Eduard is standing under the midday sun. He is still holding his notes from the talk he just gave before a group of South Sudanese refugees living on the territory of his community, in the settlement of Rhino, in the far northwestern corner of Uganda. He explains to us that no matter how difficult the situation may be, the host community and the refugees are getting along, and there are no conflicts over land. However, the limited access to arable land, in a very arid region, results in a relatively low level of food production, which is compounded by the problem of the water supply during the dry seasons.
Eduard’s speech before the assembly was centered on the problem of shade. Many daily activities can only be carried out when there is shelter from the torrid sun, and some of the few trees that are still there are being cut down by refugee families to use for cooking instead of charcoal, both on account of the costs and the delays in the distribution of the latter.
In the district of Arua, where the Rhino settlement is located, more than a fifth of the population is made up of South Sudanese refugees. It is a region of Uganda that has recently suffered violence at the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony, a land that saw the flight of the armed forces during the fall of Amin Dada, a marginal land populated by Nilotic tribes, different from the Bantu tribes of the fertile southern regions.
Despite the proximity of this region to the border with South Sudan, few seem to know about the peace agreement signed in Addis Ababa on Sept. 12 between the South Sudanese president Salva Kiir and the former vice president and leader of the main opposition group, Riek Machar. The refugees we interviewed were skeptical, remembering the fragility of past agreements and the renewed outbreak of violence that followed the start of the conflict. Their stories are different, but all seem to paint the same overall picture: ambushes, nighttime escapes, families divided, the dead abandoned in the streets.
During the long process of consultation that led Kiir and Machar to the negotiating table, Uganda and Sudan put themselves forward as guarantors of the agreements, and welcomed the ensuing peace as a personal diplomatic success for their leaders. For Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the main issue is moving Kiir’s South Sudan under the protection of Kampala, which is yet another round in the country’s eternal dispute with Ethiopia for hegemony in the Horn of Africa. Here too, the script is the same as in many other conflicts: Uganda has been both a great peacemaker and at the forefront of both arms sales and the reception of fleeing civilians.
The Ugandan refugee system allocates a plot of land for each family, with freedom of movement on national soil and their addition to the lists for food and water distribution. For now, the situation seems to be stable, but no one can say what prospects these refugees ultimately have: will they become integrated as Ugandan citizens in the future? Will they return to their countries of origin? Will they establish new communities? The risk they are facing is that of not being able to escape from their condition of dependence on humanitarian aid, or that thousands of people would be left without a specific legal status, neither citizens nor refugees, in a sort of purgatory that the arid landscape around us already seems to embody perfectly.
A recent joint investigation by the Ugandan government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) revealed that the authorities in Kampala have overestimated the number of refugees in the country by more than 300,000. The investigation, which lasted over eight months, led in March to the suspension of the Ugandan government’s Commissioner for the refugee crisis, Apollo Kazungu, together with three other officials working under him, accused of conspiracy together with staff from the UNHCR and the World Food Program. The Prime Minister’s office explained that the large disparity between the numbers of refugees shown by biometric surveys and those on the government’s lists can be justified by the enormous number of people who have flocked to Uganda from South Sudan between 2016 and 2017, taking into account that some would no longer be found by subsequent censuses. However, there are too many fictitious names and figures involved to leave any room for “system errors” as an explanation, casting a serious pall on the high-level international reputation that Uganda has built up around its migrant reception system.
Beyond the ignorance (whether willful or not) of the true number of refugees—in any case, we are talking about over a million people, in a country smaller than Italy—the major concern of Museveni’s government remains the well-known drastic cut in funding for humanitarian aid. Among the countries of the East African Community (EAC), Uganda has seen its funds for humanitarian aid cut to less than half, from $346 million in 2017 to $158 million in 2018, according to estimates by the Norwegian Refugee Council, which pointed out that the disappearance of funding goes hand in hand with the spread of conservative or right-wing administrations among the Western countries, which are the major sources of money.
In June 2017, during the Uganda Solidarity Summit on Refugees, in the presence of the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and of representatives of various nations, the Ugandan president made it clear—halfway between a promise and a warning—that if Uganda had to close its borders due to a lack of funds, many of the migratory flows that are currently going into the EAC countries could be diverted to the Horn of Africa and North Africa, a prospect that Europe would want to avoid at all costs, and which would push countries like Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia towards collapse.
Museveni’s celebration of the end of the South Sudanese conflict in Juba, where he himself was at the head of the peace march, is further proof that the 74-year-old African leader has no intention of withdrawing from the political scene, and that he intends to take advantage of the transformations that are affecting East Africa, taking advantage as much as he can of the crisis situations and the all-Western fears of an Africa that is hungry and on the move.
South Sudan, a fragile peace
On Sept. 12, in Addis Ababa, a peace agreement was signed which should put an end to the five-year conflict in South Sudan. The achievement of this goal was the result of a long consultation process led by the IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development), a commission representing the regional bloc of East Africa, under the “protection” of Uganda and Sudan as guarantors.
For South Sudan, this marks the beginning of a transition period of eight months, in which preparations will be made for the return to office of vice president Riek Machar, while Salva Kiir will hold on to the presidency. Then, another three-year period will follow, which will culminate in new elections for the country, which has been independent since 2011. The two political figures and bitter rivals, around whom the conflict that has led to more than four million displaced people has been playing out, took part together in the official peace ceremony that took place on Oct. 31 in Juba, the capital of South Sudan.
It remains to be seen whether this peace agreement could resolve the potent differences between the Dinka and the Nuer, the main ethnic groups to which Kiir and Machar respectively belong. And not only between them: during the years of conflict, other rebel groups have sprouted up that have advanced territorial claims, but have been excluded from the current peace agreement. For the time being, a peacekeeping force will be put together with soldiers from the IGAD countries, until the national army, loyal to Juba, manages to proceed with disarming of the population and securing the provisions of the ceasefire.