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The Comfort of Strangers

Jinmi Adisa


Uganda: When Refuqees Go Home?

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1. Background : The pre-exodus situation

  • 1 The title is adapted from Tim Allen and Hubert Morinsk, When Refugees go Home. African experiences (...)

1The case of refugees in Uganda1 presents a sharp contrast to that of Tanzania. Whereas Tanzania has hosted a massive influx of Rwandans, Uganda experienced an exodus. The burden of the refugee presence in Tanzania is immediate and material. The situation in Uganda is political.

  • 2 Catherine Watson, Exile from Rwanda : Background to an invasion. US Committee for Refugees, Washin (...)

2Uganda has been a refuge for fleeing Rwandans for more than 30 years. Between 1959 and 1964 almost half of the Rwandans that fled from Rwanda — about 100,000 — went to Uganda. By 1991, Catherine Watson estimated that the number of Rwandans in Uganda was about 1.3 million out of a population of 18 million.2 Three main population groups in Uganda were identified :

  • 450 000 Ugandan Banyarwandan, i.e., indigenous Ugandans who are descendants of Rwandan families who found themselves in Uganda as a result of the colonial partition of 1918.
  • 650 000 economic migrants who came to find work in Uganda
  • 84 000 refugees (UNHCR registered figures for 1992)
  • 3 Workshop on Uganda and Refugees, Makerere University, 20 September, 1993. See also Y.R. Barongo, U (...)

3Most of the refugees were in Southwest Uganda. Eight camps were established in Uganda for refugee resettlement, seven were founded between 1962 and 1966 and one in 1982. Many refugees, however, left the camps and integrated into local society. In 1993, Dr. Stephen Chebrot, the Deputy Minister of Local Government, estimated that between 150 000 and 300 000 Rwandans were spontaneously resettled.3

  • 4 Goran Lindgren, Kjell-Ake Nordquist and Peter Wallersteen. 1993. Experiences from Conflict Resolut (...)

4The camps were more or less permanent and resembled villages more than refugee bases.4 Most of the inhabitants were elderly first generation refugees. The bulk of second generation refugees, except the poorly educated, or those who opted to assist their parents or tend family cattle, had moved out to various urban centres. The camps had been handed over to the Ugandan authorities. Moreover, although food aid continued till 1988, most refugees had become self-sustaining. They were able to feed themselves and even produce surplus for sale. In 1993, only 11 000 of the refugees, who arrived in 1990 in the aftermath of the Tutsi-led RPF invasion, were assisted by UNHCR.

2. Fortunes of the Rwandan Refugees

  • 5 See Jason Clay, The eviction of Banyarwanda — The story behind the refugee crisis in Southwest Uga (...)

5The refugees worked hard to gain acceptance into Ugandan society. Their fortunes have fluctuated according to the whims and caprices of different regimes which have used them to advance their own political interests. The Ugandan census, conducted in 1959 before the arrival of the refugees, listed the Banyarwanda as the sixth biggest ethnic group after the Baganda, Iteso, Banyankole, Basoga and Bakiga. Even so, Ugandans have always viewed the Banyarwanda genetically as foreigners.5

6Integration of the refugees into Ugandan society was facilitated by several factors. First was the presence of a pool of indigenous Banyarwanda who provided a local texture into which the refugees could merge. Second was the demand for labour. Third was their physical appearance. The Banyarwanda were attractive people who intermarried with Ugandan men and women. Yet the tag of foreigner was enduring, sustaining the ambivalent attitude of Ugandans towards the refugees, making them prey to political machinations. In the 1960s, the Uganda Peoples’ Congress (UPC) of Milton Obote with its social base in Ankole and its protestant bias, was suspicious of the predominantly Catholic Banyarwanda. The UPC feared that most of the refugees who had moved out of the camps would vote (en masse) against the Obote government. Consequently, the UPC government planned a census of indigenous Banyarwanda which many suspected was a ruse for political exclusion. However, before the government could conduct the census, the regime was overthrown by Idi Amin in 1979.

7Idi Amin perceived the Banyarwanda as natural allies against Obote and his supporters. As a resuit the Banyarwanda were absorbed into various civil service positions and other institutions and gained high positions in the dreaded Security Service. The high profile of the Banyarwanda in the Amin regime set the stage for the repercussions which followed when Obote returned as president in 1980. The political persécution of the Banyarwanda generated negative socio-political reactions leading to claims and counter-claims regarding ownership of land and property. Obote indulged in anti-Banyarwanda rhetoric ; this incited local chiefs, UPC youths and paramilitary forces to attack the Banyarwanda. This impelled many Banyarwanda (in the early 1980s) to join the insurgent National Résistance Army (NRA), led by Yoweri Museveni, which in turn led to more persecution. The situation culminated in the mass expulsion of the Banyarwanda in 1982. More expulsions were carried out in. 1983. A reign of terror was also inaugurated in the Luwero Triangle, leading to the death of thousands of Banyarwanda.

