Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The latest arrests were made in the Kitgum area by officers from Uganda’s Criminal Investigation Directorate, CID. They bring to at least 21 the number arrested in connection with the alleged misuse of millions of US dollars worth of reconstruction projects handled by the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund, NUSAF – a government agency tasked with managing the regeneration of the region.
In recent weeks, Ugandan courts have charged more than 20 people as a result of the criminal investigation into the suspected fraud.
The accused are all either community or agency managers of projects administered by NUSAF. According to court documents, they face charges including embezzlement, causing financial loss and fraud.
As reported by IWPR– in Northern Aid Programme Probed by Bill Oketch and Patrick Okino – ten people connected with work administered by NUSAF were arrested earlier this month and remain in custody. (See New Corruption Claims Investigated, AR No. 183, 21-Aug-08.)
The fraud allegations have damaged the NUSAF programme and called into question the effectiveness of plans to rebuild the region following 20 years of rebel insurgency by the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA.
Since 2006, the region has enjoyed relative peace after LRA leader Joseph Kony took his army to northeast Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, from where he has been engaged on and off in peace talks with the Ugandan government.
Although Kony and the other top commanders wanted by the International Criminal Court remain at large, a fragile peace has prevailed, and nearly two million north Ugandans have been attempting to rebuild their lives.
A five-year community driven programme, which was largely funded by the World Bank with a budget of 131.30 million dollars – was set up to help them do this. Administered by NUSAF, it ran from 2002 to the end of last year.
The purpose of its various projects was to help the poorest and most vulnerable people in the region. Redevelopment funds were released by the World Bank, and were sent through NUSAF to local communities where locally elected leaders led projects.
However, an official review from 2007 showed that money withdrawn from specially set-up bank accounts by local leaders exceeded the value of the work completed.
In the Kitgum district, the equivalent of about 1.2 million US dollars has not been accounted for properly, say officials – the largest sum to be called into question so far.
According to the charges, the accused have either failed to account for the money spent, or nothing has been done on the ground to show how the grant money was used.
Kitgum district official John Komach Ogwok said widespread corruption has severely damaged efforts to rebuild the region after two decades of war.
However, those responsible would be held to account, he said.
“In Kitgum district, we [are continuing to fight] corruption, and more people who swindled funds meant for recovery programmes will definitely pay the price,” Ogwok told IWPR.
Those taken into custody recently include project executives and others authorised to withdraw money from community bank accounts meant to pay for key construction projects, such as building schools and roads.
Embezzlement in Uganda carries a penalty of seven years in jail and the charges are prosecuted by the nation’s high court, said Lira senior police officer Julius Onguu.
While the first phase of the 113 million dollar NUSAF project – a World Bank and Ugandan government-funded programme – was to end in March 2008, this has been now been extended to March 2009 to enable completion of all the projects and expenditure of the total funds.
Despite the ongoing probe into the misuse of funds, the second phase of the NUSAF project will continue, said project specialist Martin Okumu.
He said he could not comment on how the investigation might affect existing uncompleted projects.
Files and documents associated with some projects under investigation have reportedly vanished, sending police on fast-moving searches for the people involved, investigators told IWPR.
“A number of these people have fled, but their case files are ready,” said Aldo Olado, an investigator who recently arrested two suspects in a remote village in northern Uganda.
The suspects were apprehended at night and appeared in Lira magistrate court last week on charges of embezzlement in connection with funds meant for an animal husbandry project valued at about 25,000 dollars.
According to Evelyn Akullo, one of the suspect’s relatives, the man in question has been “very stubborn” about providing information since receiving project money.
“We asked him many times to clarify whether he had given the money to the members, but he only told us that everything was OK. But I was again shocked to hear that they have arrested him,” she said.
Martin Ocaya, resident of the Bazzar village in northern Uganda and brother of one of the accused, was irked by the arrests.
“How can you bring a project for eradicating poverty [to northern Uganda] and later resort to jailing the beneficiaries who suffered for 20 years in the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army?” asked Ocaya.
He said his sister – whom he declined to name – was very sick.
“I think if they continue disturbing her, she will die,” said Ocaya.
Meanwhile, senior government ministers have warned those local community leaders entrusted with the projects to resist the temptation to misuse NUSAF funds, despite the extreme deprivation endured by those in the north.
The poverty rate across Uganda averages is 31 per cent, while in the north of the country it exceeds 60 per cent, according to northern member of parliament Daniel Omara Atubo.
“If leaders don’t sensitise the population against mishandling this fund, the region will not recover,” said Atubo.
He also suggested that the government fight poverty by “educating the masses on how to utilise their land for crop production”, rather than relying on aid programmes.
The problems uncovered in NUSAF should not affect the government’s other reconstruction programme – the Peace Recovery and Development Plan, PRDP – said the minister in charge of reconstruction in northern Uganda, David Wakikona.
“The problem we experienced in NUSAF, we don’t expect it to happen in PRDP or in the second phase of the project,” said Wakikona.
Yet, despite the assurances of officials, many people in the north are frustrated with the NUSAF project’s results to date.
Akwar Mark, a resident of Olilim Trading Centre and the secretary for a pig-farming project which received about 4,000 dollars from the fund, said the project had not helped the community.
All of the project’s 27 pigs had died, he said, but project staff had done nothing to help.
When the group approached officials about the livestock deaths, they told its members to write a report about the loss of the animals and took no other action, said Akwar.
“We called the veterinary doctor [who] treated them, but they died all the same.”
Patrick Okino is an IWPR-trained journalist in Uganda.
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