An article from The Guardian of 30th October updates about the inquiry of local government and UNHCR in the scandal of Ugandan refugee settlements that caused the suspension of Apollo Kazungu, commissioner for refugees in the prime minister’s office, and three of his senior staff – Walter Omondi, John Baptist Sentamu and Francis Nkwasibwe. They allegedly increased by 300.000 the number of refugees in settlements (1.4 millions declared instead of 1.1 actually) in order to defraud millions of dollars in aid. This story puts another stress on the need of a more transparent accountability in refugees, management.
This is a battle that some people are fighting from inside. Like Kulihoshi Musikami Luke Pecos, a refugee rights defender born in the Democratic Republic of Congo but working in Uganda, that was arrested last February 2018. The Ugandan Civil Society noticed a ribbon of corruption between the bad practices in Ugandan refugees settlements and this arrest. If we know enough about the settlements scandal, out of Africa very few has been said about the story. We talked with Kulihoshi, to know better his background and to explore some issues and solutions about refugees crisis in Africa. Waiting for the course of the case against him, he is still struggling to reach the goal of more transparency and more involment of the refugees themselves in the management system. Transparency that can be reached also with the help of external donors like EU. How? “Trying to build a direct bridge with the refugees rather than pass through intermediate institutions” Musikami said in this interview.
Kulihoshi, let’s know better, what brought you to work in Ugandan civil society?
I was active in the promotion of human right during the difficult period when Congo was invaded by foreign troops. From 1996 to 2000 the whole East was controlled by Rwandan and Ugandan troops and by then I was acting as a human right defender in South Kivu under civil society organizations. In my work to promote human rights I went in trouble with Rwandan troops which controlled South Kivu. They planned to kill me so I ran away to Uganda in November 2000. There I realized that there was a lot of work to be done on refugees issues especially the promotion of their rights. In 2004 I started an organization called “Refugee Actions”, which looked at the refugees’ rights. The organization changed into the Foundation of People for Peace and Defence of Human Rights. What we were doing was linking with different actors of civil society, creating a way to answer to the challenges affecting refugees in Uganda, but also promote peace in the Great Lake region of Africa. This particular region of Africa is one of the mainly affected regions in the world by violence. If you see, the perpetrators of violence and wars of Great Lake region have been refugees as well as some of the leaders in power in different countries in the region were not given other options to seek for power. There is a clear connection between the refugees’ movement and the instabilities or dictatorships which are surrounding in that particular region. We are committed in the promotion of peace, human rights as well as good governance and democracy leadership. And we believe that as refugees in Uganda we must depart from the paths of wars and violence and embrace the path of democracy human rights and good governance.
Which results have you achieved in your work?
In most of interventions as far as I came in Uganda I realized that:
1. Refugees in Uganda did not have what we call “the rights”. What was in place in Uganda was about the favors and acts of mercy out of good will: My first step about this situation was to create awareness that there are also the rights which refugees should enjoy, this has been done among refugees and so many now are empowered about their rights but also among humanitarian relief agencies actors here in Uganda and the population at large.
2. Another step that costed me a lot in terms of persecution. I had to make sure all the different actors understand that refugees have rights much as these actors always suspect that if refugees are empowered in their rights they will be demanding a lot from them, yet the strategy is place is to keep refugees ignorant and appreciative and thankful even for what is not given t them. I had to talk to refugees and tell them: “Guys, you see, these are your rights”. I had to talk to different people, in the government, in the UNHCR, in the police, in the civil society organizations. I had to talk to a variety of actors to make them understand that refugees, beyond their material actions, have rights. I’m so grateful that I’ve achieved a lot in terms of perspective about the refugees’ rights. At least now everybody speak of refugees’ rights. In Uganda they are not fully guaranteed with these rights, they are guaranteed partially and at least we have so far a law which has a big section about refugees rights. The issue now remains, from the perspective of the refugee’ regime, which kind of rights are we talking about. So we are kind of battling to make them understand that human rights are indivisible, universal, inalienable and inter-independent. I’m grateful to see refugees coming up with a voice. As well there is a lot of work to do to ensure that every refugee is conscient about his own rights. Our achievement was to have progressive laws. We all worked for that. We are still doing a lot of lobbying to make sure that Uganda have a quite number of good policies for the benefit of the refugees. We haven’t yet obtained as much as we wanted.
