Wherever you go and you do not see an Eastern African man, you should run

Last year, there was a type of morbid tourism in East African Community Chairperson President Salva Kiir’s country, that was not reported on.

After the civil war in their northern neighbour Sudan between two rival factions of the military government under Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and former ally, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) under the Janjaweed leader, Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (more popularly known as Hemedti) broke out on April 15, 2023, a humanitarian crisis followed inevitably.

The war, in which nearly 15,000 people have been killed, created a huge refugee and displacement crisis. As it marked its first anniversary, the number of Sudanese forced to flee was closing on nine million, with nearly two million of them having crossed borders.

South Sudan, itself still in conflict, has received the most people from Sudan — nearly 640,000 people. To this day, according to the United Nations, more than 1,800 Sudanese are still arriving every day in South Sudan.

Read: OBBO: Tag East Africans like jumbos and let them roam the region

Therein lies the peculiar complexity of the refugee and displacement crisis in Africa.


Many of the people coming to South Sudan are refugees who had fled the country to Sudan during the war. Others are among the hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese who remained in Sudan after the latter broke off and got independence in July 2011, after over two decades of war against cruel northern Sudan domination.

Having been tormented by the North for ages, South Sudanese couldn’t imagine that even the most cynical karma would send Northerners fleeing for sanctuary to the South. So, some of them took to the border with Sudan, to “see with their own eyes” the refugees crossing into their country.

As the Sudanese took refuge in South Sudan, inside South Sudan, 2.2 million people remain internally displaced, and nearly 2.4 million are refugees in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Yes, the DRC where the conflict in the eastern part of the country has left 5.6 million people internally displaced, with more than 990,000 refugees and asylum-seekers from there sheltered in neighbouring countries.

When the Sudan war broke out, there were nearly 300,000 South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia too. Ethiopia also hosted 276,500 Somali refugees. In Ethiopia, meanwhile, the federal government’s war in the rebellious Tigray region that started in November 2020 forced 70,000 Ethiopians to seek safety in Sudan over the two years it was fought.

Ethiopia allied with neighbour Eritrea to crush the Tigray rebellion. At that time, 96,223 Eritrean refugees were being sheltered in four refugee camps in the Tigray region.

Where you have refugees, you will have IDPs, or vice versa. The Tigray war spread to the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara, and 5.5 million people were forced to flee and become IDPs in other parts of Ethiopia.

Read: OBBO: There’s a secret plot to save EAC from imminent death

Somalia, which has been in turmoil the longest among the countries in the Horn, nevertheless, is also a sanctuary for 18,932 asylum-seekers and 16,499 refugees. Of the refugees in Somalia, 7,000 are Yemenis who have fled their homeland since it was engulfed by war.

The Yemen they fled to come to Somalia, however, has at least 250,000 Somali refugees.

The tragedy of displacement in Africa is so twisted. After riots and violence in the Tanzania elections of October 2000, 2,000 of the country’s citizens fled from the island of Pemba, most taking refuge in an at-war Mogadishu.

Most have since returned with their offspring to Tanzania, but about four dozen still hold out in Mogadishu. One could argue that if you are a country in the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region, and have never or are not hosting or creating refugees for neighbouring countries, you should be viewed with suspicion.

Kenya had largely been spared refugee supply duty, until it was seized by its fit of madness following the December 2007 election, and had its worst spate of violence since independence. Nearly 1,400 people were killed in post-election violence, and 300,000 internally displaced. Another 12,000 fled as refugees to Uganda.

The story of those Kenyan refugees ended rather happily. The people of eastern Uganda found the idea of their Kenyan neighbours living in camps so strange that they took them into their homes and even gave them land to grow food, so fast that by the time big people from Kampala arrived to take control and resettle them in the centre of the country, nearly all of them were gone.

The end of the first year of the Sudan war offered an opportunity to pause and reflect on just how much conflict and flight from home have come to define the peoples of Greater Eastern Africa — as indeed most of Africa.

They break us at home, but outside create new societies for peoples of the regions as exiles, asylum seekers, refugees, nomads, and itinerant entrepreneurs. It is one of the main contemporary experiences that, for example, a Ugandan will share with an Ethiopian, whose country is not an immediate neighbour. They are a people who are here and there — perhaps, like the Igbo of Nigeria.

A story published on OkayAfrica on Monday entitled How Nollywood is Teaching the World About the Igbo Apprenticeship System, quotes veteran Nollywood actor Kanayo O. Kanayo in a famous monologue of the 2023 film Áfàméfùnà: An Nwa Boi Story: “Wherever you go and you do not see an Igbo man, you should run.”

Replace “Igbo man” with Somali, Ethiopian, Ugandan, Rwandan, Kenyan, South Sudanese…

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. X@cobbo3

Source:  The East African

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