Refugee conference, A Great Week for Uganda

By Ofwono Opondo

Two very well attended big conferences by heads of government held back-to-back in Kampala this week by President Yoweri Museveni, first on the protection and collaboration on the Nile basin, a great watershed feeding twelve countries, and then the solidarity summit for refugees residing in Uganda continue to demonstrate international confidence in Uganda’s leadership. President Museveni in partnership with the United Nations (UN) Secretary General Antonio Guterres held the Uganda Solidarity Summit on Refugees aimed primarily to mobilise international awareness, resources and support needed to handle the unfolding crisis in the Great Lakes region. While there are six countries among them Libya, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Burundi, and South Sudan that can been categories either as in extreme crisis or failing states, the later is a major sore in the eyes of the African Union (AU) and UN.
As a consequence of the dismal performance of the AU and UN, what began as an internal political party disagreement within the ruling South Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) has spiraled out of control into an international crisis with over one million refugees since the conflict exploded in December 2013. Although dubbed as a “Comprehensive Agreement,” the accord that returned Dr Riek Machar as Vice President was shaky because it provided for bellicosity and in-effectual leadership that that caused a stalemate. The eventual breakdown in July 2016 began the new round of massive refugee exodus that continues unabated to-date with 2000 entering daily through Uganda’s northern borders.
Due to Uganda’s open door policy and pan-Africanism it currently hosts more than 1.2million refugees, 739,870 of them registered as South Sudanese who entered between July 2016 and June 2017 alone. Uganda seeks to raise USD 2 Bn USD (71 trillion) to provide for these refugees. Of these, 535,363 are below eighteen years meaning most of them need immunization, critical health services, education, food and shelter-the most basics of life. Uganda by all standards has met and continues to shoulder its domestic and international obligations towards refugees both in policy and practice. The summit brought together around 500 stakeholders among them Heads of government, UN, international financial institutions, international NGOs, private sector, and academia. It created an opportunity to translate their recent commitments into action for refugees and host communities in Uganda.
While it is convenient to blame those holding political power in countries where crisis currently exist as in South Sudan or Burundi for failing to manage state affairs, one critical issue that doesn’t gain prominence these days is how the world reached this point in South Sudan and other places. South Sudan was let down by world bodies which didn’t take the necessary strong actions when problems began.
In Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, global politics by the US and its Western European allies is primarily to blame. In Iraq, as in Libya, it was the US under George W. Bush and Barrack Obama respectively with their allies who stoked the fires they have failed to extinguish.
In spite of advance warning mainly from Uganda that South Sudan conflict needed robust and unwavering united response, the AU and UN dragged feet for discredited self-serving, and Africa’s own inability to solve basic problems. Instead, Uganda received condemnation from some quarters who reasoned that its presence in S. Sudan was fanning the conflict. But Uganda was equally lauded by regional governments for its initial timely response which stopped the bloodletting.
The critics demanded that Uganda withdrawals from S. Sudan, and left no clear and effective agenda on how the vacuum left by the UPDF would be filled, and hence the breakdown of July 2016, and indeed the guns have never gone silent and refugees continue to pour out.
Therefore, all stakeholders apart from raising much needed resources must provide for scenarios for dealing in a fundamental way with the causes and push factors why refugees live their countries, and can’t fine easy sanctuaries. With hindsight, many may be tempted to believe that had Uganda been supported to remain in South Sudan, most the dead or refugees wouldn’t have met this fate so soon.
Some political cavaliers like Kizza Besigye have tried to give a simplistic diagnosis and solutions to the refugee problems in our region. To Besigye and his ilk, Museveni is the war monger and therefore the main cause of conflicts and failed states on the continent. It seems, Besigye’s squinted political glass as an NRM turn-coat doesn’t permit him to remember clear historical facts as to why Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo, Somalia, and now Libya have disintegrated into stateless and ungovernable nations including occasioning genocide.
Perhaps Besigye may not know that as result of the 1923, 1959 and 1969 crisis in Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire and Kenya many refugees who fled into Uganda over time became naturalized citizens, much earlier than Museveni had come on to the national political scene.
Africa needs an internationally drawn mechanism forbidding any rebel activity on the continent to prevent the creation of political sanctuaries for those, like Dr Machar, who become unreasonably intransigent and resort to armed conflict whenever political disputes emerge. The AU or the Inter-Government Authority on Development (IGAD) should have been given a mandate for peace enforcement that includes forceful disbarment of renegades in South Sudan as is the case in Somalia.