Shs4.5t wealth plan leaves north poorer

Women transporting agricultural produce to the market cross a flooded section of a road near Elegu Town, Amuru District recently. According to the Office of the Prime Minister,  half of the families in greater northern Uganda, straddling Acholi, Lango, West Nile and Karamoja sub-regions, lack basic necessities. PHOTO | TOBBIAS JOLLY OWINY

What you need to know:

  • Government admits the multiple interventions over the past 19 years to rebuild northern Uganda, scarred by nearly two decades of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency, have failed to lift the population out of poverty as envisaged and left the region poorer than the rest of Uganda.

Poverty rates in northern Uganda continue to rise despite the government investing in excess of Shs4.5 trillion over the past two decades, this newspaper can reveal.

Most of the interventions since 2003, among them the three-phased Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (Nusaf) and the Peace, Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP) running for 16 years until 2023, were crafted and implemented to alleviate poverty.

However, more households in the north have comparably diminished income, access to social services and quality of life, despite the huge injection of resources in infrastructure development, according to our analysis of official documents and interviews with leaders and ordinary citizens.

For instance, four in 10 households in Uganda on average are poor. But a report by the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), under which the Ministry for Northern Uganda sits, shows that half of the families in greater northern Uganda --- straddling Acholi, Lango, West Nile and Karamoja sub-regions --- live in lack.

Unemployment is widespread, land conflicts rife, families disintegrating and the youth, according to leaders, rather than work hard on the farm and in schools or businesses as the elders did, engage more in drinking alcohol and gambling away their future in sports betting.

This failing, according to leaders in the region such as Omoro District chairperson Douglas Okello, is due to the erosion of culture and value systems of today’s youth, majority born in Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) camps where households lived in squalid conditions and on hand-outs.

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency led by Joseph Kony, against whom the International Criminal Court’s Chief Prosecutor last Thursday asked for a hearing to confirm 33 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, drove millions into squalid IDPs and caused deaths of thousands.

The guns went silent in 2005 after years of negotiations that ended in Kony, already dislodged from the country by Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) firepower, and the government withholding signature on the final pact.

However, the leaders argue that a war within a war, more aptly psycho-social and health problems, raged as charity ended and IDPs returned to find their native land taken by others and children fathered by rebels unwelcome by relatives.

“The guns have gone silent, but the war is still going on,” Mr Okello said, “The government has not dealt with the software components effectively up to now.”

Over the past 19 years, the government has built new schools or expanded and retouched old ones, constructing roads and put in place or upgraded existing health centres in order to take services closer to the people and open previously abandoned hinterlands to civilisation and improved quality of life.

The development blue-prints, funded by donors and the government, have included Nusaf I, II and III, costing $330m (Shs1.2 trillion); the PRDP, the $600m (Shs2.2 trillion) project which has been running since 2007 and is expected to end next year; and, the €100m (Shs386b) Kalip-Alrep that was implemented from 2016 to 2020.

Additional official help has been piped to northern Uganda through programmes such as the $71m (Shs264b) invested through Prelnor, the $30m (Shs112b) Northern Uganda Development for Enhanced Local Governance, Infrastructure and Livelihoods (Nudeil) and Dinu and Nuti, which combined cost $48.8m (Shs181b).

Despite these huge investments, northern Uganda is the second poorest region of the country after Busoga and explanations vary, depending on whom one speaks to.

“You cannot achieve a miracle [of development] in a year or two or five years,” Ms Grace Kwiyucwiny, the state minister for Northern Uganda, said.

By appointment, she directly shoulders the central government’s responsibility to ensure things change for the better in the region.

“It is a process,” Ms Kwiyucwiny said of the expected transformation, adding, “the government built the roads, health facilities, schools, et cetera, and that is what most of the money initially did. So, the government has now changed to empowering the population agriculturally.”

