The Observer (Kampala)

Uganda: Bribery Claims Rock OPM Probe

Parliament's inquiry into the financial rip-off at the Office of the Prime Minister has proven to be quite a challenge for the probe team, PAC, with allegations now flying around that some members were compromised.

There are claims that big forces are trying to reshape the direction of the investigation by offering cash handouts to a couple of outspoken or difficult MPs to buy their cooperation.

Some committee members alleged yesterday that some of their colleagues had been offered money to go easy on key OPM officials appearing before the committee. The allegations came to the fore as the under-fire Permanent Secretary, Pius Bigirimana, appeared before PAC for a second day, to defend his record.

Committee sources told The Observer that the vice chairperson, Paul Mwiru, had in an internal committee meeting last week claimed that he was offered a bribe by some people connected to OPM. Without specifying the amount, or from whom, Mwiru told his colleagues that he had flatly rejected the cash offer.

During the same meeting, Mwiru reportedly said that OPM officials tried to persuade him not to summon Geoffrey Kazinda, the former Principal Accountant, arguing that his PAC testimony would prejudice his court trial. They tabled a letter from the Solicitor General to back their argument. Mwiru reportedly wondered why it was Pius Bigirimana, the PS, who had sought the SG's opinion on Kazinda's appearance and not PAC, which summoned him.

He reportedly told the OPM officials that he was well versed with the law on sub judice and could not take the Solicitor General's advice. Sources told us that the committee had wanted Kazinda and Bigirimana to appear on the same day only to be frustrated by the prison authorities.

Since the inquiry took off, Mwiru has chaired the proceedings because the substantive chairperson, Kassiano Wadri, was abroad. Wadri came back last week but requested Mwiru to carry on. When The Observer contacted him, Mwiru declined to comment on the specific bribery allegations. But in yesterday's meeting with Bigirimana, he said he knew of efforts by the OPM to try to derail the committee's work using some MPs.

"If any member is aggrieved, they should go to court and get an order [halting the investigation]," he said in response to a call for the halting of the proceedings.

Alice Alaso, the Serere Woman MP, was more specific, accusing Bigirimana of trying to undermine PAC's work using underhand methods.

"There is an attempt by the PS to manipulate the processes of this committee. We take offence. We take issue with your conduct as a witness," she said.

Mwiru and Alaso's comments came after Eddie Kwizera, the Bufumbira East MP, attempted to move a motion halting the committee proceedings, arguing that they would prejudice the cases already in court. Kwizera suggested that PAC consults Parliament's legal department but he was overruled. He later stormed out.

On Monday, Kwizera had urged Bigirimana to step down as PS; therefore, his sudden change of heart was all the more noticeable. Other MPs speculated that he was trying to come to Bigirimana's defence because the two come from the same constituency. Even before yesterday's bribery allegations came to the fore, talk doing the rounds in Parliament was that the OPM was using MPs like Barnabas Tinkasiimire of Buyaga West to sweet-talk colleagues into going easy on OPM officials.

But Tinkasiimire denied the allegations:

"Those are the usual rumours. Why would Bigirimana bribe me? I am not a member of PAC," he said.

It is not the first time MPs on a probe committee have been accused of taking bribes from witnesses or the accused. More recently, MPs on the probe committee into the energy sector were accused of soliciting bribes from Umeme Limited, the power distributor, to conceal financial mismanagement.

Complex:

The bribery allegations came after two days of intense questioning of Bigirimana about what he knows about the OPM fraud. Bigirimana said many of the suspicious transactions and expenditures mentioned in the audit report were done without his knowledge. He said Kazinda had forged his signatures on the bank security documents.

Yet for some of the transactions he reportedly sanctioned, Bigirimana failed to produce relevant documentary evidence. His response was that many of these documents had been ferried out, to an unknown place by Kazinda, leaving MPs perplexed.

In other instances, he said the instructions were verbal. For example, he told the committee that the Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi, had instructed him to buy a Mercedes Benz with a cubic capacity of 5,000 and not 4,500 as the ministry of Public Service had recommended.

Maxwell Akora (Maruzi), the lead counsel, asked: "Did you tell him to put the instruction in writing?" "No," Bigirimana replied, adding: "It will be unfortunate if Mbabazi denies this when he appears before the committee."

In some instances, like where he accepted that he had irregularly diverted Shs 1.8bn from the Peace, Recovery Development Programme (PRDP) account to purchase vehicles for the ministers, the PS apologised. At some point, impatient with Bigirimana's reluctance to answer some of the questions, Odonga Otto, the Aruu county MP, suggested that he should be detained for a couple of hours.

However, Mwiru rejected the proposal, to the chagrin of some MPs. Otto suggested that Mwiru was handling the witness with kid gloves and, for some minutes, Bigirimana got a breather and witnessed drama unfold as MPs traded accusations against each other. "Let us have an open mind in this investigation and not jump to conclusions," Mwiru pleaded.

Bigirimana is set to appear again today to answer further queries raised in the AG's report.

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