With a refugee population of 1.25 million – and more new arrivals each day than any other country – Uganda has earned a reputation as a haven for those fleeing violence. This, however might change as four Ugandan government officials have been suspended amid allegations of inflating refugee figures in the country.
UG Christian News has learnt that government suspended four officials at the start of an investigation into alleged mismanagement of funds meant to support refugees. The UK, EU and US are threatening to withdraw aid and stop programmes, according to the UK’s Guardian newspaper.
Apollo Kazungu, commissioner for refugees in the Office of the Prime Minister, and three of his senior staff, Walter Omondi, John Baptist Sentamu and Francis Nkwasibwe, have been suspended while investigations are made into their alleged collusion with staff from the UN refugee agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the World Food Programme (WFP) to inflate and exaggerate refugee figures.
The officials allegedly created fake names in refugee settlements, particularly in western Uganda, to swindle money. Millions of dollars in aid are believed to have been lost as a result.
The officials are also accused of stealing relief items meant for refugees, appropriating government land meant for refugees, trafficking young girls and married women, and interfering with the election of community leaders.
Musa Ecweru, state minister for relief and disaster preparedness, said the allegations threatened Uganda’s generous refugee policy.
“There was some registration, which was apparently done by the government department of refugees. Because of poor registration, they exaggerated the figures. They passed those exaggerated figures to UNCHR, which passed it to WFP creating a problem,” said Ecweru to media reporters. “There will be thorough investigations. We have asked the officers to first step aside so that investigations are independent, impartial and not interfered with.”
The move follows a letter sent last month by Rosa Malango, the UN’s resident coordinator in Uganda, to the prime minister, Ruhakana Rugunda, drawing his attention to “incidences of gross mismanagement, fraud and corruption” in Uganda’s refugee operations.
In a statement, Peter Smerdon, WFP regional spokesman in Kenya, said: “The WFP welcomes the actions the Ugandan government is taking in response to allegations of fraud and corruption in assistance operations for refugees.
“There is no space for fraud or corruption in any of WFP’s operations. If fraud or corruption are confirmed, funds or assistance will be recovered where possible and controls tightened further if necessary.”
Duniya Aslam Khan, UNHCR’s spokeswoman for Uganda, said: “UNHCR is aware of allegations of corruption. We take note of all the emerging reports with concern. We are committed to promoting and adhering to the highest standards of integrity and accountability in the use of resources and we take a zero tolerance stance towards cases of corruption in our operations both locally as well as globally.
“Our office is in close contact with our government counterpart, donors and UN sister agencies in an effort to support the government of Uganda in its actions to address these troubling reports.”
In a statement on Monday, the EU delegation to Uganda said it had formally submitted the case to the EU’s anti-fraud office for investigation.
“Our UN partners, the UNHCR and the WFP, have duly informed us and we have been coordinating closely with them, with other donors and with the Office of the Prime Minister to get a clear understanding of these troubling allegations as well as to discuss the immediate appropriate actions and the way forward,” said an EU statement.
“We take a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to any allegations of misconduct occurring in EU-funded projects, and even more so when this has potential negative effects on an already very vulnerable population such as refugees and host communities.”
Andie Lambe, executive director at International Refugee Rights Initiative, said anyone profiting from the suffering of others should be held accountable.
Lambe said: “We should not forget that our collective priority must be the protection and welfare of refugees. Donors have been generous in providing financial support for the refugee influx into Uganda so far. For this goodwill to continue, the credibility of refugee numbers and the refugee management systems in Uganda is vital.”
As a result of the allegations, said Ecweru, biometric registration would be introduced for all refugees in the east African nation.
“It’s going to be an expensive exercise,” said Ecweru. “We are going to do a biometric registration for the entire system using the UNHCR-tested system.”
Smerdon said the WFP would work with its partners to “address any impropriety and root out any wrongdoing”. He said: “We need to focus on the refugees and whether their basic needs for protection and assistance are being met.”
Additional Reporting by Agencies.