and through. He is also a clever one,” argues Jeffrey Smith, the director of Vanguard Africa, a non-profit working to advise pro-democracy actors in African states.  

Museveni's Uganda are using the Afghan refugee crisis as a means to appear benevolent to its international benefactors [Getty Images]
Museveni's Uganda have used the Afghan refugee crisis as a means to appear benevolent to its international benefactors [Getty Images]

Smith mused on how Museveni will earn political and diplomatic profit from promptly answering Biden's call to host vulnerable Uganda refugees.

Several factors make Museveni so useful to the US, who are prepared to overlook serious torture allegations levelled against his regime.

First, the CIA sees Museveni in Uganda as a crucial pivot against the Islamist menace in East Africa. “The so-called war-on-terror that keeps Uganda rulers flush with dollars and makes Museveni so special that his troops deployed in Somalia travel in mine-resistant vehicles that once ferried American soldiers around Afghanistan. Museveni is among America’s most reliable allies, never hesitating to send Ugandan troops on behalf of U.S. interests to influence the outcomes of regional conflicts in Somalia; South Sudan; Congo; Burundi,” says exiled and fierce Museveni critic, Mr. Yasin Kakande, the TEDX speaker of the seminar “What´s Missing from the Global Debate about Refugees”.

“Museveni plays a role akin to the head of a brokerage firm for rebels, rebellions and peace missions on behalf of America.”

Museveni has become the chief volunteer, quick to soak up US errors in Somalia, in Afghanistan. The aegis of the so-called war on terror has kept Museveni busy dispatching Ugandan troops to fight in America’s wars and support their operations, in Africa and elsewhere.

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The effects of Museveni's quick move for Afghanistan refugees will be varied. This will be profitable for Museveni personally, but deepen the yoke of dictators that ordinary Ugandans live with. Afghans arriving in Uganda, still vulnerable from the US withdrawal, are pawns on the Museveni chess board.

“Welcoming and resettling Afghan refugees is not an altruistic act on the part of Museveni, but rather a shrewd political manoeuvre. It follows a well-worn script: help to clean up America’s mess with the expectation that such assistance will curry favour in Washington and thereby allow the regime to literally get away with murder at home,” says Smith.

He calls this tactic: wash, rinse, repeat.

In the aftermath of the dubious Uganda elections in January, criticism of and a spotlight on the Museveni dictatorship was arguably brighter than ever. The US turned on the heat, even imposing visa embargoes on Museveni's security detail that stood accused of torturing pro-democracy activists and election tampering. 

"Shifting refugees to Uganda deepens a pattern of rich states dumping their refugee responsibilities to client African countries"

Cornered, “It is not surprising, then, that Museveni is now (suddenly) welcoming and resettling Afghan refugees,” muses Smith.

Seeing how Museveni is back in the good graces of the US, the US sanctions on Museveni appear to lack substance.

“The sanctions are just another PR tactic aimed at the American public, which has begun to question rigorously their government’s support for Museveni. These sanctions have not affected Museveni and his men in any way,” argues Kakande, the Uganda critic.

Refugees and quick cash

In fact, the trickling of Afghan refugees into Uganda has a double financial effect. First, accommodating refugees in five-star hotels is a publicity stunt that is unsustainable, in light of Uganda's floundering economy.

But on the flip side, Afghan refugee presence could be a financial boost to the coffers of Museveni and his elite men. “The US supported institutions such as the IMF have continued to dole out large sums of money in loans to prop up Museveni’s regime. Museveni and team are entrusted with these big IMF loans,” reveals Kakande.

Ostensibly used as political pawns, how will the 2,000 Afghan refugees adjust to life in Uganda? [Getty Images]
Ostensibly used as political pawns, how will the 2,000 Afghan refugees adjust to life in Uganda? [Getty Images]

Uganda is not in any reasonable shape to accommodate responsibly and adequately refugees. It is already straining its resources by hosting refugees from the forgotten wars of Somalia, South Sudan, The Congo, Rwanda and Eritrea.

“Look at the brutal migration of Uganda´s own citizens, fleeing unemployment and poverty in their homeland to Gulf Arab countries, working as domestic servants even if they have had a good education,” argues Kakande who has authored the book Slave States: The Practice of Kafala in Gulf Arab Countries, whose theme is immigrant labor slavery in some Gulf Arab countries, and organized emergency aid for some Uganda´s laborers stuck in dangerous jobs in Dubai and Qatar.

“Those deserving, innocent Afghan refugees, what are they going to do in poverty stricken Uganda, as they try assimilate into the communities and gain a sustainable livelihood?”

Political machinations

So, the machinations behind this latest generosity towards Afghan refugees were schemed up by Museveni's ministers, argues Kakande. Kakande points to the seemingly sophisticated charade of paid social media trolls that ran pro-regime propaganda as soon word emanated that Afghan refugees would be coming to Uganda.

Some of the pro-regime trolls, even Uganda ministers who are expected to be exemplary, dabbled in shameful sexist attitudes towards the coming Afghan refugees.

“Ugandan social media spaces were awash with silly suggestions that any new-borns in Uganda likely are going to be biracial: Ugandan and Afghani, it was a calculated political tactic initiated by one of Museveni’s ministers,” says Kakande.

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West shirks refugees to autocrats

The nature of global politics has evolved significantly in the 21st century, and outsourcing refugees elsewhere can placate xenophobic anti-immigrant voices and win votes. It's not only Uganda that does this. Shifting refugees to Uganda deepens a pattern of rich states dumping their refugee responsibilities to client African countries. Israel departed asylum seekers of Eritrean ethnicity to Rwanda. The US is also talking to Sudan about hosting Afghans.

Museveni understands this trend in the West and has spotted a gap to repair his image.

But this comes with bad future implications. “(Refugee deals) have made his (Museveni´s) already oppressive regime even more sinister, the regime has expertly played Washington in a way that has allowed Museveni to bulldoze and to destroy any semblance of democracy at home,” says Smith.

Sooner or later, the West will realise it is not sustainable to continue dumping desperate refugees in a country where a dictator is also desperate to be the seemingly “helpful guy” in order to consolidate his own power. 

Nyasha Bhobo is a journalist, and human rights activist. Her work appears in Rest of World, Newsweek and Reuters.

Kudakwashe Magezi is a freelance journalist and poet and political analyst. His work appears in Daily Maverick and New Internationalist.