The Murky Politics Behind Uganda's Agreement to Host Afghan Evacuees

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Friday, 10 September 2021

Sophie Neiman 
Friday, Sept. 10, 2021
KAMPALA, Uganda—Fifty-one Afghan evacuees arrived at Uganda’s international airport in Entebbe on a chartered flight on Aug. 25. They were shunted across the hot tarmac into buses and brought to lakeside hotels previously emptied due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Their arrival was the result of a deal Uganda made with the United States, in which Kampala promised to provide temporary shelter to some 2,000 “at risk” Afghan evacuees. The agreement was celebrated by Ugandan and American politicians, but the details of exactly how it came about, and the fate of the asylees themselves, remain shrouded in secrecy. The deal also further complicates the already messy relationship between the U.S. and Uganda. 

In January, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni won a sixth term in office following a blood-soaked election process. At least 54 people were gunned down by security forces in riots that erupted following the November arrest of opposition presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi—better known as Bobi Wine—for allegedly failing to respect COVID-19 guidelines. 

Security forces then surrounded Wine’s home on Election Day in January, placing him and his wife under an 11-day house arrest. And in the weeks and months that followed, hundreds of young men and women disappeared from the streets—detained, tortured or even killed—apparently for the simple crime of supporting the opposition. 

Sen. Chris Coons wrote on Twitter in January that he was “deeply disturbed” by the reports of post-election abuses in Uganda. And State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the U.S. was considering “a range of options” to hold accountable the security forces accused of suppressing opposition politicians and civil society activists. 

The U.S. then imposed visa bans on unnamed Ugandan officials “responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic process in Uganda,” with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying Uganda’s election was “neither free nor fair.”

Yet it is unclear what impact, if any, these actions had on Ugandan leaders. And by the time Afghan evacuees landed in Entebbe late last month, Washington had apparently moved on. The U.S. Embassy in Kampala praised the Ugandan government’s generosity and long history of hosting refugees, noting that Kampala “has once again demonstrated a willingness to play its part in matters of international concern.” Uganda currently hosts the largest population of displaced people in Africa—some 1.5 million people, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. The majority of them fled violence in nearby South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, conflicts that Ugandan forces have helped stoke under Museveni. 

Embassy staff in Kampala said the State Department’s communications policy prevented them from speaking to WPR without prior authorization, so they could provide no answers about why the U.S. chose to rely on a country it so recently condemned. 

Some experts say Washington’s abrupt shift is part of a familiar pattern. “We see these condemnatory statements in the wake of horrific events, but six months later, much of the content of those have stopped being raised with the [Ugandan] government,” said Maria Burnett, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who has spent more than a decade researching human rights in Uganda. “A year or two later, few diplomats remember the details of what happened, some have changed posts, and so the condemnation has very limited long-term impact.” 

Since first taking power in 1986, Museveni has positioned himself as a regional arbiter of American interests. “Museveni is very deft, and puts Uganda and Ugandans at the service of the West,” Abdullahi Boru Halakhe, a Washington-based security expert who focuses on East Africa, told WPR. 

    For all the confusion around the deal, it is clear that both the U.S. and Uganda stand to benefit.

Museveni does this mainly by establishing Uganda as an ally in America’s counterterrorism fight against al-Shabab, al-Qaida’s East African affiliate. Uganda contributes some 6,000 soldiers to the African Union Peacekeeping Mission in Somalia, making it the single largest contributor of troops fighting the militant group. The United States, for its part, provides Uganda with nearly $1 billion annually in what the State Department describes as security and development assistance. Washington has also sent Uganda the equivalent of roughly $270 million in military equipment since 2014, through the African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership, which supports countries involved in peacekeeping missions. 

Museveni’s political and military alignment with the U.S. may help shield him from international consequences for domestic human rights abuses, with Uganda’s willingness to host vulnerable Afghans the latest in a string of shrewd calculations, according to regional analysts.

“By agreeing to take in Afghan [asylees], Museveni adds to his armor,” said Moses Khisa, a Ugandan political scientist at North Carolina State University. 

Just days before the arrival of the first Afghan evacuees, the Ugandan government quietly suspended 54 nongovernmental organizations, citing vague issues of noncompliance with local laws. U.S. politicians and diplomats were silent in response. The shuttered organizations included the prominent advocacy law firm Chapter Four and the Africa Institute for Energy Governance, which raises awareness about abuses in Uganda’s oil sector, among other programs.

As for the Afghans themselves, there is little public information about their eventual fate. The U.S. has said it will foot the bill for hosting them in Uganda, but it remains unclear exactly how long they will be able to stay, what conditions they are living under or where they might be sent next. 

Reporters have been prevented even from speaking to them. Henry Waswa, a Ugandan journalist working for Germany’s Deutsche Press Agentur news agency, was accused of trespassing and arrested after attempting to interview Afghans at a hotel in Entebbe last month. Information is scarce, too, about when the rest of the 2,000 evacuees will be able to fly to Uganda. 

The deputy chief of mission at Uganda’s Embassy in Washington, Alfred Nnam, told WPR that the duration of the Afghan evacuees’ stay in Uganda depended on the speed with which their asylum claims could be processed. He denied allegations of opacity around the agreement with the U.S., adding that he hoped WPR’s coverage would not spoil the strong relations between Uganda and the U.S. 

For all the confusion around the deal, it is clear that both sides stand to benefit. Washington has been able to mitigate some of the embarrassment of its messy withdrawal from Afghanistan; Kampala appears magnanimous after a string of stinging critiques against its own domestic abuses, while remaining in Washington’s good graces.   

How much the Afghan evacuees—whom the deal was supposedly intended to help—will also gain seems open to question.

According to Achieng Akena, director of the International Refugee Rights Initiative, the obscure terms of the agreement make it hard for advocates like herself to speak clearly about the needs of refugees and asylum-seekers. “If things are not clear, then nobody can ask questions, because they just don’t know what to ask,” she said. 

* Sophie Neiman is a freelance reporter and photojournalist, covering politics, conflict and human rights in East and Central Africa. Her work has appeared in numerous outlets, including African Arguments, The Christian Science Monitor and The New Humanitarian.

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