Kampala — The Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, Mr Hillary Onek, has directed the Permanent Secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister, Ms Christine Guwatudde Kintu, to interdict four officials as investigations into the alleged abuse of resources meant for refugees commence.
The affected officials are Mr Apollo Kazungu (commissioner refugees), Mr Walter Omondi (Refugee Desk Officer in Mbarara), Mr John Baptist Sentamu, formerly the camp commandant in Mbarara, who was recently transferred to Hoima and Mr Francis Nkwasibwe (a registration officer/assistant commandant in Mbarara, who too had been recently transferred).
The directive, which Mr Onek wrote a week ago, on January 30, was to take "immediate effect".
Speaking to Daily Monitor yesterday evening, Mr Kazungu said he was still in office and had not received any communication from Ms Guwatudde that he had been interdicted.
We were unable to speak to Ms Guwatudde because she did not respond to our repeated phone calls and text messages.
Mr Musa Ecweru, the State minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, told Daily Monitor yesterday that all he and his senior minister would do in such circumstances is to direct the permanent secretary to interdict the concerned officers.
He said he had by yesterday not received communication from the PS on whether the four officials had been interdicted, but stressed that Ms Guwatudde had to carry out the instructions or be accused of insubordination.
Mr Onek's letter to Ms Guwatudde was worded in mandatory terms.
"In view of the above and to enable impartial investigation and non-interference by the suspected staff involved, I would, therefore, like to instruct you to either interdict or cause the following officers to step aside while investigation into their conduct commences immediately," the minister wrote.
Mr Onek said in the letter that he had received a report from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the global body responsible for refugees, "of their staff facing threats and harassment by the camp commandant of Nakivale Refugee Settlement, Mr John Bosco Sentamu, and the refugee desk officer for Mbarara, Mr Walter Omondi."
Mr Onek stated that as a result of a report from UNHCR to him dated December 14, 2017, he wrote to the Inspector General of Police to cause investigations into the matter and bring the concerned officers to book.
As the minister waited for the results of the investigations he had ordered, The Prime Minister, Dr Ruhakana Rugunda, on January 26 received another letter from the UN resident coordinator, Ms Rosa Malango.
Ms Malango's letter, Mr Onek wrote, was "drawing attention to incidences of gross mismanagement, fraud and corruption in Ugandan refugees operations and in those allegations, numerous theft of relief items for refugees and misapplication of government land for themselves, allegations of trafficking minor girls and married women to men not of their choice and interference in refugee elections and community leaders by staff of Department of Refugees headed by Mr Apollo Kazungu, the commissioner (for refugees)."
Mr Onek said as a result of the allegations, donors, especially US, European Union and UK, threatened to withdraw aid to refugee programmes in Uganda.
The minister further reminded the PS that in the meeting, which both of them had attended that day (January 30), the donors had reiterated their concerns and threats to withdraw aid.
In the said meeting were Dr Rugunda, 2nd Deputy Prime Minister Kirunda Kivejinja and Mr Ecweru.
Dr Rugunda had publicly vowed that the government's policy is "zero tolerance to corruption" and that the allegations would be thoroughly investigated, a vow which Mr Onek echoed in his letter to Ms Guwatudde.
"Uganda has been rated as a model country with respect to hospitality and generosity to refugees who ran to our country," Mr Onek wrote.
"The above allegations against the refugee department and actions of some of our officers are now causing doubt to our programme and denting our image internationally," he added.
Uganda has an open-door policy towards refugees and has taken in refugees from 12 countries, with the biggest numbers currently coming from South Sudan, DR Congo and Somalia. According to figures from last year, Uganda is said to be the top refugee hosting nation in the world, with only Pakistan and Turkey holding more refugees.
The figure of refugees is said to be about 1.6 million, although the figure is now contested following the concerns that have been raised by the UN and donor countries.
One key concern is that there is possible inflating of refugee numbers by refugee staff to create ghosts and pocket the money meant for the "ghost" refugees.