8In 1985, when the political wing of the NRA, the National Résistance Movement (NRM), took control of most of Western Uganda, the Banyarwanda had become one of the largest ethnic groups in the résistance movement. They constituted about 2-3,000 of the 14,000 NRA when Kampala was captured in 1986. Their participation in the liberation war and their prominence in the NRM brought the Rwandan refugee issue once again to the fore, as local resentment was still high. The large numbers of Rwandan refugees in the NRM represented a rallying point for the opposition. This was particularly so in eastern and northern Uganda where the NRM was fighting against the rebels of the Ugandan Peoples’ Democratic Movement (UPDM). The rebels alleged that the NRM was an ‘occupation force of Rwandan mercenaries’. The NRM embarked on a pacification exercise. Once the rebellion subsided, however, the NRM, sensitive to political interpretation, began to sideline the Rwandans in its military and political ranks.

9The political situation convinced the Rwandans that whatever their contribution they could not expect to be treated as full citizens of Uganda. This encouraged them to muster their forces to reclaim the homeland. The NRM political and military ranks, in turn, harboured a guilt complex about the treatment of the Rwandans and provided some measure of logistic and political support. The 1990 invasion of the RPF from Uganda set the stage for the return from exile in 1994.

3. The Exodus and Its Impact

10The re-empowerment of a new Tutsi regime in Rwanda was regarded by some Banyarwanda as a ‘dream come true’. In July 1994, several Banyarwanda travelled to Rwanda on a reconnaissance mission. As it became obvious that the Tutsi-dominated regime was relatively stable, the Banyarwanda embarked on spontaneous repatriation. Camps were emptied, leaving only the aged or vulnerable or those without resources to travel. The ‘pull of the homeland’ appeared irresistible to the Banyarwanda. This reverse of the political fortunes created a wave of Hutu refugees from Rwanda, who, cognizant of the history of the close relationship between the RPF and the NRM in Uganda, fled to Tanzania, Zaire and Burundi.

  • 6 The numbers dwindled. At the time of my first visit to Oruchinga in May 1995, Saturday Joseph, the (...)

11About 10,000 Hutus came to Uganda and they were camped at Kisoro and Ntungamo and ultimately relocated to Oruchinga, an abandoned Tutsi settlement (figure 6).6 The new refugees posed few problems because of their small numbers. There were jeers and catcalls as Tutsi returnees passed through the camps ; but only one minor incident occurred in which one Tutsi man trying to spear Hutu children only succeeded in wounding a fellow Tutsi. In terms of emergency relief, the donor community was sensitive to the plight of the Hutu refugees, courtesy of the news media. Hence there was a surplus of provisions. "The difficulty we had," commented a UNHCR programme offïcer, "was that some relief organizations went in and started distributing things without coordination." Therefore, in contrast to their brethren in Tanzania, the Hutu refugee needs in Uganda easily were met.

  • 7 New Vision, ‘Kampala (13 July 1994).

12Few Ugandans felt the impact of the new refugees. The main problems felt by Ugandans were caused by the Tutsi returnees. These problems varied. First, the exit of refugees encouraged local encroachment on the land the Tutsi had abandoned. In July 1994, Dr Erik Adriko, the Minister of Lands and Housing and Urban Development visited Oruchinga and Nakivale settlements and warned the interlopers that refugee lands were gazetted lands which must revert back to the government.7

13More significantly, the exodus of the refugees prompted steep increases in the price of meat which affected almost ail Ugandans. The pastoralist Tutsi left with their cattle and this had a telling effect on the supply of meat. Ugandan authorities complained that the movement of cattle spread diseases, but this appeared to be simply a pretext for justifying the imposition of a complicated set of permits which could impede the transfer of cattle. The Tutsi ignored such requirements.

Figure 6. Rwandan refugee settlements in Uganda

14In the remote areas of Ngoma and Wakyato, in Luwero district, the exodus of the Rwandans precipitated a more severe crisis. The two sub-counties are not optimally populated and both had a high concentration of Banyarwanda. Their spontaneous repatriation caused a depopulation crisis with tremendous social effects. Résistance Councillor III, Chairman Mr David Sekitto, observed that the Banyarwanda or balalo as they are commonly called, have been living in these counties for over 60 years.

About 5 000 people of Rwandan origin account for 60 % of the population. Their exodus left a gap in the social life of the community.

