Ugandan elite dipped into UK aid cash

Published by The Mail on Sunday (December 2nd, 2018)

Tens of millions of pounds donated by British taxpayers and other countries to help refugees in Uganda have vanished into thin air, according to a damning investigation by the United Nations.

Confirming the findings of a Mail on Sunday investigation earlier this year, the UN internal review exposes an astonishing catalogue of dodgy land dealing, lack of invoices, overpayments, expenses fiddles and untraceable workers.

It points the finger at Uganda’s Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), which was the source of a major fraud six years ago but insisted on controlling relief efforts as up to 8,000 refugees a day poured over borders from conflicts in neighbouring countries.

Conservative MP Nigel Evans, who visited Uganda last month with the International Development Committee, said: ‘What seems to be happening at every level is stealing from some of the poorest people on the planet, with government officials or agencies that are either culpable or inadequate for this vital job.’

He demanded International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt hold urgent talks with the UN over the findings, adding: ‘Otherwise people will question whether it is worthwhile spending this money.’

The vast sums sent to Uganda are part of the British Government’s decision to spend 0.7 per cent of the nation’s wealth on foreign aid – £14 billion a year.

The UN probe by its Office of Internal Oversight Services reveals multiple instances of mismanagement by UNHCR, its refugee agency, over the 18 months from July 2016 despite previous warnings.

UN chief Antonio Guterres begged donors to help Uganda deal with ‘the biggest refugee exodus in Africa since the Rwandan genocide’. Britain led the way, offering an extra £40 million on top of the £111 million already spent in the East African nation.

This helped UNHCR spending in Uganda to soar from £98 million in 2016 to £161 million last year.

An investigation by this newspaper in June revealed rampant corruption, theft of aid, manipulation of data and sexual abuse of refugees in Uganda. At the heart of the scam lay huge numbers of fake refugees. The audit confirms that for almost three years the OPM refused to share data on refugee registrations.

After the scandal erupted, Uganda was forced to carry out an £8.5 million re-registration process that found 24 per cent fewer refugees than the 1.4 million being claimed.

The audit also discovered that UNHCR handed the OPM £280,000 to buy land for ‘refugee registration activities’. Yet the government’s own valuation for the plot was £123,000. It is currently a car park.

The OPM recommended use of three local charities that were underqualified yet accepted by the UNHCR – even though one had previously defrauded it.

Other instances of mishandling funds include £250,000 spent annually on 72 civil servants who could not be traced and another £130,000 paid in cash last year to temporary workers without documentation.

The audit found £6.8 million disappeared on ‘potential overpayment’ to trucking and bus firms due to lack of paperwork. ‘Weak controls by OPM and the lack of action to hold them accountable increased the risk to UNHCR of financial lost, fraud and other irregularities,’ it said.

The study also raised concerns over the UN’s own car fleets, saying the agency operated 450 vehicles with a £3.1 million fuel expenditure – yet there was no ‘needs assessment or justification’ for 230 of the vehicles.

It found dire management of supplies with more goods stockpiled than actually distributed. One distribution point held goods worth more than £3 million but lacked an inventory, while solar lamps worth £250,000 were missing from another. The Mail on Sunday found scores of UN-branded items on sale in local markets.

The UNHCR is already investigating fraud, theft and corruption over its operations in Uganda, while the PM has suspended four officials pending further inquiries.

A UNHCR spokesman said the audit showed ‘clear gaps and weaknesses’ at a time when its staffing capacity in remote regions was very low, then rapidly expanded with new partners. ‘We have accepted the recommendations of the auditors and have been working to address them well before this report was issued.’

He added they were pursuing ‘full recovery of funds from any project partners of concern’ while also holding ‘high-level dialogue’ with the OPM on the findings.

The Department of International Development said it had given no more cash to UNHCR in Uganda after claims of corruption emerged apart from emergency funds for Ebola virus prevention, and would only resume donations when confident the body had addressed issues raised by the audit.

A spokesman said they had ‘a zero-tolerance approach’ to fraud and corruption: ‘Where taxpayers’ money is misused, we expect our partners to take firm and immediate action.’

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