Uganda says suspends officials suspected in relief scandal

KAMPALA (Reuters) - Uganda said on Thursday it had suspended five officials, including a senior technocrat, following United Nations allegations of possible fraud in the management of relief aid to the East African country, home to about 1.5 million refugees.

The allegations have drawn unusually pointed and public comments from foreign governments, including the U.S. ambassador.

Musa Ecweru, junior minister for relief and disaster preparedness, told Reuters the five officials suspended included Apollo Kazungu, a commissioner in the office of the prime minister who has been in charge of refugees.

“Our zero-tolerance to corruption is not a slogan, we have asked the PS (permanent secretary) to get those suspected to step aside,” Ecweru said.

Uganda said this week it had started an investigation into allegations that officials defrauded donors by inflating refugee numbers and diverting food aid.

The country hosts slightly more than one million refugees from its northern neighbor, South Sudan, where a raging civil war has left tens of thousands dead, economic ruin and mass displacement.

South Sudan plunged into conflict in 2013 after political rivalry between President Salva Kiir and his then-deputy Riek Machar exploded into a military confrontation.

About 400,000 additional refugees have also entered Uganda from Burundi, where political violence has killed hundreds of people, and from a deadly conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

As the South Sudan conflict escalated, Uganda was widely praised for opening its doors without any restrictions and received substantial inflows of aid as donors responded to desperate appeals for help.

But allegations of possible theft of these funds have unsettled donors. Both the European Union and United States have call for urgent investigations to establish what went wrong.

The EU has asked its own anti-fraud office to conduct a separate investigation.

U.S. ambassador Deborah R. Malac said Uganda needed to conduct investigations urgently, ensure the restitution of any lost funds and prosecute anyone found to be involved in fraud. Failure to act would make it hard for governments to trust Uganda as a partner, she said.

“We cannot stress enough the fierce urgency for swift and definitive action,” she said at a meeting between donors and Ugandan officials on Thursday.

“Anything less than such actions would breach the trust bestowed on Uganda by the international community,” she said.

The United States alone, she said, has contributed over $500 million to the U.N.’s refugee agency, known as UNHCR, and the World Food Program over the last two years.

Reporting by Elias Biryabarema, Editing by William Maclean