Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Northern Aid Programme Probed

Ten arrested, others flee as corruption inquiry into development projects gathers pace.
By Bill Oketch, Patrick Okino

The authorities are belatedly cracking down on suspected fraud that has plagued a long-running development programme in the north of the country and raised doubts about the effectiveness of a major new reconstruction project for the region.

In recent weeks, the courts have issued corruption charges against around twenty people linked to work administered by the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund, NUSAF, a government agency tasked with managing projects to rebuild war-torn provinces in the north of the country.

Ten of the suspects were arrested on August 5 and remanded in custody in advance of their trial which is due to begin next week. The remainder reportedly fled to South Sudan.

Northern Uganda is only now beginning to get to grips with the aftermath of 20 years of a rebel war fought by the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, from 1986 to 2006. The conflict caused the death of an estimated 100,000 people and displaced nearly two million.

The suspects have been charged with various counts of theft, abuse of office, forgery, false accounting, making false statements, embezzlement and causing financial losses, according to court documents.

All of the accused were involved in one of the hundreds of projects, either as community or agency managers.

The five-year community driven programme, largely funded by the World Bank with a budget of 131.30 million dollars, ran from 2002 to the end of last year.

The purpose of the projects is to help the poor in various urban and semi-urban areas, in particular the vulnerable, disadvantaged and displaced persons in the West Nile, Acholi, Lango, Teso and Karamoja regions of northern and eastern Uganda.

According to procedures, redevelopment money flowed from the World Bank through NUSAF offices to local communities who selected local leaders to head the projects.

The communities opened local bank accounts and the Bank of Uganda deposited the money into project accounts.

The local leaders were signatories to the accounts and could withdraw the money as needed.

However, a review and evaluation of the projects last year revealed that the amount of money withdrawn exceeded the cost and value of work that had been done, said officials.

As a result, those involved in the questionable projects were arrested.

The substantial irregularities alleged by the courts cast serious doubts over the government’s new reconstruction plans for the region. The Peace, Development and Recovery Plan, PRDP, broadly sets out a development roadmap that is to be followed by various sectors of government and private partners.

It is intended to provide safe water, revive education, establish security, improve roads, provide emergency relief, fight HIV/AIDS and expand farming with oxen and plough to support food production and incomes across the north.

The new programme was to begin on July 1 and make extensive use of NUSAF, which has been the conduit for many redevelopment projects.

One of the highest ranking officials to have been linked to the latest scandal is the Lira district chairman, Franco Ojur, who police said was suspected of being involved in one the cases under investigation.

A team from the police Criminal Investigation Department in Kampala reportedly questioned Ojur regarding his involvement in a NUSAF-funded road rebuilding project.

The investigators, led by Assistant Police Commissioner Haruna Ntambi, also closed the NUSAF offices in Lira and deployed armed policemen to protect documents that may be part of the inquiry.

Ntambi and other investigators questioned Ojur at Lira Central Police Station on August 6, saying he was a potential witness in one of the cases, they told IWPR.

Ojur was interrogated because “his signature was found in one of the documents”, said Ntambi.

Ojur had earlier been implicated in a March 30, 2007 report prepared by a special committee of the district council that probed NUSAF activities locally.

The report alleged that Ojur used his son, Joseph Olwa, a student at Makerere University in Kampala, to sign a contract worth about 22,000 US dollars, to construct a road east of Lira.

“The contract was awarded on October 10, 2006, and signed the following day, under the signature of one Joseph Olwa, who signed as director,” said the report.

When contacted by IWPR, Ojur dismissed the report, saying it was neither authentic nor accurate.

“If justice is for all, then all the projects must be investigated because they all have problems,” said Ojur. “I don’t have lists of those community project implicated, [but] there has been a general public outcry.”

Ntambi told IWPR that he has investigated 16 projects and at least ten involved shoddy work, misappropriation of funds, or were non-existent projects.

The investigators said they are looking into projects that were to build grain processing mills, road construction, primary schools and overhaul laboratories, among others.

The NUSAF projects require local participation and are intended to help reduce poverty and promote reconciliation amongst survivors of war with the LRA.

George Adoko, a senior NUSAF official, said agency resources have been allocated to 18 districts in the north.

The Lira district was allocated about ten million dollars, but part of this money was misappropriated and nobody was held accountable, said Adoko.

According to investigators, a total of 915 projects were funded in the district, but few have benefited the community.

“The money was allocated to Lira district to help the communities rebuild their lives and homes after long suffering in the [refugee] camps, but this fund was mismanaged by some few who [preferred] fraud [over] development,” said Ntambi.

Government officials say the funds for each district varied according to the number of projects.

One official, Fredrick Kwihiira, told IWPR that although money was disbursed, “people did shoddy work, and part of the money was mismanaged”. This angered President Yoweri Museveni who ordered that NUSAF be investigated, he said.

Museveni “issued a directive to police to have those implicated into the NUSAF saga arrested and dragged to court so as they could face justice”, he said. “We pray that the suspects [are] prosecuted and made to refund the money.”

Kwihiira said the problems were caused by conflicts between local communities, contractors, and implementing agencies. As a result, money was withdrawn from accounts despite substandard work or no work at all having been done on some projects.

Some communities have taken legal action against their own local leaders accused of misusing the money. In one case, a local committee chairman and treasure were sued for the misuse of about 3,000 dollars.

The money was to have purchased four ox-ploughs and two ox-carts to help the community of Okwor parish.

The purchase was never made and the steering committee officials were arrested and charged with embezzlement. But the charge was subsequently reduced to simple theft, complained Joe Omodi, a resident of Ayer village, west of Lira.

“We raised the complaint to the chief magistrate,” said Omodi, “but he advised us to complain to department of public prosecution.”

Gabriel Nyipir, Lira chief magistrate, told IWPR that he was aware of the reduced charges, but explained that was done at the request of the prosecutors, not the court.

Bill Oketch and Patrick Okino are IWPR-trained reporters.