In this, the minister has her eyes set on the newly-unveiled Parish Development Model (PDM), a nationwide poverty alleviation programme being piloted for five years until the eve of the next election, under which households in the second lowest administrative unit choose profitable enterprises that the government directly bankrolls.

Billed by bureaucrats as a panacea, following decades of false starts with other less-successful anti-poverty programmes such as Entandikwa, Poverty Eradication Action Plan, Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture and lately army-barrelled Operation Wealth Creation, PDM has run into early headwinds, with district officials, a number already taken into custody, spiriting away millions of shillings meant for implementation.

Not all is grim. Uganda’s national poverty rate, according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos), dropped from almost 38 percent to 20.3 percent more than 16 years from 2002, just when a plethora of programmes began to be rolled to lift northern Uganda out of biting poverty.

Mr John Genda Walala, the director of Local Government Inspection (left), during the commissioning of a new classroom block at Kocgoma Primary School in Nwoya District on Monday. The government believes education will help fight poverty in northern Uganda.  PHOTO | TEDDY DOKOTHO.  

The trouble, though, is that where poverty elsewhere in the country reduced, its prevalence in the north went higher despite an injection of bigger cash, an irony the government acknowledges.

By last year, the government’s statistical body ranked the Acholi Sub-region as the poorest in northern Uganda at 67.5 percent, 2.5 percentage points higher than the Karamoja Sub-region, in its national poverty ranking indices.

Addressing Parliament on November 22, Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja said an audit they conducted showed that “a lot of money has been sunk into northern Uganda and the communities continue to suffer with poverty”.

“We realised all that money was going into infrastructure development”, she said, “So, what have we done [now is that] all that was going into infrastructure development; building schools, health centres [et cetera], we have said this time on, no schools, no health centres, no roads”.

Instead, Ms Nabbanja said: “We are injecting this money directly to the people [through PDM]. A lot of money is going to people now. All areas must be covered and this time we must push poverty out of Uganda.”

The government said it had learnt from past mistakes to perfect PDM so it is not jinxed, some argue, as is the case with northern Uganda rebuilding efforts.

The epicentre of the LRA war was in Acholi and partially Lango, although the LRA rebels made brief incursions into Teso and West Nile besides ambushing mainly buses to or from the sub-region in Murchison Falls National Park.

Some analysts see the failure of northern Uganda programmes in the conceptualisation, its wide coverage including areas outside the heartland of the insurgency and corruption, which they want fixed before implementation of the fourth phase of Nusaf, an arrangement in advanced stages.

Mr Christopher Opio, the Gulu District chairperson, said Nusaf I, for instance, “failed because the project was not being monitored and all of the other programmes never had value-for-money”.

“Most projects lacked monitoring and supervision, which paved way for corruption, hence the intended beneficiaries were left out,” he said, adding, “Strangely, people who are supposed to give the services to beneficiaries turned into beneficiaries themselves. It sounds weird, but that is what happened.”

His views corroborate the findings of an independent study. A 2019 research conducted by Advocates for Research in Development (ARiD) on the performance and impact of Nusaf III in Pader and Agago districts, highlighted technical and strategic failures in the programmes characterised by politics and corruption.

In the Lamiyo Sub-county of Agago District, for example, where eight groups benefitted, the programme remained constrained by interference from politicians, the researchers reported.

“While the project guideline demanded that beneficiary groups should be selected based on wealth ranking such that only the poor are selected, politicians influenced the process to fix groups that would [offer] kickbacks,” the report reads in part.

The researchers found that during the selection of beneficiaries, local councillors forced their way and influenced the picking of qualifying groups.

“There was also disagreement between the groups and the technical officers. This [was] a result of underestimation of the cost of investment projects like opening community access roads and in some cases, beneficiaries ended up receiving only a single animal/ox instead of a pair,” the report authors noted.

Whereas a total of 20 groups had benefitted from Shs2.3 billion disbursed under the programme by 2019, in Pader District, Shs3.3 billion was disbursed to fund a total of 144 projects, highlighting mismatched spending priority.

