Musings on Emigration in Uganda at the Kampala Geopolitics Conference

von Ojok Okello

Emigration in Uganda

One of the topics that were discussed at the 2022 Kampala Geopolitics Conference focused on understanding the emigration trends in Uganda. It was moderated by Ojok Okello, the founder of Okere City. He was joined by: Frank Nuwagaba, a Migration Officer at the Uganda Ministry of Internal Affairs; Agnes Igoye, a migration expert from IGAD; Barbara Maureen, an investigative journalist at the African Institute for Investigative Journalism (AIIJ); and Mutyaba Michael, a scholar, and researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).


Here, we present some snippets from the discussion;

The present picture of emigration in Africa today

“Of the 30 million Africans that emigrated this past year, 25 million moved within the continent.[1]” Ojok’s opening remarks are met with enthusiasm from panelist Agnes Igoye, "I am glad you have begun there, the scenes of Africans drowning in the Mediterranean have really dominated the narrative. We have always been on the move, it is not a new phenomenon, which is why we should make it as easy as possible. Legal migration implies there is such a thing as illegal people, and while the re-naming[2] is a step in the right direction, we need to work together to make it easier for people to practice what they have been doing for centuries.” Agnes Igoye is a migration officer at IGAD[3] and quickly she lists the organization's aspirations: “we want to remove the fears that people have towards migration; let us demystify migration by removing bottlenecks and let us come together, so we can negotiate better.”

How political participation is influenced by global migration

Directed at Michael Mutyaba, Ojok asks “To what extent is global migration an act of political participation or negotiation.” Mr. Mutyaba a PhD scholar at SOAS opens up the conversation about the diaspora and how after leaving the country, with more freedom, more time for reflection and exposure, people begin to question the systemic conditions that rendered them unemployed, etc. “What happens when the fangs of the state get to you in the diaspora, as we witnessed with Lumbuye”, Ojok counters Mutyaba’s point of more freedom. Agreeing, he talks of states with the same politics that can become allies and extend the long arm of the state. Nonetheless, we see much activism from the diaspora and Ojok asks Mutyaba; “what kind of way do these spaces shape political conversations.” He elaborates on how the diaspora not only influences politics but also economic processes in Uganda. They speak a little about Dubai and the stories of domestic workers that have taken permanent residence in the news and social media over the past years.

Is migration a real phenomenon or a media sensation?

Introducing Barbara Maureen to the conversation, Ojok asks, “why has the media seemingly only woken up to the reality.” Barbara Maureen is the program manager of AIJJ, an organization that has done some investigative reporting about the issue. She retaliates, “No.” to the media only waking up to the reality. Ojok pushes; “well, you cannot say that the 60s and 70s were kinder to our parents, tackling race issues… can you honestly say that human rights have digressed between then and now.” Maureen confidently responds “yes, we have digressed from the 60s and 70s. There is an element of dehumanization that did not exist.” She recognizes the xenophobic attacks on economic migrants in South Africa but emphasizes that even those horrific acts cannot be compared to the kind of stories that are coming out of the Middle East. Ojok proceeds: Do you think the media is doing a good job? Barbara assures him that the media is doing a great job of exposing the problem. “Do you think there is an element of sensationalization?” She counters, “no, as it is not just the media that is doing this, we have citizens also reporting this, and programs like “agatiliko nfufuu” with no edits, and the more formal newspapers existing simultaneously, effectively democratizing the narrative and giving people a chance to pick. Mutyaba jumps into caution “there is a lot of fake news in the democratization of media” but he also applauds the NUP repatriation that pushed the government to also engage. Ojok challenges him, “unfortunately when you repatriate 40, the very same planes take back 200 people.” Frank Nuwagaba for the first time in the conversation adds “the move by NUP was reactionary, in that you are dealing with the symptom.” However, the ministry representative is not entirely dismissive and commends the group for their efforts in agenda setting”.

How can you push agenda setting, and get this issue to the parliament”. Inviting Nuwagaba to elaborate on the other side of the picture, Ojok says “It's not all doom and gloom…labor externalization has some positive elements, to Ugandans, it is a significant source of remittances.” Nuwagaba expounds “from December 2021 to June 2022, the government collected UGX 11.9 billion from licensing, foreign job orders and that is significant to the economy. This is in addition to the 4.1 trillion UGX collected in remittances… I think that is critical that we also ask how we can maximize on this investment… we can economize on this with labor programs, bilateral labor agreements.”

