14 February 2018

Uganda: Handle Refugee Money Scandal Decisively

Photo: The Observer
South Sudan refugees.

Before getting into the depth of the disappearance of loan monies meant for medicines, reports have emerged in recent days relating to a new corruption scandal at the office of the prime minister (OPM).

The scandal, as reported in the press this week, relates to inflation of refugee numbers resulting in misuse of funds meant for provision of services to refugees.

Spot-checks conducted by the United Nations have alluded to ghost refugees, theft of logistics meant for refugees, and trafficking of refugee women and girls into forced marriages and/ or illegal repatriation or relocation.

Uganda is reported to be hosting between 1.2 and 1.7 million refugees mostly from war-ravaged South Sudan, Somalia and Democratic Republic of Congo. This number is now contested because of allegations of inflated numbers to attract more donor funding.

This is not the first time the country is hit by accusations of ghosts. Previously, cases of ghost soldiers, teachers, civil servants, and pensioners have been reported.

There have also been scenarios of ghost projects, schools and roads, inter alia. In all these scandals, the country has lost colossal amounts of money and the suspects have seldom been held to account.

What is peculiar and worrying about this scandal is how the inflated numbers went unnoticed by both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and World Food Programme (WFP), assuming monitoring and verification was being done.

It is nerve-racking that OPM that was established to coordinate government business and provide oversight over other ministries, departments and agencies is again at the center of this controversy, considering the fact that the Kazinda saga has not yet rested.

The country has not yet recovered from the Peace, Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP) scandal, where billions of shilling meant for post-war recovery for northern Uganda were swindled by officers at the OPM.

Whereas a few were convicted, most loom large. Although government later refunded the money using funds from the consolidated fund, it is not clear whether this money was ever recovered from the officials who stole it.

This was clear daytime robbery of Ugandan taxpayers, to pay for theft committed by a few individuals. Such a scenario should never happen again. This latest scandal also casts a shadow on the effectiveness of internal controls in government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs).

Have the internal auditors in the MDAs gone to sleep?

Is their function now ceremonial or become part of the daily happenings? If they cannot detect and stop fraud, of what use are they to Ugandans?

Do we need an international agency to come and tell us that something is going wrong?

Where was the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services?

Investigations currently mooted by the government and the United Nations will most likely yield nothing, if the recommendations are not implemented. Without a strong will to fight corruption, the 'zero-tolerance to corruption approach' will remain a slogan.

We suggest that an independent agency be contracted to conduct a special audit in the misuse of refugee funds. All officers implicated in this scandal should step aside, to allow investigations go on unhampered. The business of transferring officers who have been implicated in malfeasance must stop.

If stern action is not taken against the perpetrators, major donors, including those who pledged funds during the solidarity summit, may refuse to honor their pledges.

With the Ugandan economy already in dire straits, this could mean disaster for the refugee community. Uganda has been heralded as having a conducive and welcoming approach to refugees.

If action is not taken against the perpetrators of this malfeasance, this reputation will be lost.

The author works with the Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda.


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