27.09.2021 Feature Article

The Uganda Govt Isn't Fairly Treating Its Diaspora

The Uganda Govt Isn't Fairly Treating Its Diaspora
27.09.2021 LISTEN

The way the Uganda government is treating its diaspora is puzzling for me. Ugandans living abroad are sometimes referred to as ‘Nkuba Kyeyo’(sweepers), a degenerating term used to show that their work isn’t really posh –it’s like a license for people back home to look down on them. Those in the Middle East are termed as ‘Bakadama’(whatever that means) and other degrading names. Ugandans started moving abroad in big numbers during the 1970s when Idi Amin became the president of Uganda -- As a country, it has benefited immensely from such a group of people. Understanding the role of migrant Diasporas, especially how that role interacts with governments' migration and economic policies is a critical issue for how the government develops around Diasporas and foreigners in the country.

Unfortunately, Diasporas are often treated as foreigners in the countries where they permanently settled, and as aliens in their country of birth. For example, they are a lot of debates on social media and TVs here in the UK on how immigrants have ruined the UK, particularly stretching the National Health Service. In South Africa, diaspora over there face xenophobic comments and attacks almost daily.

A normal government would want kids born to Ugandans abroad to pick interest in Uganda right from childhood. Israel, for instance, sends emissaries (shlihim) to selected cities in the United States, who try to encourage an interest in their country among young Jews; Algeria sends Koranic teachers to France to teach kids about Algerian culture and Islam.

The Ugandan government, on the other hand, introduced a law that says children born of a Ugandan naturalized abroad cannot become citizens of Uganda till they are 18 years old. The kids are instead given visas to travel in and out of Uganda yet their parents were born Ugandans. This means our children need dependant passes to live in Uganda, but how does anybody expect such children to maintain a diasporic collective identity if they are denied citizenship while still young? In Africa, Ghana is among the African countries where dual citizenship has no age limit, and they are doing well.

In addition, there’s a lot of harassment and psychological pains at Entebbe Airport inflicted on Ugandans traveling out of the country. This starts with how diaspora speak English with certain accents to making them intentionally leave some of the gifts given them by friends and relatives, or make them miss their scheduled flights. Some kids swear never to return to Uganda when they watch the way their parents are mistreated.

Ugandans who have acquired citizenship of another country are required to pay $400 to regain their Ugandan citizenship which is, obviously, just an obnoxious money-making scheme. Honestly, why should someone pay money for something they were born with? These are Ugandans born Ugandans, but you want them to pay to become Ugandans again? Seriously? It seems the ‘mafias’ have taken over our foreign affairs ministry, too, and their Darwinian dogma holds that if you can’t pay, then you should lose citizenship – this is business. Yet many of our people in diaspora are experiencing huge financial constraints; some are in enormous debts due to the demands of people back home.

Uganda doesn't accept multiple citizenships. Dual citizenship in Uganda means only two citizenships of which one is Uganda. The possession of a third citizenship disqualifies one from holding or being a dual national of Uganda unless the third citizenship is renounced, but I think we are losing out on important people due to such sentimental laws. For instance, a Ugandan who joins the US military usually gets a lot of benefits, such as US citizenship and a bucket load of benefits. It would be ingenuous for a developing country to lose such a person in the name of ‘punishing’ the diaspora over multiple citizenship.

Further, it is striking to see that the government isn’t doing everything possible to protect the assets and money (savings) that belongs to the diaspora. For instance, the financial management Act – states that if a bank account has been dormant for two years, the money on it would be taken by the govt. This is something I found so odd considering that a lot of diaspora, especially the ‘Bakadama’, leave the country after opening up such accounts as a way of saving their money. Such law not only affects the banking industry, as people will resort back to saving money in their houses instead of banks, but it also affects the economy in general. I’m glad that the governor, Bank of Uganda and the PS, minister of Finance, Ramathan Ggoobi, recently came out to guide us on this issue, but the situation won’t change until the law itself is changed. Banks, themselves, should make it so easy for people to reactivate their dormant accounts -- Its not necessary for a customer to fill in an avalanche of forms for such a simple exercise.

There are a lot of Ugandans abroad that influenced the world beyond their adopted or original countries. Their exposure, experiences and education overseas is something that should be utilized adequately. There are enough educated Diaspora Ugandans who are capable of starting big investments in the country if they are given the same privileges the government usually gives to foreign investors. Yes, what’s wrong with giving a tax holiday to a diaspora bringing in an investment of over US $50,000? Recently, I read an article in the Daily Monitor where a Chinese investor was given 6000 acres of land, and had become rich from Uganda. I don’t think this particular Chinese investor brought in any amount most Ugandans abroad, or inside Uganda, cannot afford, but he was given a lot of help from government, something they cannot do for their own, and I wonder why? At the end of the day, he will take most profits back to China at the expense of the nationals of the country.

Ugandans abroad have become a major powerbase and source of funding for mainly opposition politics in Uganda, one of the reasons why the government is partly treating them badly. They are often depicted in policy circles as potential security threats, raising indiscriminate suspicion towards Diasporas in general. However, the simple solution is for the government to try and convince them to their side, and that includes treating Diasporas in the right way. For instance, Hitler’s regime attempted (with very limited success) to encourage Americans of German descent to lobby the U.S. government for a pro-Hitler policy. After world 11, the Jews in diaspora were very influential in the creation of the state of Israel, and continue to act on behalf of its security and economic development. Israel has partly developed because it knows it brings in its diaspora on issues. Therefore, arresting Ugandans that criticize the government when they visit home doesn’t help the govt that much.

However, the impact of diasporas on their homelands is primarily economic, but Uganda, like most African countries, the diaspora’s economic contribution is rarely talked about publicly, because most leaders do not want to concede on them financial dependence. Remittance flows to Uganda were US$1.4 billion (about Shs5.132 trillion) in 2019 and US$1.1 billion in 2020.

In order to avoid the above mentioned various hurdles, we must have an open debate about the diaspora contribution to our country. Diaspora employ people back home in various ways, and I believe they employ more people than even foreigner investors. They pay medical bills for their relatives and friends, a lot of local businesses rely on them as customers, e.t.c. By all arguments, they deserve to be treated as VIPs – in a special way, starting with reviewing the dual citizenship Act. Let them own land and property without any conditions, let them get national Ids (Ndagamuntu) without any delays (as is the case at some embassies).


Abbey Kibirige Semuwemba

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