In a quick and drastic reaction to the mismanagement of money and relief supplies to refugees by the Office of the Prime Minister and the UN refugees agency, the British government has announced suspension of millions of pounds in humanitarian aid for the refugees in Uganda.
Saturday Monitor understands that London, through the British Department for International Development (DFID), has already communicated the decision to UNHCR office in Nairobi, and Mr Micheal Holstein, the head of Inspector General’s Office (IGO) - Africa region, is in the country to deliver “the bad news” to Uganda government.
Mr Holstein flew into the country to coordinate a major UN-led investigation into the alleged abuse of millions of dollars for the refugees in what has now morphed into one of the major corruption scandals in the Office of Prime Minister (OPM).
Sources close to UNHCR told this newspaper that Mr Holstein, without disclosing the amounts, announced that the British government took a decision to withhold funds for the refugees in Uganda and demanded action on thieving officials at UNHCR and OPM.
Mr Holstein, who reiterated the UNHCR zero tolerance to corruption, neither denied nor confirmed the news, on Friday referred this newspaper to Ms Cecile Pouilly, the UNHCR senior communications officer in Geneva, Switzerland, who is authorised to speak to the media on the British decision to withhold aid for the refugees in Uganda.
“You will certainly understand that I cannot comment on ongoing cases without jeopardising the integrity and confidentiality of the investigations,” Mr Holstein said in an email to this newspaper.
He also assured other donors that “UNHCR has a zero tolerance for corruption and fraud and the IGO is following up independently on any allegations of misconduct implicating UNHCR staff or staff of implementing partners [OPM].”
Although Mr Hillary Onek, the minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, claimed the donors, including the British government were “sympathetic with Uganda government’ in light of the refugee scandal, and have reportedly written to Prime Minister Ruhakana Rukunda assuring him that they will not cut aid, Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Patrick Mugoya neither confirmed nor denied the withholding of the money for refugees.
“That could be true but the donors should know that we are in this together… looking after the refugees is a responsibility of the international community, for us we are just helping the situation… we are equally concerned but what’s important is that we correct those mistakes quickly. The good thing the police is working with them to get to the bottom of the problem,” Mr Mugoya said.
In the 2017/18 financial year, the British government approved £40 million (more than Shs200 billion) in Humanitarian Emergency Refugee Response in Uganda.
However, part of this money will not be released unless those who pocketed the funds in the name of refugees have been punished.
During the June 2017 Solidarity Summit in Kampala, the UK government pledged $50m (more than Shs181.5 billion). However, it’s not yet clear whether this is the money the Theresa May administration is withholding.
The refugee summit raised $358.6 million (Shs1.25 trillion) in pledges, out of a target of $1.6 billion (Shs5 trillion).
The UK funding towards the expanding social protection services amounting to £14.5m, and the £7.2m for the transforming the economy in northern Uganda, will not be affected since no fraud has been reported in these areas.
The authorities in London also declared that any future funding to Uganda will be contingent upon the UNHCR making major changes to the way it operates in ensuring accountability of aid funds and putting in places clear safeguards.
To weed out the ghosts, the British government, according to sources, has also called for an independent audit of the refugee numbers in the country.
The alleged theft of refugee funds has dented Uganda’s global reputation at home and abroad as a friendly host to millions of immigrants fleeing violence in especially South Sudan, Somalia, DR Congo and other neighbouring states.
The allegations that have been made range from fraud regarding food assistance to fraud regarding refugee numbers, refugees being required to pay bribes in order to get registered and allegations that scholarships meant for refugees are instead going to Ugandans.
There are also allegations of trafficking of minor girls and women to marry men who are not of their choice after paying a bribe to officials at the border crossing points and claims that officials interfere in the election of leaders in refugee communities to prevent individuals deemed too vocal from getting elected.
And the decision to withhold funding offers a sharp message to government in its fight against corruption.
The donors have warned that if government of Uganda and the UNHCR fail to punish the culprits, this scandal could as well trigger a crisis should the donors opt to withdraw millions of dollars for the refugees.
The British government had pledged to support the government of Uganda to respond to the influx of refugees mainly from the South Sudan refugee crisis by providing emergency humanitarian assistance.
It also pledged to support the communities hosting refugees in order to increase the provision of health, education services and other services. By press time, DFID authorities had not replied emails.
Mr Holstein is expected to meet the President, Prime Minister Rukunda, Inspector General of Government Irene Mulyagonja, Criminal Investigations Director Grace Akullo and Auditor General John Muwanga, among others to discuss ways of expediting investigations into the fraud.