The world has marked another World Refugee Day (20th June). The plight of the millions that get run out of their countries by wars; the internally displaced persons and all the suffering they endure has been remarked upon, for the umpteenth time.
Reading about the refugee situation in Uganda in particular, I was struck by the accolades that Kampala heaps upon itself, billing Uganda as “one of the most generous countries” in receiving refugees. “Uganda has continued to maintain an open-door policy to refugees, and doesn’t turn away anybody who is running to us for safety,” said Hilary Onek, Uganda’s Minister of Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, in Geneva in October last year.
Onek was buttressing Uganda’s supposed credentials of generosity even as he probably was aware of the irony of doing that in the face of his boss, Yoweri Museveni’s regime being the Great Lakes Region’s biggest factor of instability.
A closer examination of the facts will reveal that if it were not for Museveni’s constant meddling into the affairs of other countries, there would be far less refugees in the Great Lakes.
For starters, there would only be a minimal number of people fleeing the DR Congo, not only to Uganda but also to other neighbor states. Museveni’s interest in keeping the vast DR Congo weak and malleable is no secret – always with an eye on plunder of the resource rich country. It has caused conflict that’s resulted in hundreds of thousands of villagers fleeing, to become refugees – very many in Uganda.
No less an authority than the International Court of Justice confirmed this. In 2005, following a lawsuit against Uganda by DRC, the court ruled, “Uganda’s 1998-2003 intervention violated international sovereignty and led to the killing and torture of civilians and the destruction of villages. The president of the court Shi Jiuyong said, “by the conduct of (Uganda’s) armed forces which committed acts of torture, killing and other forms of inhumane treatment of the Congolese civilians, Uganda violated international human rights.”
Yet even after the International Court ordered Uganda to pay DRC US$ 10 billion in damages – with admonitions to desist from further incursions in the neighbor state – Museveni just continued much as before. And refugees have continued to flow because of his backing of terrorist groups such as RNC and FDLR that too kill, rape and torture civilians while looting.
The Ugandan ruler’s constant meddling in Burundi on behalf of President Nkurunziza has denied that country a chance at a peaceful resolution of its problems. The Burundian regime, emboldened by Museveni’s backing has massacred those seeking lawful and orderly resolutions to the current stalemate in their country. That in turn has caused more than half a million Burundians to flee to neighboring countries, ever since Nkurunziza’s power grab in 2015 – which had the support of Kampala.
Much misery has befallen South Sudan ever since Museveni decided to meddle into the political process there. When armed conflict broke out between the country’s two main power centers in 2013, Museveni unilaterally sent his army to prop up one side. That was not something that the regional Inter-Governmental Authority had agreed on.
It was discussing equitable options to resolve issues to mutual agreement. Key Igad states like Kenya favored a negotiated political solution, according to news reports. “But then,” reported the East African newspaper of 4 January 2014, “President Museveni just made a cowboy-like foray into the conflict.”
Museveni had once again proven himself a catalyst for endless conflicts that generate endless refugees. One of the remarkable things in all this is how loudly the Ugandan ruler proclaims his supposed generosity in “receiving” refugees. “He is like the arsonist that sets fire on a house, then rushes in with water to claim he is the fire brigade!” commented a regional security analyst.
Other than the self-praise on false premises, there are about two broad ways in which the Ugandan ruler exploits the refugee situations that he creates.
Refugees as a cash cow
Through the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), which receives millions of dollars from UNHCR – the UN agency for refugees – meant for the support of the destitute in the refugee camps, big sums are embezzled. It does not stop there. Through the OPM, the regime vastly inflates refugee numbers to claim more millions from the UN, which they then pocket. That is in addition to more from overbilling on fuel, food purchases and more scams.
A UN audit report of refugee numbers in Uganda in November 2018 found that there were 1.1 million, far less than the 1.4 million that the Government of Uganda had been claiming. In an article entitled “UN audit finds graft and misconduct in its Uganda refugee program”, the Reuters news agency said that corruption was unearthed that cost millions of dollars – and the culprit again was the Office of the Prime Minister.
The UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) showed inflated bills, fraud and non-compliance with rules among other examples of malfeasance through which the Ugandan government defrauded UNHCR. The audit showed excessive fuel use by UNHCR vehicles assigned to officials from Uganda’s Office of the Prime Minister, which manages refugees and provides contract services to UNHCR.
The audit further found that Uganda’s OPM paid US$ 283,000 in allowances annually to dozens of its staff, “but was unable to provide to OIOS documentation to substantiate that these civil servants were working on UNHCR projects.” OIOS also said the Office of the Prime Minister paid much for land ostensibly to expand space for refugee registration activities, and there were also potentially US$ 7.7 million in overpayment for water supplies.
“It is clear that for the highly corrupt Kampala regime, the presence of refugees is highly important and it will do all in its powers to see that not only is it never ending, it increases!” said the security analyst.
Further proof of this corruption was, inadvertently provided by Hilary Onek who, during an address during the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) on 25 March this year blasted officials of the Office of the Prime Minister in relation to the plunder of resources meant for refugees. “These people have built mansions in outside countries at the expense of refugees; they should be executed by firing squad!” thundered Onek.
Refugees as a recruitment source for terror groups
The other way in which Museveni exploits the presence of vast numbers of refugees in his country is as a source of recruits for groups bent on destabilizing neighbor states.
The UN Group of Experts on the DRC report issued on 30 December 2018 gave detailed descriptions of recruitment activities for anti-Rwanda terror outfits operating under the so-called “P5” group, of which the main ones are Kayumba Nyamwasa’s RNC, and the genocidal FDLR.
According to the GoE report, refugee camps are fertile recruitment ground because of big numbers of young, desperate people. Recruiters lure them with lies that they are taking them “to get jobs”; or that after they have joined RNC and the others, afterwards they will be given visas to Western countries. They hoodwink them in many other ways.
The world saw a clear example of such recruitment when, in December 2017 a group of 46 Kinyarwanda speaking men was intercepted at the Kikagati border with Uganda and Tanzania. Border authorities became suspicious when they realized the travel documents of these young people were forgeries. The young men had initially claimed they were going to a bible fellowship in Burundi. Upon closer interrogation they disclosed they were on their way to RNC training camps in eastern DRC.
Uganda Police arrested them and charged them with terrorism. Agents of Uganda’s Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) tried to intervene on the terror suspects’ behalf, saying there were “orders from above” to allow them proceed. At the time Police obviously still had the integrity to stand up to CMI, and refused, said an observer.
In the end even Museveni was shamed into admitting he had knowledge of recruitment activities in his country. That was when – during a joint press conference with his Rwandan counterpart in March 2018 – Museveni said that after President Kagame told him of the 46 recruits, he investigated and found out that indeed, “the young men who said they were going for bible work instead were on a mission of a different nature.”
The world had seen a glimpse of Museveni’s unscrupulous exploitation of desperate and poor refugees. Being exposed like that only seemed to spur Museveni and his CMI to recruit even more for RNC from the camps.
Regarding the Rwandan refugees, UNHCR has invoked a “cessation clause” on them. The Cessation Clause is part of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which allows countries to declare that the reasons that led to people fleeing the country no longer exist, and that all those who fled should be able to return or risk losing their refugee status.
UNCHR declared the clause for Rwandan refugees on June 30, 2013. Yet Uganda preferred inaction, and declined to implement it. Kampala did not embark on repatriation of the refugees as provided for in the clause. It instead did the complete opposite.
Working with unscrupulous elements in the Uganda office of UNHCR, Uganda earlier this year began putting billboards – with the UNHCR logo – at the borders with Rwanda. The billboards were telling Rwandans – in Kinyarwanda, English and Swahili – that any of them that wanted to become a refugee could cross the border, and get registered.
The government of Museveni had descended to a new low. It was actively advertising for - and recruiting - refugees. This was perhaps a first in world history, knowledgeable observers commented.
Museveni may pretend sympathy for refugees, but he is their most ruthless exploiter.