We have seen some activities taking place, that we started: English classes for example. We have managed a number of things over the years to make sure that refugees are not massively recruited by armed groups to destabilize their countries. Uganda has been an hub for many militia groups, even for South Sudan or Congo, sometimes for Somalia, sometimes for Rwanda, sometime for Burundi. On the other way we proposed in alternatives that refugees should be empowered in terms of leadership, democracy, good governance issues. Raise a generation of refugees with these values can bring stability to the region.
You were arrested in February this year. What happened? Is it connected with officers affected by corruption scandal that was discovered in Uganda refugee’s settlements?
“As a human rights organization and a human rights defender engaging the promotion of good governments, the issues of the refugee in terms of money, donations and material assistant given to refugees are among the main issues we had to understand better. We had to understand where does the money go and over the years we have been trained to raise questions, wanting to understand better what happens to the money which is sent by International Community or developed countries to help refugees. When we look on the ground, the fact is that refugees don’t get to that money.
In 2014 we saw refugees dying on lake Albert in Uganda, because they where running away, due to hunger which affected them in different refugee camps here in Uganda. They spent so many months in the camp without getting food, and they had to run away. But also we realized that refugees were sometimes granted only 3 kg of mais per month or even in three months, which was their ration of food. So we start asking questions to two different audiences about what happens to the money. We had to engage particular areas, particular partners, and try to understand what happened in the process. In most cases some officers within the government of Uganda and within UNHCR did not appreciate this work and then plotted for me to be brutally arrested in uncommunicado detention.
In this year they are finishing the verification in order to come up with the clear number of the refugees in Uganda and I think this is one area where we reached a lot of achievements from and I’m grateful that this country, Uganda, has to be advised the importance of a clear policy, a clear refugees system and the necessity of having a transparent refugee system. By doing this, we wish to have a country capable to be a model of managing refugees issues in the world. Some officers benefiting from corruption and endazzlement of refugees’ funds, were not so much happy of us forcing down for a clean process. They picked me from my office and they took me to a military camp, they kept me for two days and later on I was transfered to the Police for a week and then I was released. A case was opened against me with different charges and it is still going. I want Uganda having a positive name for transparency, accountability and management of refugees’ system and I’ll push to work for that for long”.
What happened in Uganda refugees’ settlements after the discovery of the scandal? Which was the aftermath of arrests?
“Uganda refugees’ management system has a different way to addressing refugees’ issues. One is the option of refugees living in the camps which are called “settlements”, but in Uganda we have also refugees living in a urban, mostly in Kampala. The solution in camps relies entirely on the support by International Community, in terms of food, medication, education and any other humanitarian service. So before what happened, programs in the settlements were not existing anymore and refugees had to take different directions for seek these services. Some refugees were leaving towards Tanzania or Kenya, there was a massive refugees movement from the camps to the urban in Kampala to survive, others were going to their countries of origin while the ones who stay in camps live in a critical condition.
The most affected were the women, the children, in a camp there were also cases of vulnerable refugees, especially children arriving from poor families. The situation from then was seriously alarming. Because of that we had to come with a number of activities. There is a report we have submitted to UN Human Rights Council and the Universal Periodic Review Process (UPR) where we had to question seriously the way Uganda is handling refugees. Currently the situation seems to be improving, we had to discover all this kind of scandals. We found that a lot of things meant for the refugees being diverted by different powerful people.
As an operative of civil society in Africa, which are your main issues (if there are) with UN and EU?
“In 2016 refugees became active in different forms to address institutions they are in and in most cases they could send pictures and record bad situations in the camp, like people dying for lack of medicines. In Kampala we tried to put it together to show to authorities what was really happening in the camp. In this process, authorities became a bit aggressive and proactive in trying to silence me, but on the other way we also managed to submit a report to the UN Human Rights Council and the Universal Periodic Review.
We should shift our humanitarian activities, from basic needs to activities which require sustainability and long time programming. For example, if you want refugees to play a positive role in society both Uganda and in their countries of origin, you have to have programs supporting such kind of move. The programs leading to development but also refugees themselves play a big role. The donors like EU have to shift from current activities we have so we can put activities which can help refugees to monitor and evaluate the program and what can be improved because solutions should come from refugees.
The refugees should be more empowered in terms of seeking for accountability and good government. They should be in the condition of having clear informations and being involved in decision making process.
What the donors should do is to create direct contact with the refugees, building direct bridges instead of passing through intermediate institutions.