Tomorrow, the world gathers in Kampala for the Solidarity Summit on Refugees. The summit isn’t happening in Uganda by accident. Today Uganda’s generous refugee policy is being hailed all over the world.
However, it is not a new thing. Since independence, Uganda has generally been generous to refugees. And before that to migration, and no societies were more accepting – and profited from it - than Buganda and Ankole.
It is easy to forget this in the episodes of, especially, anti-Banyarwanda outbursts, that break out from time to time in these regions these days.
Today, as we approach the big refugee meet next week, we shall reflect on how these refugees impacted this country. For starters, though I am probably in the distinct minority on this, I don’t believe that the fact that Buganda and Ankole are the “most developed” parts of Uganda has to do with the privileges of past and present politics.
In fact I think having a president from your area, is a kind of moral hazard and usually damages the competitiveness of the next generation.
Because they use blood connections to get jobs, which are usually in the State sector, they could lose the hard work ethic, and spend less energy in the areas that require hard work, but create durable wealth in families – productive farming, and other back breaking work, e.g. being builders.
Yes, a president might privilege a small elite from his district, but that rarely translates into development for their area. It is not just Uganda. It’s the same all over Africa.
In Kenya, for example, you will hear that the reason the central part of the country is the richest (a fact which is changing) is because its first president Jomo Kenyatta was a Kikuyu from the area, and after Daniel arap Moi the next leader, Mwai Kibaki, etc.
But then many years ago, a clever World Bank economist, Robert H. Bates, came and worked in East Africa, and all these stories didn’t add up.
He wrote a book titled Beyond the Miracle of the Market: The Political Economy of Agrarian Development in Kenya. It is a book that shatters many myths about Kenya, and should come with the warning “only the most open minded people should read”.
Of the many brilliant insights he offers is that to fight the Mau Mau rebellion, the British colonialists built a very elaborate infrastructure of roads, telephone lines, and so forth to fight the revolutionaries. But then the war ended, and the “peace” came.
Now what was built for war, gave Kikuyuland an economic infrastructure that would take more than decades for the rest of the country to catch up with.
Same with Uganda. Without understanding migration of labour from Burundi, Rwanda and DR Congo of the early 20th Century, and the refugee influx that started from Rwanda in 1959, you cannot fully comprehend what happened in Buganda and Ankole.
There are many things that could be said, but we shall focus on two. First, most refugees over time don’t stay in camps in Uganda.
They move and become part of the wider society, which makes Ugandan attitudes to this matter different.
But in this transition, two opportunities present. First, they provide cheap labour that areas without refugees don’t get, allowing local entrepreneurs to grow richer faster.
But also because for most of their first years, they would not have made enough money to move and set up independently and live off their own land, they will be a captive market that buys almost everything they use and eat. Again, it enables local small business people to make money and accumulate more capital than those in the “refugeeless” parts.
Ankole did benefit more from the second wave of refugees in the 1960s, than Buganda, which was now growing from the influx of Ugandans from other parts of the country, who created a different dynamic all together, and that we have commented on in the past.
The second element of this refugee influx is a very politically incorrect one that scholars steer away, so you might read it first here.
It has to do with its impact on the market marriage, and how it remakes families. Basically, a kulak (a kind of rich peasant) in Sheema or Mbarara, could now marry a refugee, who was a princess back home, but had now fallen on hard times with her family.
Such refugee women were educated, and marrying local peasants, where these peasants would previously have had to settle for the illiterate girl from the next village, raised the parenting knowledge in their households and changed the prospects for their children dramatically.
This might be an uncomfortable issue, so perhaps the wise thing is to leave it here for now.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3