In our first series on investigations into exploitation of workers in Uganda we focus on the NGO EAGLE Network.
By Joseph Elunya
The non-governmental organization, Eco Activists for Governance and Law Enforcement (EAGLE) Network, is accused of exploitation of workers.
The multi-national, NGO founded by an Israeli former journalist Ofir Drori, fights wildlife trafficking in five African countries, that include Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Kenya and Uganda. In Uganda the organization is licensed by NGO Bureau under tourism to protect elephants and apes.
The Bugolobi based NGO, has been operating for over two years now, by using local undercover investigators. According to the brief, given to investigators, they are supposed to investigate and cause arrest of people dealing in illicit wildlife products like ivory, pangolins, leopard and lion skins and other wildlife species.
However, the organization is now on spotlight for exploiting people, who are hired as investigators under the network in Uganda.
An undercover investigation, carried out by the Centre for Investigative Journalism in Uganda, indeed reveals cases of exploitation and rights violation.
In July last year, the Centre got a tip from a former worker, who claimed that the organization-Eagle was recruiting investigators to carryout risky operations, without any form of payment or compensation. The former employee also told us that the investigators are made to sign a three month probation contract but are dismissed before the end of the contract and that other unsuspecting investigators are then and the cycle continues.
We deployed our undercover investigative Journalist and here is his story….
After getting the tip, of exploitation of workers at EAGLE, I searched online and got an advert that had been placed calling for recruitment of investigators. I then applied as an investigator, in September 2019 and got an email from a lady, who identified herself as Jana from Nairobi, Kenya. She told me I had been shortlisted for the position of Investigator with EAGLE network at the Kampala office and that I would be interviewed the next day on phone.
The following day, she called and engaged me, in a phone interview and after warned that the work is quite risky and if I’ am taken, I have to work undercover.
She told me she was impressed with my performance, during the interview but that I should wait for the decision of the Central Coordinating Unit-CCU which is based in Nairobi. She however expressed concern, that she had found too much information, about me online and that as, a condition for the job I must delete my profile from all social media platforms and avoid being online.
A week later, a lady who identified herself as Lydia called and told me to report the next day, to their offices in Bugolobi for another round of interview. After the interview, Lydia told me she was impressed but I had to wait for the decision of the Central Coordinating Unit-CCU in Nairobi. She also told me, if I was considered, I would be put on probation, for three months and after that I would be on the payroll.
As I walked out of the place, I saw something unusual, the organization that had been in operation for two years did not have the administrative structures, and it also looked deserted with only the lady who interviewed me and the cleaner.
This was very unusual, for an organization that is more than two years old organization. After a week I got a text message from Lydia (the lady who had interviewed me) to go to the office on 26th October 2019.
I reported to the office, as instructed, arriving by exactly 8am but to my surprise, there was no one around, apart from the night watchman. I waited, then around 8:20am one man arrived, the watchman told me he was one of the workers.
I went and engaged him in a conversation as we sat on a form in the verandah, I asked him how old he had been in the place and he replied it was his second week. I was also curious to know if there were old workers because this would, then help me get the picture of how things are in the organization. He however told me from the little information he had, the organization recruits and fires every three months.
He told me the only oldest guys in the place were two investigators who had spent one and half month each in the job and they were also about to be dismissed.
The two ‘oldest’ guys (Patrick and Paul) on arrival found us conversing, they smiled and one asked if I was a new guy. He welcomed me and warned that the job is risky and that if I had something else I could have concentrated on it because “EAGLE keeps changing workers every three months”.
Soon Lydia (the Accountant) arrived and told me I was going to the field and that I should get briefing from my two colleagues especially Paul who is performing well. She told us to make transport budget for the day. This again was unusual to me because usually, first day at any new job, there would be an induction, more so a job of that nature, which involves life and death in dealing with traffickers.
Off, I set off for my first day, on the job, I was required every 30 minutes to give an update of what I’m doing and also send a Google ping location to CCU in Nairobi every half hour. I was warned failure to give an update and a Google ping; every 30 minutes would lead to automatic dismissal. This was again unusual considering they had not given us phones. Keeping GPS on would require, a phone with a strong battery.
Indeed my Samsung phone would blackout, every two hours and for this I would receive reprimands as I was told to purchase a phone or extra batteries at my cost because “all we want is your phone being on at all times and giving us an update every thirty minutes”.
We were required, to work from 8:30 am in the morning to 5:00pm and there was no provision for lunch. The only money we were given was strictly transport on a boda boda and ten thousand shillings for building rapport with a potential target or informant.
Three weeks later, we were told one of the Directors of the organization was coming to train us on undercover investigations. So one day we were summoned from the field to return back to office to undergo training.
We came back around midday and waited up to around 4pm without lunch, we only took tea which is provided by the office. One former Investigator, identified as Bituli picked courage and approached, the Director Nicholas who was having lunch and put it to him how “he felt eating lunch while his workers are hungry outside”.
