Why Kampala leads the world in civility to refugees

Tuesday February 07 2017

I am a bad nationalist. Nationalism tends to cloud the thinking.

I don’t stick with my country when it’s doing terrible things; I despise its leadership at those moments.

When it does great things though, I try to get as close as I can to the front to beat the drums of pride.

Few things make me feel proud of Uganda like reading newspaper articles about its refugee policies. So, here we go.

Unlike most countries, in Uganda the policy has historically been to get rid of tented plastic camps. Refugees are encouraged to move around and live as independent individuals, free to lease land, growing their own vegetables and raising their own goats.

Their children go to the same schools as other Ugandan children, and to the same hospitals. Since President Yoweri Museveni came to power in 1986, they can vote in local council elections. The path to citizenship still remains steep, but hey!


In the world of Donald Trump and Fortress Europe, where refugees and immigrants have become dirty words, the Uganda case is attracting attention for its uniqueness.

Of course, in decades past, there were a lot more such liberal attitudes towards refugees in Africa – in Houphouet Boigny’s Ivory Coast and, to an extent, Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania.

So why is Uganda this way? More recently, the argument has been that because the periods of unrest starting from the early 1970s ebbed only in 2006, Uganda is a country of refugees and exiles. Millions have fled the land over these decades, and many have returned.

Duality, and split families, have become deeply entrenched as the DNA of family in Uganda, and that has given birth to greater tolerance and acceptance of “others” – refugees, exiles.

But maybe not. There are many reasons, but for today it’s worth focusing on how religion and a unique political history seem to have contributed to this mindset.

Few countries in Africa ended the 19th century with as many rival kingdoms and chieftaincies in such a small area as Uganda did.

You couldn’t turn without stepping on a chief or king’s land.

The success of Ugandan kingdoms and chieftaincies was partly based on assimilating foreigners or co-opting them into the service of the realm.

The more accommodating kingdoms, like Buganda, thus found greater success. The lesson was learnt: Don’t chase away the outsider, turn him or her into your soldier or labourer.

Then there was religion. Because of the Protestant-Catholic rivalries, religion – especially Christianity – became much more serious business in Uganda than elsewhere.

After King Mwanga II between 1885 and1888 executed, and thus created, the Uganda Martyrs, the devout in the country soon came to see it as the Christian equivalent of Mecca for Islam.

And not without reason. When Janani Luwum was killed by military dictator Idi Amin in 1977, he was Archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Boga-Zaire.

You could not really be a good Protestant without spiritually rejecting the physical border between Uganda, DR Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.

And as an establishment Catholic, you couldn’t compete against the Protestants without embracing the idea that East and Central African Catholicism was unconstrained by its land borders.

Present refugee policy is partly the icing on that old cake.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. Twitter@cobbo3