Asked about these anomalies, the State Minister for Northern Uganda, Ms Grace Kwiyucwiny, said mistakes of the past will not be repeated in Nusaf IV which the World Bank will fund to primarily focus on promoting cash crop production in the region.

“The government still has affirmative action for northern Uganda; Nusaf IV will soon be launched … [to] entirely target to move people out of poverty through commercial agriculture [and] agro-processing,” she said.

According to Ms Kwiyucwiny, the government will support commercial farmers and introduce several cash crops to the farmers in northern Uganda as alternatives to subsistence production of cereals.

The minister added: “[The] government has already registered big farmers in every district of the region, the north can grow coffee, which is more lucrative than any of these crops we are growing now. Besides, macadamia and palm oil will be introduced. Palm oil has changed Kalangala Island and it can potentially change northern Uganda.”

The government’s own review showed interventions were de-linked due to the lack of an overall strategic framework, and the development perspective adopted assumed normal functioning of state authority in the area, which was not the case in post-conflict northern Uganda.

Ms Betty Aol Ochan, the Gulu City Woman Member of Parliament and immediate past Leader of Opposition, said the government failed to score in transforming the region after the war ended because most projects were stretched to cover a wider geographical area than the funds would allow.

For example, PRDP was stretched to cover not only Acholi, Lango, West Nile, Teso and Karamoja sub-regions but it covered Bukedi, Elgon and Bunyoro sub-regions that were not directly in LRA’s firing line.

The outsized project roll-out, she noted, whittled down the impact.

“The government decided to put political north, but not the geographical north [for the project]. If they concentrated the support to the geographical north, I don’t think we would still be in a very wanting situation right now,” she added.

According to Mr Michael Lakony, the Amuru District chairman, the government, while introducing the reconstruction programmes, did not consider Acholi and Lango sub-regions as the worst hit by the war and never gave it priority, a mistake that some leaders from the sub-region claim is being repeated with PDM.

Mr Ambrose Olaa, the Acholi Cultural Institution prime minister, demands that the government customise PDM to fit Acholi’s unique circumstance.

“Our people still have psychological problems, many are ex-combatants, we have ex-abductees, children born in captivity, we have people who were brutalised, others are still struggling to get compensated for what they lost during the war,” he said.

PDM, or predecessor government programmes, he argued, have not taken into account critical the hurdles faced by people in the sub-region.

“The people of Acholi are in a ditch and Parish Development Model programme is at the surface”, he said, “For the people of Acholi to get to the surface, we need to review our post-war situation. Otherwise, you are throwing PDM (cash) to people who are traumatised and it will not benefit them”.

Mr John Walala, the director of Local Government Inspection at the Ministry of Local Government, said the government should sack corrupt officials instead of rotating them.

He was speaking at the commissioning of a Shs390m classroom and staff quarters’ blocks at Kocgoma Primary School in Kocgoma Sub-county, Nwoya district, built under Nudeil.

“In my own experience, it is foolery that if you have a thief or a non-performer in location A, transferring them to location B would solve the problem. If you transfer a non-performing or corrupt staff from Nwoya to Kitgum or Mbarara, they will still not perform but steal,” he said.

More money, he said, was being expended on refurbishing social service infrastructure a few years after construction.

Minister Kwiyucwiny, under whose docket rebuilding of northern Uganda falls, said playing blame games is unhelpful and “we should look at refocusing and reorganising ourselves to fight poverty”.

“We have remained poor because we depend too much on subsistence farming; producing food for eating. For example, [we grow] simsim and groundnuts, and we boast that they are too much. If you (a buyer) sent there seven trailers for simsim, the next one will not fill because we are doing subsistence farming,” she said.

She urged residents to embrace commercial agriculture in order to guarantee financial security.

“For now, we are concentrating on the affirmative action programme, we are concentrating on households, strengthening and empowering the households economically, with cash crops so that we run away from subsistence farming year in, year out,” the minister added.