By Judd Devermont
In the final days of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, a handful of African governments raised their hands to host Afghan refugees. Rwanda and Uganda among others offered to welcome anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand refugees into their country.
These African governments—in stark contrast to some European countries that quickly shut their doors to displaced Afghans—see a moral imperative to respond. They also spy an opportunity to extract geopolitical concessions from the international community.
The offer of assistance from African nations should be welcomed, appreciated, and understood from humanitarian and geopolitical perspectives but note that;
Rwanda and Uganda, which have accepted 250 and 2,000 refugees, respectively, have similar motivations to accede to U.S. requests to host the refugees. Uganda’s Foreign Ministry cited its “long history and tradition” of offering sanctuary to displaced persons. In The Conversation, researcher Evan Easton-Calabria notes that Uganda started hosting Polish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe in the 1940s and subsequently has welcomed Burundians, Congolese, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Rwandans, South Sudanese, and Sudanese. Known for its pioneering efforts to give access to education, land ownership, and other rights to refugees.
Uganda hosts almost 1.5 million refugees, the largest in Africa. Rwanda has hosted refugees for two decades, and many of its leaders, including President Paul Kagame, grew up in camps in neighbouring countries.
While Uganda’s refugee intake is larger, Rwanda’s traumatic history—including an ethnic pogrom in 1959, a civil war in the 1990s, and the genocide in 1994—is undoubtedly one of the reasons why it opened its doors to the globally downtrodden.
These principled drivers, however, only partly explain Ugandan and Rwandan enthusiasm for opening their doors to the Afghans. Uganda receives more foreign assistance than its neighbours in large part because of its approach to hosting forcibly displaced people, funds that have benefited refugees and host communities alike in a country with regular economic challenges. Both countries face growing international criticism for their anti-democratic rule and human rights records and probably view their acceptance of Afghan refugees as an opportunity to soften their international images and dissuade foreign partners from imposing sanctions or other punitive measures.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, presided over a 2020 election so discredited that the United States refrained from even deploying an observation team. President Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan has tweeted about Uganda’s poor human rights record and the State Department imposed visa sanctions this year.
Museveni, as he has with his peacekeeping and counterterrorism contributions, almost certainly hopes that hosting Afghan refugees might spare him from further negative geopolitical repercussions. While Rwanda’s Kagame is less exposed than his former comrade-in-arms Museveni, he has been under international scrutiny for his arrest of Hotel Rwanda hero Paul Rusesabagina and a recent exposé about the murder of a former Rwandan intelligence chief in South Africa.
In the past, he has threatened to evict refugees if the international community criticizes his country’s activities, demonstrating his willingness to use perceived generosity as a geopolitical tool. Kagame may expect his offer to shelter Afghan schoolgirls, as well as faculty and staff of the country’s only boarding school for girls, the School of Leadership Afghanistan (SOLA), as insurance ahead of more international condemnation, therefore, it is said that these leaders’ love is aimed at reshaping their ‘dictatorial’ image with the western world.
The Writer, Judd Devermont is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.