25 November 2012

Uganda: MPs to Question Bigirimana Tomorrow

The Permanent Secretary in the office of the Prime Minister Pius Bigirimana, appears tomorrow before Parliament's inquiry into the grand theft at the OPM with one mission, to defend his under-fire reputation.

So far the odds appear stacked against Bigirimana, and members of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) say the PS is in for some tough questioning. Going into its third week, PAC's inquiry has heard from at least four key witnesses, who have separately heaped the blame on Bigirimana. These include Secretary to the Treasury Chris Kassami, his deputy Keith Muhakanizi, Accountant General Gustavio Bwoch, and Dr Louis Kasekende, the Deputy Governor Bank of Uganda.

Kassami and Muhakanizi earlier on, told the committee that it was Bigirimana who asked for the transfer of the former Principal Internal Auditor, Shaban Wejula, who first lifted the lid on the grand theft, though the PS had vehemently denied doing such a thing.

Muhakanizi also faulted Bigirimana for the violation of the Bank of Uganda cash withdrawal limits.

And last Wednesday, Muhakanizi presented supplementary evidence showing Bigirimana's alleged role in what MPs called "abnormal" cash transactions in the OPM. Muhakanizi provided letters written by Bigirimana requesting Muhakanizi and the Accountant General Gustavio Bwoch to withdraw funds, he said were for the Peace, Recovery and Development Programme and other projects in the OPM beyond the cash limit of Shs 20m per day.

According to Muhakanizi, on June 25, 2009, Bigirimana wrote to Muhakanizi requesting for Shs 300 million reportedly for training builders, a request Muhakanizi rejected five days later, and gave Bigirimana only Shs 100 million. However, on February 16, 2010, Bigirimana wrote protesting Bank of Uganda's insistence on the withdrawal limit of Shs 20m per day.

According to the AG's report, the abuse of cash withdrawal limits flouted the rules of better accountability and finance management. While appearing before the committee last week, Muhakanizi also told the committee that his acceptance to lift Bigirimana's cash withdrawal limit was not in relation to PRDP funds.

"I would also like to make this clear that I did not instruct him to withdraw PRDP funds. My instruction was authorizing him on the normal budget support funds," Muhakanizi told the committee.

Whereas the AG blamed BoU for negligently allowing the abuse of cash withdrawal limits, Kasekende and the director banking at BoU, John Chemonges, told the committee last Monday that Bigirimana failed to heed BoU's advice on the withdrawal limits.

When Bigirimana appears tomorrow, the MPs want him to defend himself against the accusations and also explain why he requested for the transfer of PRDP funds from the Budget Support Account to the OPM's Accounts instead of the Consolidated Fund.

"What was his motive or justification for this request? Because, it is very clear in JFA that OPM was meant to receive only Shs 1.9bn of the funds to monitor PRDP," the Kalungu West MP, Joseph Ssewungu told The Observer.

The lawmakers would also like to know the circumstance under which Shs 14bn was transferred to his office. And, what he did with the money after receiving it? "We heard from the AG (John Muwanga) that when his officials asked Bigirimana about the source of the Shs 14bn, he said that he did not know. What did he do after receiving the money," the western Youth MP, Gerard Karuhanga told The Observer.

The AG told lawmakers that Shs 1.7bn of the Shs 14 billion was used to buy new cars in the OPM including a Mercedes Benz for the Prime minister as well as funding trips for the minister for Karamoja, Janet Museveni.

Meanwhile, the lawmakers will listen to Bigirimana's explanation for calling for the transfer of Wejula. "Wejula had performed his duty according to the information we have received but [Bigirimana] pushed Bwoch who endorsed the transfer. What was his motive?" Serere Woman MP Alice Alaso asked.

AG queries:

In addition, MPs plan to seek Bigirimana's explanation for authorizing payment of advances totalling Shs 34.6bn on the private accounts of OPM staff in contravention 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," the AG notes. The Auditor General's report also 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 authorized the 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.

The Observer understands that Bigirimana will insist to the MPs that he is the whistleblower and not an accomplice in the fraud. As he has previously argued, he will cite cases where other officials, such as the Principal Accountant Geoffrey Kazinda, allegedly forged his signature without his knowledge.

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