15This view was echoed in Ngoma by Résistance Councillor, Mr Kambuga Salongo, who stated that :

About 6 000 people or 70 per cent of the population were Banyarwanda. During ail the years of their stay they have become part and parcel of the economic and social activity of the community. A lot of revenue, in terms of taxes, has been collected from the Bayarwanda. Such money has been used to develop infrastructures such as roads, health units and schools. Many of them had herds of cattle and were taxed according to their wealth. A ‘poor’ Mulalo has about 50 cows. But the rich ones may have as many as 1 000.

16The ordinary people of Ngoma have deeper concerns. The area supplies Kampala city with cows for meat. Every Tuesday and Wednesday, over seven trucks full of cattle leave Ngoma for Kampala. Cattle traders usually arrive on Monday in preparation for cattle sales on the following day. On Tuesday, they buy and sell, load the trucks and engage in other activities.

17"The point here," says Robinah, who operates a restaurant, "is that during this time the traders spend money through eating, lodging, drinking and other channels... The traders (also) tell us what is happening in Kampala and other parts of Uganda."

18Musoga, a beer seller lamented, "Traders come this way because they want cattle and if the cattle holders leave, there will be no more business this end."

19The exodus also affected the education system. Schools for refugee children had to close because of the absence of teachers and pupils. The New Vision of 15 June 1994, reported that eight of such primary schools ; Rwekubo, Kyandira, Kyabwera in Rukinga ; and Juru, Kahilimbi, Rubondo, Kashojwa and Kabazaana in Nakivale, had closed following the exodus by teachers and pupils of Rwandan origin. The situation was the same with health clinics.

20In general, the departure of the Rwandans elicited mixed reactions in Uganda. The rise of meat prices affected the economy and many Ugandans resented the fact that their country had expended a lot of resources training the Rwandans as doctors, lawyers, teachers and professionals who were now in a hurry to go home. Others, particularly in urban areas, saw the exodus of Rwandan professionals as creating avenues for employment. Within this context, the immediate impact of the Rwandan exit put pressure on the administration in Kigali to provide conducive conditions for the rehabilitation of returnees ; UNHCR officials in Kampala hinted that Rwandan officials informally requested that Rwandan refugees in Uganda should be repatriated at a slower pace so that they could cope with the difficulties of rehabilitation in a war damaged economy.

21Against this background, the most important consideration among Ugandans is political. There is persisting disquiet about the political stability in Rwanda. Political leaders in Uganda wonder how long the current political conditions will last ; the prospect of a new wave of (Tutsi) refugees, arising from a see-saw conflict in which power changes unpredictably from Tutsi to Hutu, is a possibility which cannot be ignored. What happens if the refugees come back ? With millions of Hutu watching the events unfold in their country from across the borders in Tanzania, Burundi and Zaire, the likely scenarios are not attractive. There is, therefore, latent fear that renewed military confrontation in Rwanda may have a dramatic effect on regional political stability and especially the political equilibrium in Uganda.


1 The title is adapted from Tim Allen and Hubert Morinsk, When Refugees go Home. African experiences, United Nations Reserach Institute for Social Development and James Currey, London, 1994.

2 Catherine Watson, Exile from Rwanda : Background to an invasion. US Committee for Refugees, Washington D.C., 1991.

3 Workshop on Uganda and Refugees, Makerere University, 20 September, 1993. See also Y.R. Barongo, Uganda and the Problem of Refugees. Ford Foundation / Makerere Institute of Social Research, Refugees Studies Project, Kampala, 1994.

4 Goran Lindgren, Kjell-Ake Nordquist and Peter Wallersteen. 1993. Experiences from Conflict Resolution in the Third World Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala, Sweden.

5 See Jason Clay, The eviction of Banyarwanda — The story behind the refugee crisis in Southwest Uganda, Cultural Survival (August 1984) ; Jo Helle-valle, Refugee status and social stigma, MA thesis, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo, September 1984.

6 The numbers dwindled. At the time of my first visit to Oruchinga in May 1995, Saturday Joseph, the camp manager for Rwembogo put the total figure at 5,315 in spite of the daily trickle from Tanzania. What happened to the original refugees is a matter of guesswork but integration into local society on the abandonment of the camps is a strong possibility. Newspaper reports lend credibility to this option. For instance, New Vision (13 October 1994) reported that even at the initial stage, when refugees were being shifted from Kisoro and Ntungamo to Oruchinga, about 20 refugees who had settled in the local communities were hunted out by parish chiefs and brought to the attention of Kisoro leaders.

7 New Vision, ‘Kampala (13 July 1994).

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 6. Rwandan refugee settlements in Uganda
Fichier image/jpeg, 138k

© Institut français de recherche en Afrique, 1995

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