Nicholas like it’s the case of Oliver Twist in Charles Dicken’s novel, backed and reminded him, that the gate was wide open and he could leave if he so wished. After 5pm, Nicholas finally came outside and found us exhausted and hungry. He jumped out of the door and in a loud voice shouted that he was going to fire all of us.
The reason for firing being that some of the investigators were resting their heads on the table “why are you resting on the table, if you are tired of working for eagle leave, any one here who wants to go please do so immediately the door is open, I can fire all of you now”.
We all trembled; he then identified himself as Nicholas and having a Masters degree in Criminology. Nicholas then took us through a text book kind of simulation exercise where, we were supposed to pose as workers of a Chinese, businessman dealing in ivory and pangolin scales. As he demonstrated he smoked cigarettes and blew the smoke on our faces. He didn’t mind that some of us are nonsmokers and also the fact its illegal to smoke in a public place in Uganda.
Nicholas then, ordered one of the investigators, Paul to simulate a meeting he had with one of the target (trafficker) and as Paul demonstrated, he Nicholas) kept on shouting “Paul you’re weak” . The simulation exercise sealed Paul’s fate.
The following week, one investigator Patrick, had an incident where his phone ran out of battery while in the field and spent an hour without reporting to the Central Coordinating Unit. When his phone got on an hour later he was ordered to return back to office, and was fired there and then.
Before that a lawyer who had been hired to offer legal services, was also fired for getting out of the gate to buy airtime from a nearby Kiosk, without allegedly informing the administrator.
Following the departure of Patrick, we were joined by Fahad and Julius in the beginning of December 2019. The first day for Julius to report to work, he was confronted by Nicholas who threatened to dismiss him for coming late. His pleas, that he came late because he had traveled the previous day from Fortportal and a relative had offered him, a temporal accommodation out of town fell on deaf ears.
On 11th December 2019, we broke off for the Christmas holidays, we had expected that may be they would give a Christmas package, like it’s a norm in most organizations and since we were not being paid but we were told that, the Central Coordinating Unit in Nairobi had rejected.
We were instead, offered lunch and a bottle of soda and told the office, had closed for Christmas break until 6th January 2020.
But before we left, Paul, the remaining ‘oldest’ guy had demanded that, they tell him his fate because he was only left with a week to complete the three month probation. They told him to stay behind while we were told to leave; hardly had we moved 500 meters away than Paul called to inform us that he had been fired on grounds, that he had not caused, the arrest of any trafficker, in the three months he was under probation.
Between November and December two investigators had been fired, so once we reported in January we were now only four. We worked under too much pressure, the Nairobi office was always calling that we had to cause the arrest of traffickers. Around 16th January, I got a suspected trafficker of Pangolin from Ggaba Landing Site.
The suspected trafficker, a boat operator had live pangolins that he was selling. I communicated to CCU in Nairobi; they told me to arrange with the trafficker to bring them to Ggaba landing site so that he can be arrested.
I did as instructed, and the trafficker was so much interested in the deal that he actually brought them to Ggaba on the agreed day and date. However at the last minute, I received a call from Nairobi, instructing me to tell the trafficker to take back the pangolins. They told me to tell him, that I had got an abrupt journey to my village.
I grudgingly communicated, to the trafficker that I had got an abrupt journey and would be unable to meet him, as I had an emergency to respond to in my ancestral place in ‘Tororo’. The trafficker was so disappointed. He told me the animals he had were at the risk of dying because he lacked what to feed them with and he had also spent much of his money fueling the boat to the Island to pick them.
Two days later, an official from CCU Nairobi, identified as Jana, called and told me to get in touch with the trafficker and tell him to bring the back pangolins to Ggaba. I called the trafficker but at this point the trafficker had become suspicious and he was no longer willing to bring them back.
All this time, Nicholas who is in charge of investigations was sending me WhatsApp messages to ensure that the man brings the pangolins, if I still wanted to have the job.
At one point, a member of the CCU only identified as Cecille Bloch on the WhatsApp Chat group that was created to coordinate the operation, seeing the direction Nicholas was pushing me and aware of the risk of potential harm, I was faced with from the trafficker, advised that I put the operation on hold.
Two weeks later, on 26th January 2020, I confronted the Coordinator identified as Rebecca and pointed out to her the flaws in their modus operandi. I also put it to her that it was prudent, if the operation was to be successful for me to have known which law enforcement body was to effect the arrest as my life was in danger of being harmed by the trafficker.
The information on the arresting authority was hidden from us the investigators but upon my prompting, Rebecca told me that the operation was going to be carried out by Uganda Revenue Authority.
