Museveni government’s pernicious exploitation of refugees exposed

By Mark Martin Karuhanga

The findings of a UN investigation released in the past month indicate alarming levels of corruption and fraud in the refugee programme in Uganda. The findings show that the thieving by Uganda government officials goes up all the way to the Prime Minister’s office.

The report by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), the world body’s internal audit unit, shows inflated bills, fraud and non-compliance with a wide range of rules, among other malfeasance that had caused losses for UNHCR. The audit covered UNHCR’s Uganda operations for 18 months, from July 2016.

In a cessation clause announced back in October 2009, it was stated that starting on 1 January 2018, all Rwandans who fled the country from 1959 to 1998 were to lose their refugee status. That was because, according to the UNHCR, “fundamental and durable changes in their country of origin guarantee that there is no well-founded fear of persecution.”

What the UN agency was saying was that Rwanda was without a single doubt safe for all its citizens, and there could be no further justifiable reason for exile for any. But Uganda has, on its own, decided to ignore that UNHCR determination, refusing to assist in the orderly repatriation of Rwandan refugees.

For years President Museveni and his officials have been making it obvious they do not want the refugee situation in our country to end, playing all kinds of psychological games around the issue. The strategy, according to some analysts, has especially been to play around with refugees as pawns “to score cheap propaganda points.”

There is nothing new in this. Museveni has historically manipulated the refugee issue, using them to further his own political ambitions. Also on record is how he was able to create a massive number of internal refugees (IDPs) in northern Uganda for more than two decades of his rule, in order to politically leverage the hatred Uganda’s southerners had for their northern compatriots.

Once he had consolidated southern support, he then decisively disbanded the IDP camps, especially of the Acholi, in the West Nile region. In other words, Museveni does not mind inflicting extreme punishment on ordinary people, including the most vulnerable, for cynical political gain.

Despite ample evidence to the contrary, Museveni has been able to pose as someone friendly to refugees. His supposed credentials as a humanitarian have been bolstered mostly by his ability to point to the presence of Rwandan refugees in Uganda and his claims of having been a generous host for them.

He has leveraged these refugees (who in fact no longer have that status as a result of the application of the UNHCR’s cessation clause as of 1 January 2018) to create a mythical image of a benevolent humanitarian, and to boost his flagging international standing, especially within the international development community.

Read: Kyarenga success dances Museveni closer to exit

And yet, like happens with many myths, Museveni’s government has also been contradicting itself regarding Rwandan refugees’ stay in Uganda.

It was just in October that the Ugandan authorities announced they were repatriating them back to Rwanda. Then, less than a month later, they turned around to announce the opposite, even seeming to encourage more Rwandans to seek refuge in Uganda.

“The asylum space is not closed for Rwandan asylum-seekers,” Minister for Disaster Preparedness, Engineer Hillary Onek said.

One might think this is an outcome of the usual dysfunctioning of the Kampala regime. However, the more probable aim here is an attempt at psychologically manipulating the refugee issue and the international community to believe in Museveni’s mythical benevolence. That would then be his basis to arm-twist donors to send more funds, for his government to steal.

Museveni needs the refugees more than they need him, in order to retain the power of patronage he requires to keep his regime afloat. His inner circle are determined that, in addition to fleecing Uganda, they should also be able to continue to filch a generously endowed Uganda refugee programme. The latest UN report reinforces out this view.

Read: If you liked Idi Amin for the EAC, you will love Museveni too

According to Uganda’s Daily Monitor, in February 2018, for instance, it was discovered that Museveni’s government has not only been inflating refugee figures, but also trafficking women and children from refugee camps.

Also reporting on this scandal was the UK’s Daily Mail that run this front page article, “The foreign aid ghost camp: Shocking investigation reveals how corrupt Ugandan officials are manipulating refugee statistics in order to con the UK out of millions.” More recent news reports indicate that the Uganda government has massively inflated the numbers in the country by at least 320,000 refugees for whom it has been receiving international aid for years. The UN’s internal watchdog notes the situation is so bad, at least a massive US dollars 11 million is now being spent on a recount of South Sudanese refugees alone in order to weed out potentially even more hundreds of thousands of “ghost refugees.”

Despite such reports that periodically expose the reality from the myth of Museveni as a ‘humanitarian benefactor of refugees’, Museveni somehow manages to continue to convince many that he is a benevolent actor.

For the Museveni regime however, there are other benefits he derives from Rwandan refugees other than as a lure for humanitarian dollars. He uses them mainly as a key strand in his destabilisation of Rwanda.

Read also: “You will be shot,” Museveni warns the opposition

It has regularly been reported in the news how, for instance, the terrorist Rwanda National Congress (RNC), operating with critical backing from such Museveni security agencies like the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) and the Internal Security Organisation (ISO), recruits from among these same refugees.

Mr Museveni is, of course, abetted in such manipulation of refugees by many similarly cynical, and self-serving officials within his government. A case in point is Hillary Onek on whom one wonders: Has he forgotten how for decades Museveni herded his Acholi tribesmen, women and children into IDP camps where he held them in a chokehold until they were able to tap-out, while he claimed all the while that they were victims of their own making? Museveni, a grandmaster in cynical manipulation, does seem to be able to read the degree of each of his collaborators’ cupidity and the price with which he can pacify any vestiges of conscience they may once have had.