13 November 2012

Uganda: Bigirimana in the Hot Seat

Parliament's Public Accounts committee should attract quite a crowd when Pius Bigirimana, the permanent secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), appears later this week to throw more light on some alarming expenditures in his office.

In particular, Bigirimana is expected to explain how his initial request for Shs 825 million to purchase vehicles for new ministers in the OPM eventually shot up to Shs 1.8 billion under unclear circumstances. On October 13, 2011, according to correspondences seen by The Observer, Bigirimana wrote to Chris Kassami, the Secretary to the Treasury, requesting for Shs 825 million to procure five vehicles for the newly appointed ministers in the OPM.

However, on October 21, 2011 Kassami wrote back saying he could not fully honour the request although he gave the PS permission to spend Shs 412m (half the amount) from within the OPM budget.

"In view of the tight financial situation however, I am writing to authorise a front loading of an additional cash limit of 412, 500,000 within your budget for this financial year 2011/12 to address your most urgent needs. We shall then review the situation later in the second half of the year as need arises," Kassami wrote.

A special audit by the Auditor General later said that the OPM overshot its request, spending Shs 1.8bn instead. According to the report, the sum was withdrawn from the Crisis Management and Recovery Account between December 8, 2011 and May 3, 2012. Bigirimana told The Observer today that the figure shot up because his initial request [of Shs 825 million] did not cater for the Prime Minister's car as well as vehicles for the ministers of state for Teso Affairs and Disaster Preparedness.

"Would I sit down and wait for the ministers to walk? I was proactive. At least the money did not go to my pockets, I facilitated the ministers to move," Bigirimana said.

However, the AG in his report notes that the OPM failed to provide a breakdown of how the Shs 1.8bn was utilized- and the same applies to other questionable expenditures.

"An attempt to access the original accountability documents proved futile and the current head of accounts confirmed that no single accountability document was passed on to him at the time of handover," it notes.

The report also wonders why the OPM's office went ahead to request for funds [from the treasury] yet it is apparent that they knew where to get the money.

"It should be noted that contracts for procurement of motor vehicles and supply of hydra form block-making machines had been entered into prior to receiving these funds, implying that the source of funds had been identified," notes the report.

According to documents seen by The Observer, the OPM acquired three vehicles- including the S-Class Mercedes Benz bought for Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi. The documents show that OPM procured it for Shs 391million from Spear Motors.

PAC investigates:

The probe into the procurement of these cars comes days after PAC, started investigating the OPM, after it emerged that up to Shs 50bn remains unaccounted for. Paul Mwiru, the vice chairperson of PAC, said Bigirimana, being the accounting officer in the OPM, will be a central figure in the investigations.

According to a working document prepared by the committee, which The Observer has seen, Bigirimana is expected to answer a number of queries arising from the Auditor General's findings. Quoting from section 6.3.2 of the report, the committee says that without seeking clearance from the ministry of Finance, and without any approved work plans, Bigirimana approved payment of Shs 15.5bn out of the Shs 20.1bn which had been fraudulently deposited on the Crisis Management Account.

This, they say, contravenes Section 14 of the Public Finance and Accountability Act (PFAA). They fault the PS for authorising payment of advances totalling Shs 34.6bn on the private accounts of OPM staff in contravention of Sections 227,228 and 229 of the Treasury Accounting Instruction (TAI).

"This includes amounts which should have been paid directly to beneficiaries like suppliers and service providers. The whole amount was still unaccounted for by the time of the audit," they note.

Mwiru said the argument that Bigirimana should be left alone because he was the whistleblower is "idiotic."

"He asked [Kale] Kayihura to arrest Kazinda only on grounds that the latter had disappeared without handing over official records, and that writing of final accounts was becoming a problem. He never said that he had sensed that there was fraud in the OPM. He asked the Auditor General for a forensic audit only after the police recovered many suspicious exhibits from Kazinda's house and office," Mwiru said.

Among other things, the Auditor General's report faults Bigirimana for approving payment of advances amounting to Shs 2.9bn into the personal accounts of two cashiers for field work, yet by virtue of their roles cashiers are not mandated to carry out field activities. The report also says Bigirimana authorised transfer or diversion of Shs 3bn reportedly to refund monies earlier borrowed to procure cattle boluses, but the Auditor General found no evidence that such a borrowing ever took place.

PAC is also expected to quiz other officials from the OPM, ministry of Finance and private firms that do business with the OPM.

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