Two days, after I had shared with Rebecca the weaknesses, that had seen in my two and half month in the organization, I was called by the accountant Lydia and told that my contract had been terminated because had not caused the arrest of traffickers. It was not a surprise since, I had already been alerted that the organization, hires on probation and fires before the end of the three months and then recruits again.
On the same day, they also terminated Julius, the investigator who had joined in early December. By the time I left on 28th January 2020, only two investigators had remained and by the time of filing this report it’s possible they have also been terminated and fresh ones recruited.
Flaws in Eagle’s operational procedures
As of January, 2020, EAGLE had not made any single arrest, of a trafficker in Uganda contrary to information available on their website, indicating that they carryout arrest of a trafficker each day.
The failure is partly due to the modus operandi; Eagle has a rehearsed text book kind of investigations that is not in consonant with the reality on the ground in Uganda. Their operation model works when dealing directly with poachers but for Uganda it’s a transit country which requires a different approach.
Uganda is a transit route for the ivory, from mostly the Democratic Republic of Congo and dealers are sophisticated. For Eagle an investigator using, a cover poses as a worker of a Chinese businessman who deals in ivory, pangolin scales or leopard and lion skins.
An investigator goes to office every morning, signs for transport money and goes to four locations asking for dealers in contraband. This cannot work in the case of Uganda a transit country where dealers are sophisticated and are not found in the outskirts where investigators go every morning.
To nab dealers in Uganda, requires penetrating the network and in most cases in luxury hotels and upscale areas of the city. For eagle investigators, they comb areas of Nansana, Kasokosoko, Ndeeba and other suburbs where ivory dealers hardly operate.
Also another weakness is that for an arrest to be made for pangolin scales then the dealer has to have at least 100 kilograms. This is not possible, in Uganda the dealers in pangolins are traditional herbalists who have between five to ten kilograms.
Actually each day investigators come across dealers in pangolin scales but the Central Coordinating Unit of EAGLE tells them they want large quantities ranging from 70-100 kilograms.
A former investigator with EAGLE who preferred anonymity said the policy at EAGLE Uganda, seems to be that of exploiting workers “they were just using us to gather the information which I think they use for writing their reports and are not bothered of the risk involved, imagine risking your life going to meet traffickers and at the end of the day you are not given a penny” said the former worker.
“You tell them your child is sick, they are not bothered, even rent but all they want is to use people, for their own advantage and thereafter fire and recruit new ones” the former employee believes EAGLE is taking advantage of a clause in the contract where they are told not to disclose any information once they leave EAGLE.
Uganda Revenue Authority Speaks out on their relationship with EAGLE Network
The tax body has distanced itself from having any dealings with EAGLE Network in countering wildlife trafficking.
Ian Rumanyika, the in-charge Communication and Corporate Affairs says URA does not have a mandate, to cause arrest of traffickers in wildlife “that’s the work of Uganda Wildlife Authority for us we are only mandated to collect taxes not enforcing wildlife protection” .
The Uganda Wildlife Authority the body mandated in protecting and conserving wildlife in Uganda also said they are not aware of EAGLE Network or what they do in Uganda.
“We do not know that organization, nor have we signed any memorandum of understanding with them, honestly all the nongovernmental organizations that are licensed to conserve wildlife species in Uganda are registered with us but I don’t know that one” said Bashir Hangi the Communications Officer Uganda Wildlife Authority.
According to Hangi, it’s not possible for EAGLE network to deal with URA in fighting wildlife trafficking as the mandate falls with Uganda Wildlife Authority not the revenue collectors.
An Officer at the level of Director, from the Directorate of Human Rights and Legal Affairs of the Uganda Police Force, who we were referred to, by the Police Spokesperson, Commissioner Fred Enanga said it’s possible, the organization (EAGLE) could be dealing in activities, that it’s not licensed to carryout.
The Officer challenged EAGLE network to produce, any document indicating, they have a memorandum with the police to enforce arrests of traffickers.
Available information from the NGO registration Bureau indicates that EAGLE network is licensed under tourism to protect elephants and other apes in Uganda.
Workers Union weighs in
The Workers Member of Parliament Dr. Sam Lyomoki , said the Confederation of Free Trade Union-COFTU will pick interest in the case and offer free legal services to dismissed former employees of EAGLE network. He urges the former employees to contact the Confederation of Free Trade Union to be given free legal assistance.
According to Dr. Sam Lyomoki, EAGLE network is flouting labour laws by hiring workers and not paying them. He suspects that the employees are being given probationary contracts of three months and dismissed, as a ploy to avoid paying taxes, including National Social Security Fund which is mandatory for organizations to remit.
Barbara Arimi, the Communication Officer NSSF says it’s mandatory for organizations to remit NSSF contribution including of those on probation “one is supposed to register for NSSF as soon as they are given an employment contract whether on probation” said Arimi.
This story is part of a series of investigations that CIJU is running on exploitation of workers in Uganda.
The writer can be reached on email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org