1 November 2012

Uganda: OPM Fraud Unravels

On the day Parliament voted for the interdiction of Pius Bigirimana, Permanent Secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister, anonymous OPM staff accused their PS of being complicit in the scam.

A petition lodged by some OPM staff, which was received by the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, yesterday, claimed that the police investigations are protecting some of the prime suspects in the scandalous theft of billions.

"Madam Speaker, we would like to appeal to Parliament to call for a Judicial Commission of Inquiry, which, amongst other issues, should order for verification of several of the security papers with the signature of the Permanent Secretary [Pius Bigirimana] other than relying on only one and then generalizing," reads part of the petition dated October 2, 2012.

It goes on: "The Police methodology in this case is highly questionable and only intended to shield the PS. Madam Speaker, why we are appealing for Parliament's intervention is because we feel [that] the hands of the Director of CIID, Grace Akullo, are tied."

Helen Kawesa, Parliament's public relations manager, said the petition had initially been rejected by Parliament because those behind it had wanted to remain anonymous but after identifying themselves, it was accepted.

Bigirimana told The Observer yesterday, that he was aware of the petition, but questioned its credibility. In a curt response, the PS said: "It is a concocted story. Why don't they want to identify themselves? Since they have gone to Parliament, let us wait for the outcome."

Mid this year, Bigirimana blew the whistle on the now disgraced OPM principal accountant, Geoffrey Kazinda, accusing him of orchestrating the scam and of poor work ethic.

In an internal memo dated January 10, 2011, Bigirimana accuses Kazinda of failing to implement certain directives and being absent from work. The directives included availing all heads of departments with details of quarterly financial releases and issues regarding the Integrated Finance Management System (IFMS).

Bigirimana also directed Kazinda to refrain from processing payments to anybody who hasn't fully accounted for funds previously paid to him/her. In the same memo, Kazinda is accused of running the accounts division like his private entity, not delegating work in his absence, not respecting heads of department, including the Head of Finance and Administration, his supervisor, and alleging that his irregular behaviour had the blessing of the Permanent Secretary.

"This kind of conduct cannot be tolerated in the Public Service," Bigirimana wrote in the memo.

"Desist from falsely using the Permanent Secretary's name to cover up for your omissions, excesses and failures," the PS added.

Turning tables

But the workers, who claim they are operating discreetly for fear of reprisal, say in the petition that they have documents to prove Bigirimana's role in the scandal and are willing to testify if the government sanctions an inquiry.

"If Parliament sets up a Judicial Commission of Inquiry, we shall feel safe enough to testify," reads the petition.

As controversy continues to swirl over the role of Bigirimana and Under-Secretary Flavia Waduwa, the petition also claims that the media and sleuths have become entangled in this complex web.

"We have seen representatives of many media houses visiting Waduwa's office at least twice a week. Flavia has effectively managed the media in favour of herself and Pius Bigirimana. This is the reason you see repeatedly pictures of the same hydraform houses year in, year out in newspapers to hoodwink the concerned public into thinking they are hard-working and not involved in the scandals," the petitioners lament.

As part of the incriminating evidence against Bigirimana, the petition alleges that: "It is only the PS with the Integrated Financial Management System [IFMS] password! Without this secret password, no money can be spent or paid out to anyone; only the Permanent Secretary has this password .

The payments made, where the PS claims his signature was forged, are, on the contrary, the same payments he approved in the IFMS system where only he, as PS, has a secret password and is only functional on his computer."

The petition further questions: "Has the police asked the PS to explain this? The answer is no. Madam Speaker, is Pius Bigirimana trying to say that Kazinda was time and again accessing his secret password and desktop computer? There is no way Bank of Uganda can effect any Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT) without the PS' e-signature, which is only accessible through his secret password."

The petitioners allege that Bigirimana has so far received the full backing of the government, with the Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi, telling donors on Monday that there is no evidence against Bigirimana but only audit queries which he should answer.

Mbabazi also reminded the donors that the PS had blown the whistle on the scam. At least 17 officials from the OPM, Treasury and Bank of Uganda have been interdicted over the matter.

Genesis of scam

According to the document, the Crisis Management and Recovery budget account, which has been at the centre of the controversy, was opened at the request of UNDP in 2006, purposely to assist the department of Disaster Preparedness to establish and facilitate offices for district disaster coordinators in Gulu, Kitgum, Pader, Soroti, Katakwi, Lira and Kaberamaido.

The offices were supposed to support the respective local governments in facilitating the relocation of locals from the squalid camps for internally displaced persons in the war-battered region, back to their homes.

The petitioners claim that at no single time between 2006 and 2008 when the project closed did the Crisis Management and Recovery Account receive any funds from the Government of Uganda.

"In 2008 the project closed, the offices were also closed, the officers were laid off and UNDP stopped funding the project. But the Permanent Secretary, who was the principal signatory to the account, for some suspicious reasons, decided to keep it secretly open. Why did the Permanent Secretary keep this account open?" the petitioners ask.

They provide what they think is the correct answer: four years down the road, around February 2012, when Waduwa was acting as Permanent Secretary while Bigirimana was out of the country, she (Waduwa) identified some donor funds that had been doled out for the Peace, Recovery and Development Programme (PRDP) under her department.

The funds were received barely after the budgeting process was over. Waduwa reportedly alerted Bigirimana and the Principal Accountant, Geoffrey Kazinda, about the funds. The petitioners allege that the trio agreed to deposit the money on a secret account, which was to be concealed particularly from security agencies and politicians from northern Uganda.

The ideal account happened to be the Crisis Management and Recovery Account, which everybody else presumed had been closed two years earlier. Waduwa, they allege, mobilised several junior officers to undertake development projects for northern Uganda and the Karamoja sub-region. The petitioners say that some of these activities were even back-dated and included in the archives of the contracts committee.

"Waduwa presented these suspicious activities to the PS on his return [from abroad] for approval. The activities were expressly approved and in a record time of two months, a total sum of Shs 11bn had been paid out of the secret account," the petition reads.

The petition alleges that the trio fell out because Kazinda felt Waduwa and Bigirimana had benefitted more than he had, and had refused to share the Shs 3.8bn siphoned through Total Ntinda fuel station.

On this one, Bigirimana says his signatures were forged but the petitioners claim that in the IFMS system, amounts of money paid to Total Ntinda, with the PS' electronic signature approval tally, with the one he [Bigirimana] is disputing on the BOU security papers.

"It is only the PS with the IFMS password. Without this secret password no money can be spent or paid out to anyone; only the PS has this password," the petitioners argue.

They demand that if an inquiry is sanctioned, it should also investigate the construction of the 54 houses for chiefs in the Acholi sub-region.

"They should interview porters who built the houses in Acholi and they will confirm that all the cement used was marked, 'UPDF - Not for Sale'. How did UPDF cement find its way into the project?" the petitioners ask.

They claim that the former OPM senior supplies officer, Mike Gumisiriza, was coerced into formalizing the cement deals, which did not originally go through the procurement unit and contracts committee.

According to the petition, Bigirimana has sent away four procurement officers within three years for questioning the suspicious activities of Waduwa in the contracts committee.

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