With the exception of Sudan, no other country has closer historical, political and socio-economic ties with South Sudan than Uganda. But while the people of South Sudan found in Uganda a reliable ally and friend in their decades of struggle for freedom from the North, they certainly did not expect that so many of them would be fleeing their homes for the safety of Uganda.
In August 2017, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees established that more than one million South Sudanese had sought safety in Uganda since the fighting flared up in July 2016.
Sadly, as the war-weary refugees cross the border seeking safety and protection in the arms of their neighbours, so do the people responsible for their misery.
The only difference is that while the refugees can only bring with them their meagre possession and hopes and dreams of a better life, the South Sudanese elite/politicians bring with them millions of dollars of South Sudan’s wealth.
The investigative documentary The Profiteers lifts the lid on the consequences of unabated corruption on both sides of the border. Look no further for a clearer and more sobering demonstration of the true impact of illicit financial flows than the contrast in lifestyles of the South Sudanese elite and their people in Uganda.
The largesse of the South Sudanese elite hides in plain sight in Kampala- from sprawling mansions in Buziga and the innumerable Sports Utility Vehicles (SUV) with South Sudanese registration plates snaking through Kampala traffic putting to shame even some of Uganda’s wealthiest.
This only validates the National Risk Assessment Survey on Money Laundering by the Financial Intelligence Authority that found real estate as the most attractive investment for money launderers.
In equal measure, the human and economic consequences of the conflict are also on display in Bidi Bidi in West Nile, the world’s second largest refugee settlement, as South Sudanese bravely attempt to reconstruct lives disrupted by a brutal conflict. The children of a lesser God.
While a select few continue to benefit from the leakage of South Sudan’s wealth, many more continue to grapple with its consequences. Cross border trade between Uganda and South Sudan has hemorrhaged since the outbreak of the conflict and resulted in massive lost opportunities for trade for hundreds of thousands of Ugandans in both formal and informal sectors.
The impact of the plummeting trade on the Ugandan taxpayer was exacerbated in the last few years by footing the bill for the Uganda’s and UPDF’s presence in South Sudan.
The most worrisome aspect of the revelations by the documentary to Uganda should be the extent to which at the behest of a few, Uganda continues to shoulder the burden of Africa’s largest and the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis.
The exploitation of South Sudan’s natural resource wealth by both parties to the conflict is enabled and facilitated by the corruptibility of some elements within the public and private sectors.
It was stark to observe how armed groups describe how easily they could bypass border and customs officials to export illegally logged timber through Uganda in such cavalier fashion. Uganda is not safe if the people entrusted to protect her from external threats can be bought off so easily.
From the documentary, The Profiteers, we see the apparent ease with which South Sudan’s money also moves through Ugandan banks and the ability of individuals under international sanctions engaged directly in the conflict to amass wealth in the heart of the capital is also alarming.
And it casts doubt over Uganda’s preparedness in its quest for membership in the Egmont Group, a network of government financial intelligence units seeking to prevent money laundering and terrorist financing.
Wittingly or unwittingly, Uganda is complicit in the looting of South Sudan.
Unless there is serious political will to confront and disrupt the cycle of profiteering, Uganda’s role in the South Sudan conflict risks being reduced to that of an accomplice to instability.
From the very top, the Bank of Uganda and the Ugandan Parliament must empower the anti-money laundering committee chaired by the Minister of Finance, to execute its mandate as a watchdog for these illicit flows. The findings of the National Risk Assessment Survey are a good place to start.
Uganda’s role as an honest arbiter of peace in South Sudan will depend on its ability to end this cycle of profiteering and violence.
Mr Wandera is the executive director
Transparency International Uganda