This is why the UNHCR and OPM have since embarked on biometric registration of refugees in the country to ascertain the actual number.
In the wake of Daily Monitor's story published yesterday under the title "OPM hit by refugee corruption scandal", Mr Ecweru issued a press statement in which he said they took the allegations "seriously".
"As such, the leadership in the Office of the Prime Minister which oversees refugee issues in the country, in collaboration with partners, is already seized by the matter and is working with stakeholders, including the United Nations system at different levels, with a view of establishing the facts and truth and taking remedial action".
Mr Ecweru said the government had already "commenced measures to investigate" the allegations, and that it had also taken "immediate administrative measures" including the biometric registration of all refugees in the country. We have confirmed that the registration of refugees in Kampala is taking place at Old Kampala playground.
The European Union delegation in Uganda, which is a major funder to the refugee effort in the country, yesterday issued a statement reacting to reports of abuse of refugee resources, saying that they take "a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to any allegations of misconduct occurring in European Union-funded projects".
"As soon as we were informed about allegations of corruption and fraud affecting EU supported humanitarian actions, we formally submitted the case to the EU's anti-fraud office (OLAF) for investigation," the statement reads in part.
As the EU conducts its own investigations, the statement indicated they are keen on the investigations that the statement said the Prime Minister promised to carry out.
Sources in OPM have told Daily Monitor that when the allegations were brought to the attention of the Prime Minister, the officials against whom allegations had been made were asked to explain.
The sources say one common theme in all the officials' explanations, apart from denying the allegations, was throwing part of the blame at officials of UNHCR, who they say are responsible for a number of activities, including food distribution.
One of the officials, who asked not to be named, said whereas there may be things that OPM officials did not do well, there were programmes which were to be entirely run by UNHCR officials and were not well implemented, with suspicions that funds were stolen or misused.
The official cited a Shs1.5b project to build Eragi Bridge in Adjumani District which the official said was never built, and that a water trucking project funded to the tune $20m was shoddily handled.
We were unable to obtain independent verification of these allegations and were not in position to contact UNHCR for a comment on these allegations.
Mr Kazungu said as commissioner of refugees, he was not directly involved in running affairs in Nakivale refugee camp where many of the allegations stem from and the other four interdicted officials were based.
He said in general, OPM does not handle food distribution, which he said is a mandate of UNHCR.
Mr Kazungu said whatever has been raised are just allegations, and that the UN and other donors have pointed out as much, saying that he is ready to be investigated.
However, the official said he had by yesterday not been contacted by the police regarding the investigations.
EU STATEMENT ON ALLEGED CORRUPTION IN REFUGEE CAMPS
The European Union delegation to Uganda has identified through its UN implementing partners UNHCR and WFP allegations of malfeasance and corruption in managing refugee assistance programmes in Uganda. EU funding has been provided to the two UN agencies responsible for these programmes and the allegations were brought immediately and directly to the attention of the Government of Uganda.
We take a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to any allegations of misconduct occurring in European Union funded projects and even more so when this has potential negative effects on an already very vulnerable population such as refugees and host communities.
Our UN partners, the UNHCR and the World Food Programme, 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.
In meetings with the government and partners, the EU delegation has called for urgent and thorough investigations as well as for changes to the registration system for refugees. We take note of the prime minister's commitment on zero tolerance to malfeasance and of the firm lead he has taken to address all allegations resolutely and immediately.
The prime minister communicated his decisions and vision already last week at the press conference with UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi and we understand that some actions have been taken. With the government of Uganda successfully developing a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), it is indeed of outmost importance to address swiftly and thoroughly any allegations of malfeasance in order not to impair this important process and the public support from the European taxpayers.
The European Union delegation is monitoring the development of the investigations and will continue to coordinate closely with government and with partners towards a swift and thorough review of refugee operations in Uganda to ensure that critical services to refugees can be provided efficiently and transparently.
Finally, as soon as we were informed about allegations of corruption and fraud affecting EU supported humanitarian actions, we formally submitted the case to the EU's anti-fraud office (OLAF), for investigation.