20 November 2012

Uganda: OPM Scandal Hurts Civil Society

Richard Ssewakiryanga is Executive Director of the Uganda National NGO Forum, part of a coalition of non-governmental organisations that have been calling for action against corruption.

But today, he is worried that he could be next target of a sweeping move by donors against Uganda, over concern that money meant for the deprived is being swindled by government officials.

"Even us in civil society, getting financial support now is becoming difficult, our donors think all money sent to Uganda is misused," Ssewakiryanga said.

Sewakiryanga's concern follows the news that Britain has joined the growing list of countries that have slammed the aid doors shut on Uganda after the office of the Prime Minister (OPM) failed to account for nearly Shs 50bn.

"Unless the government of Uganda can show that UK taxpayers' money is going towards helping the poorest people to lift them out of poverty, this aid will remain frozen and we will expect repayment and administrative and criminal sanctions," a statement announcing the suspension of aid read in part.

In this financial year alone, Britain was supposed to contribute £26.9 million. Over 50% of this money had already been released but the remaining £11.1 million due to be released by the end of March has been suspended. According to the 2012/2013 budget, 31% of Uganda's budget is funded by development partners; therefore, suspending bilateral aid, has a lot of implications socially, financially and politically.

Ssewakiryanga believes that suspending aid is likely to have a far-reaching impact mainly on people in northern Uganda who have been using the money to rebuild their war-ravaged lives.

"It is like finding a lame person trying to walk and then you remove his clutches. The little money that reached was supporting recovery efforts," Ssewakiryanga said. Basically this means, that projects like Karamoja Livelihood Programme (KALIP), Agricultural Livelihood Recovery Programme (ALREP), Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF II) are likely to stall. Nearly all sectors like health, education, agriculture, housing, and transport will be affected.

However, Aaron Mukwaya, a lecturer in the department of political science at Makerere University disagrees. "Even if aid tripled, it would not mean anything to the people in the north. That aid has not been reaching them, for them it is the usual suffering," he argues.

By suspending aid, Mukwaya argues that development partners are telling government that enough is enough to corruption.

"The OPM scandal is not the issue, the issue is there is the super theft in the whole system. What the donors are saying is enough is enough and they have now decided to side with the people and not government" Mukwaya said.

He believes suspension of aid would most likely lead to many people losing their salaries since some civil servants are paid through the donor-funded budget. Politically, Mukwaya says, it is going to be difficult for a government that is used to giving bribes and tokens to ensure compliance to operate. "They [government officials] will begin to steal locally generated revenues," he reasoned.

"We are likely to see the government become more dictatorial. It has been bribing people, but now there will be no money to offer the tokens. We are likely to see government using 'naked force' against its people. We are likely to go the Zimbabwe way," Mukwaya said.

Government's take

Ethics Minister Fr Simon Lokodo last Thursday said suspending aid to Uganda was very regrettable. The Ministry of Finance spokesman, Jim Mugunga, told The Observer, that it was still too early to determine the impact of the suspension of aid.

"Donors have just frozen aid to Uganda but they have not suspended it," he said, adding: "Government does not view the freezing of aid as an act of hostility aimed at crippling government, but they [donors] are just expressing concern over corruption," Mugunga said.

He says government is proactively engaging with development partners, with a view of strengthening internal control and financial systems, to ensure such financial mismanagement does not happen again.

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