Understanding Uganda’s asset recovery policy

photo by Drew Willson, Unsplash

This is a guest blog by Agaba Tabitha. For any inquiries, you may contact her at tabithaagaba6@gmail.com

Asset recovery – the return of assets stolen through corruption from the countries where they were hidden – is an important tool in the fight against corruption because it helps countries recover lost resources. Whereas some countries have taken up this approach to combat corruption, others like Uganda haven’t taken up much interest in it so far.

The importance of asset recovery

In a meeting by the Executive council of the African Union held on 7th February 2020 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Common African position on Asset recovery, it was noted that Africa as a continent has lost “$1.8 trillion between 1970 and 2008 and an estimated US$150 billion annually through illicit financial flows”. The council resolved that African states should work towards the detection, identification, recovery, and repatriation of African assets. This could go a long way in assisting African countries to recover stolen assets and contribute to their development goals.

Studies by UNICRI and the Basel Institute on Governance show how recovering money from illicit financial flows can assist countries to achieve their development goals and provide better social services to their citizens. Such studies can help in encouraging more governments like Uganda to adopt the asset recovery practice, support the fight against corruption and achieve its development goals. While there are several anti-corruption laws and agencies in place in Uganda, little effort has been focused on recovering the stolen assets so far.

Uganda’s anti-corruption fight

Uganda’s current fight against corruption is guided by the following provisions of the law;

  1. The Leadership Code Act 2020 encourages civil servants to declare their wealth and earnings to support and encourage accountability and transparency.
  2.  The Inspectorate of Government Act 2002 through which the inspectorate of government gets its authority to investigate, arrest and prosecute corrupt public officials.
  3. The Anti-corruption Act 2009, is an act that provides for “the effective prevention of corruption in both the public and the private sector”, and defines what constitutes corruption, the offenses, and penalties, powers of inspector general of government and director of public prosecutions, confiscation of property as well as jurisdictions.

The fight against corruption in Uganda has over the years been led by the Inspectorate of Government (IGG) together with the Office of the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) and the Anti-Corruption Court. In December 2018, the president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni instituted the State House Anti-corruption unit as one of the measures to support the fight against corruption.

Despite these laws and other measures that have been put in place to curb corruption, the country is regressing rather than progressing in this fight. The 2020 Transparency International Corruption Perception Index shows that Uganda’s score has dropped two points since 2012.

A parliamentary report estimated that Uganda alone lost more than sh24 trillion to corruption in the last ten years (approximately $6,7 million). Such financial losses not only cripple Uganda’s development trajectory but also hinder social service delivery.

Asset recovery still a big challenge

The Financial Intelligence Authority (FIA), the Office of Directorate of Public Prosecutions and the Inspectorate of Government are the main government agencies that lead the fight against the asset theft. Between November 2017 and 2018 the ODPP stated that it recovered and deposited with the Bank of Uganda a small amount of Shs. 1,174,363,766 (approx. USD 328 thousand) from criminal proceedings. In their 2019/2020 performance report, the ODPP announced that 10% of proceeds of crime recovered out of the orders issued, which totalled to Shs. 69,104,000, (approx. USD 19 thousand) exclusive of a number of seized properties. Considering that proceedings of financial crimes are only a portion of these recoveries, the figure is quite small.

Overall, since the establishment of the Anti-Corruption Court, over a nine-year period, the ODPP recovered in total Shs. 71 billion (approx. USD 20 million) following successful prosecutions of more than 200 corruption cases through the court. This figure, however, also includes cases outside the public sector. Alongside the ODPP, assets in Uganda are being recovered also by the Asset Recovery Unit (ARU) of the IGG.

Though there has been some asset recovery activity related to domestic cases, there is only one publicly known case concerning a foreign jurisdiction.

According to the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR) database, Ananias Tumukunde, a former Science and Technology Advisor to President, was arrested, charged and sentenced to 12 months imprisonment in the United Kingdom following surveillance by the UK intelligence on corruption charges. Tumukunde later pleaded guilty to receiving a bribe from a UK company, CBRN Team Ltd in March 2007 in a deal to procure the training and security equipment. 

The government has so far made very limited efforts to develop an efficient asset recovery strategy. In 2016, the then inspector general of government (IGG) noted that “asset recovery deals a blow to the corrupt officials more than just arrest” though it is still a big challenge because of the lack of a deeper understanding of it.

Since then, to remedy the shortcomings, ODPP and the directorate’s regional offices have in the recent past received assistance from the Basel Institute for Governance to better understand how to go about financial investigations and asset recovery. Moreover, in its 2019 Policy statement, the IGG requested for parliament’s support in amending the current asset recovery laws because “they lack specific procedure to follow on recovery of proceeds of crime, and there’s no specific provision or time frame within which to pay or realize the illicitly acquired assets among others”.

Civil society is also quite new to the topic. However, in 2020, anti-corruption civil society organizations (CSOs) advocated for the use of non-conviction based asset recovery. The CSOs urged that such a move would be very helpful since most of the assets accumulated from such proceeds are usually disposed off by the time the cases are concluded in court.

While the discussion about improving the asset recovery mechanisms in Uganda continues, the actions so far have been very limited. In order to diversify mechanisms and ways of fighting against corruption, Uganda could learn from other countries in the region and their approach towards asset recovery – with Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa leading the way.