The Observer (Kampala)

Uganda: When OPM Money Scandal Sucked in Janet, Mbabazi

First Lady Janet Museveni was forced to issue a statement defending herself against accusations that she made eight trips to Israel in one month using money meant for the people of northern Uganda.

Ms Museveni's statement followed media reports suggesting, for the first time, that the First Lady had questions to answer in the ongoing graft scandal in the Office of the Prime Minister. The media reports came after the Auditor General, John Muwanga, met members of the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament (PAC) on Thursday.

Muwanga's special audit report into the OPM finances, which he discussed with MPs shows that part of the misappropriated Shs 50bn meant for the Peace, Recovery and Development Programme (PRDP) in northern Uganda was spent on purportedly unexplained trips by Ms Museveni and on a new Mercedes Benz for Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi.

Muwanga's audit revealed how aid from Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Britain, among other donors, was transferred to unauthorized accounts, resulting into the loss of billions of shillings meant for post-war recovery efforts in northern Uganda. Geoffrey Kazinda, the interdicted principal accountant in OPM, who is the main suspect, and 16 officials from OPM and the ministry of Finance were arrested and charged.

What happened after the meeting, and how it was reported is what infuriated Ms Museveni, forcing her to speak of media being used by politicians to tell lies. Because Muwanga did not directly address the press, it was left to PAC members to tell the media what transpired, with not the highest degree of specificity. Speaking to The Observer late on Thursday night, after watching NTV news, Muwanga expressed surprise that MPs had quoted him as having implicated the First Lady over the eight trips to Israel.

"I did not implicate anyone. I simply provided the accountability that I was given by the cashier, showing those eight trips," Muwanga said.

Ms Museveni says she only travelled to Israel once. This would suggest that cashiers could have made up the figures in a bid to satisfy Muwanga's nosy auditors. An MP who attended Thursday's PAC meeting had told The Observer that Muwanga cited an instance in which Shs 14bn was sent to a personal bank account of the OPM permanent secretary, Pius Bigirimana, under unclear circumstances.

Our source said Muwanga had reported that Bigirimana had told investigators he did not know how the money landed onto his account, before going ahead to spend it. However, Muwanga told The Observer he had not talked about any money going to Bigirimana's account.

As it turned out, Muwanga had been talking about the Shs 14bn that went into the Crisis Management Account. The OPM had earlier said, in Observer article, that Bigirimana had written to Kazinda questioning the source of money in that account but had failed to get a satisfactory answer.

Enter Mbabazi:

Muwanga's report also revealed that OPM had spent up to Shs 1.7 billion of PRDP funds on the Prime Minister Mbabazi's Mercedes Benz and other cars for the office. In May this year, the Aruu county MP, Odonga Otto, alarmed the public when he said in Parliament that the OPM had bought Mbabazi a car at Shs 600m, which money was meant for northern Uganda's reconstruction.

In his response, the prime minister said it was not his duty to explain the source of the money for his car, as he is not the accounting officer and is not involved in procurement of vehicles for his office. He said the government bought cars for ministers using money that has been budgeted for the purpose.

The PAC vice chairperson, Paul Mwiru (Jinja municipality East), who chaired the meeting, said the committee would meet this week to consider the Auditor General's report.

"We shall be meeting all the individuals who have been mentioned by the AG and we hope that the country will know the truth after we are done with our investigations," he said.

Mwiru said the people that PAC will meet include: the Prime Minister, the First Lady, Bigirimana, officials from Barclays bank and Kazinda.

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