Ways of capitalizing on remittances

Focusing the conversation on the money now, Ojok continues, “up to 80% of remittances are coming from North America and Europe while I believe only 20% comes from Gulf and the Middle East.”  Frank explains “well when you look at the nature of the work that people in the gulf go to do, it’s usually domestic and other manual labor work, you are looking at semi-skilled and unskilled labor. Now compare it to the people in the U.S and UK where migrants are doing nurse and care work. And this is where we should be creatively thinking. The government has a labor externalization program that has been running since 2005[4]. What if we were to focus on upping the skill set of the migrants that we set to the Middle East? Nuwagaba reflects. Ojok turns the question to the rest: “do you think skilling the migrants will make migration more humane?”

Can skilling make migration more humane for Uganda’s migrants to the Middle East and the Gulf States?

Agnes is first to the challenge as she quipped; “skilling is always important, if you look at Uganda’s migration over the years, we have always had different reasons. Do you remember 2005 when the government sent men over to Iraq as security contractors, [5] and they would return to Kampala splashing dollars everywhere? My point is, as the world changes, different times, call for different forms of labor and my focus isn’t on being skilled for it or not, but rather on why are people moving and whether this is a choice. It should also be noted that over 98% of the women going to the Middle East are women and many of them are single mothers. Some are fleeing domestic violence, and others trying to lift the economic burden after being abandoned. If we take care of children and remove domestic violence, no one will move, so fix that. Women aren’t going to do domestic work, they are running away. Additionally, on the remittances, there are women who take on 5-year contracts, successfully go out there and work and return to men and family members that have chosen to eat the money. But it is important to highlight their success in collecting the money and honestly if we were to bring out our domestic workers and line them up here in this room, and they were allowed to share their stories, we would find that there is real horror here. But I agree with Nuwagaba eventually, skilling is of course important, and on the IGAD level, upping our negotiation tactic is also something to think about, which is why we negotiate as a block, and I believe that when we do, we are more powerful.

Could the demographic trend of Africa where the majority are children and youth be playing role in shaping the emigration trend? Ojok asks. Igoye thinks that the high population growth rate is definitely a factor to consider. “You know in Africa, we are fertile… we are young…. And worldwide, there is a demand for cheap labor, and indeed some places are thriving on it. But we have to be clear about the kind of work that people are going to, because there is so much discrepancy between what people think they will do, and what work they do, especially with the distorted idea of the West that we have owing to social media. Many of us believe life there to be better, and few people talk about the loneliness, the long hours, and sometimes the very limited chance for social mobility.  She sums up her argument; “bottom line, moving should be a choice and an informed one”. On the level of the organizations, we can think of making migration more humane by strengthening our position in bilateral agreements as a bloc. Within Africa we should think of breaking barriers to migration, removing the visa requirement of our own. We need a cultural shift that welcomes African products. While labor programs are theoretically okay, even the celebrated Philippine labor externalization program has its shortcomings”.

Brain drain or brain gain?

“ … and on brain drain”.. Ojok pushes the panel’s attention to the loss of potential that is attributed to people moving. “Uganda loses more medical experts than any other country in Africa. What is the cost of that in terms of human potential?” Barbara agrees “we lose… just looking at this audience, most of these people are likely to leave if they haven’t found job two months after being on the job market. I wonder though if it is worth it because a lot of times, like in the case of Dubai, people will leave a UGX 500,000 salary to make a 1.2 million salary which in actuality is reduced to 700,000 shillings and I wonder if these graduates may actually be able to forge better lives here if they wait a little longer, negotiate their skills with certificates, etc. Moreover, some of the girls that are going to Dubai, are putting professional teaching and nursing degrees aside for a 300,000 shillings pay difference. Michael Mutyaba is even more firm, “It is not okay that we are losing people. The position we are in is unfortunate but we will eventually have to consider ways of improving our economy.” Nuwagaba has an alternative perspective “is it brain drain or brain gain. Look at this panel, there are people who have left, in fact, all of us have. The decision to return is a choice. We can still participate in nation-building and we are far more equipped to do so are returnees.

The Kampala Geopolitics Conference is a two-day public event about world geopolitics. It is inspired by the successful event “Geopolitics of Nantes” in France. The conference is held at the emblematic University of Makerere, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Sub-Saharan Africa.


[1] “Among potential emigrants, more than one-third would like to move to another country within their region( 29%) or elsewhere in Africa (7%). This preference for staying on the continent is especially strong in Southern Africa ( 58%) and weakest in North Africa ( 8%). Europe ( 27%) and North America (22%) are the most preferred destinations outside Africa.

[2] “Perhaps better than “undocumented imigrant is “unauthorized immigrant which makes it clear that the issue is not merely the lack of documentation but the lack of govt. authorization to enter /leave the country…. The broader lesson that i think should be drawn from this discussion is that the terms we use to refer to different groups of people are not merely neutral/impartial descriptions. Instead the very words we use to understand our social and political world can not only influence political debates and opinions but may also carry with them implicit ethical judgments about how to structure and change the world. (Jonathan Kwan, Migration Ethics) see more: