Uganda to host Afghan refugees in Namboole

Afghans clinging on to a US Air Force plane that was leaving the country yesterday after the Taliban took over power. PHOTO/AFP

What you need to know:

  • Diplomatic matters. Government officials hold crisis meeting deep into the night to hammer out plans to host refugees fleeing the new regime in Kabul.
  • The first batch of refugees was expected on Monday but they did not come.

Senior Ugandan officials were last evening holding a crisis meeting to thrash out details of a plan to host at least 2,000 fleeing Afghan nationals at the request of the United States.

The government was plunged into public relations turmoil after a top bureaucrat whom President Museveni briefed about the secret state-to-state arrangement, impulsively disclosed it to juniors.

Subsequently, the new State Minister in-charge of Refugees, Ms Esther Anyakun, confirmed to this newspaper yesterday morning that President Museveni had endorsed the deal, much to the chagrin of State House.

“We expect to host them temporarily before they can be relocated by [the] US government. It was [a] request from the US government to His Excellency (President Museveni). We started the preparation yesterday (Monday),” the minister said by telephone.

Leak of the news prompted diplomats, political and security leaders to scramble to limit the potential damage about an inconclusive arrangement brokered between Washington and Kampala at the highest levels of government.

According to Ms Anyakun, Uganda would host 2,000 Afghan nationals temporarily — for three months or longer — with the emergency landing of the first batch expected in the country anytime.

The pioneer group of 500 was expected in the country on Monday night, but they did not land for unexplained reasons.

Uganda is among half-a-dozen African countries that United States has scouted, and courted, to host fleeing Afghan nationals after Taliban fighters, deposed by the American troops two decades ago, ousted Ashraf Ghani’s government and bounced back to power.

Washington pumped about $1 trillion over 20 years ostensibly to rebuild Afghanistan, strengthen its institutions for democratic governance and improve the country’s security after bombing out the Taliban it accused of hosting Al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, blamed for the September 11, 2001 attacks on US soil that killed more than 3,000 people.

But after two decades of fruitless war, with rising human toll and financial cost, the United States struck a peace deal with the Taliban negotiated in Doha, Qatar, a host of America’s Central Command Forward (Operating) Base at Ul-Udeid, and withdrew its troops from Afghanistan, leaving an exposed Ghani government crumbling within weeks of Taliban onslaught.

The Taliban fighters barrelled to power with limited resistance, capturing Kabul with ease to the world’s surprise, prompting the US to lead evacuation of trapped local allies and other fleeing citizens.

Mr Henry Oryem Okello, the State minister for International Cooperation, said Uganda, which is a regional security doyen and close US ally, was on Washington’s radar.  

In their first official press conference yesterday since grabbing power on Sunday, Mr Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, yesterday in major policy reversals painted a promising future of an “emancipated” central Asian country in which media freedom and rights of women would be respected, both within the framework of Sharia law.

He said they seek no enemies within and outside Afghanistan, will harm no American or foreign nationals in the country, announced amnesty for defeated Afghan troops and guaranteed security for fleeing Afghan national huddled at the airport in Kabul.

In Kampala, about 2,900 nautical miles away from Kabul, or 14 hours flight with a stop-over in Dubai, the unexpected disclosure of plans for 2,000 Afghans to seek refugee here sparked commotion in government.

Afghan Afghan families walk by the aircrafts at the Kabul airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan’s 20-year war. PHOTO/AFP

A hastily-convened afternoon press conference at Uganda Media Centre, the government communications clearing house, was aborted at the last minute after Refugees Minister Hilary Onek and his Foreign Affairs counterpart Gen Jeje Odongo, both expected to speak on the matter, did not show up.

Hours later, and following frantic consultations between State House, diplomats and other top officials, Foreign Affairs ministry in a statement noted that “discussions on the issue [of Uganda hosting Afghans] are still ongoing, and we will continue to provide updates as the situation develops/or when the final decision has been reached”.
It gave no timeline.

The statement detailed that the Ugandan government was approached by Washington “to assist in the likely event of the need to temporarily host some Afghans and international citizens that may be evacuated.”
“And because of Uganda’s long-standing history and tradition of hosting refugees and other persons in need, the President expressed Uganda’s readiness to provide assistance including temporary hosting of some affected persons in the crisis,” it read in part.

Uganda is currently the third largest host of refugees globally and largest host in Africa. It has no direct diplomatic and bilateral relations with Kabul, with Uganda’s interest in Afghanistan handled through the diplomatic representation in Terhan, the capital of Iran, Afghanistan’s western neighbour.

Thus, in Kampala, Uganda’s involvement in the Afghan situation was prodded by the United States government that has a range of past and current joint security and bilateral engagements.

Washington gives Uganda nearly $1 billion (Shs3.5trillion) each year, mainly for health and security support. In return, the Kampala regime has positioned itself as an anchor-man of stability in the volatile Great Lakes region, including running security errands, more significantly fighting al-Shabaab in Somalia, and playing a diplomatic broker. 

Minister Oryem Okello told this newspaper separately that the deal on taking in Afghan asylum seekers is not yet finalised, and Kampala was approached alongside other African countries.

“They are not refugees; the US asked us on whether we could take them in temporarily as they are vetted possibly for relocation,” he said, “But before we could agree we asked them for certain information; under what terms and conditions, who are they bringing in --- are they former soldiers, prisoners, translators, and for how long are they staying here? Once we are sure of that then we can agree.”

In response to our request, the US embassy in Kampala said the United States continues to discuss with partners and allies options to relocate Afghans who supported the US government”.

“We deeply appreciate Uganda’s generous offer of assistance to host Afghanistan evacuees on a temporary basis. We have not yet made a final determination of assistance requirements in Uganda and discussions with the government of Uganda concerning the situation in Afghanistan, are ongoing,” a US embassy official noted.
Earlier yesterday, State Refugees Minister Anyakun disclosed that Ugandan technocrats and the US embassy officials were set to hold a meeting to discuss details.

The Afghan arrivals are proposed to be first hosted at Mandela National Stadium Namboole, partially currently a Covid-19 treatment centre outside Kampala, according to sources familiar with the arrangements.

About the Taliban
According to US Cable News Network (CNN), the Taliban was formed in 1994, mainly comprising former Afghan resistance fighters, known collectively as mujahedeen, who against invading Soviet forces in the 1980s, with backing of the US. They aimed to impose their interpretation of Islamic law on the country -- and remove any foreign influence.

After the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, the Sunni Islamist organisation put in place strict rules. Women had to wear head-to-toe coverings, weren’t allowed to study or work and were forbidden from travelling alone. TV, music and non-Islamic holidays were also banned.

That changed after September 11, 2001, when 19 men hijacked four commercial planes in the US, crashing two into the World Trade Centre towers, one into the Pentagon, and another, destined for Washington, into a field in Pennsylvania. US moved to toppled them, only to strike a peace deal with the Taliban 20 years later.