On a normal day, Pius Bigirimana is one of the most powerful men in Uganda.
But when the permanent secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister was asked how he had spent Shs 2bn, his answer showed that a power that can, at times, be vulnerable to other powers.
The Money, he repeatedly said, was thus spent, because of a "political decision". In public service, not many positions are more coveted and powerful than the permanent secretary. But as many have found out, the permanence is largely only in name, with holders painfully falling from grace in the face of corruption scandals.
Within any ministry, the PS is the highest-ranking civil servant; in some cases, even ministers, who are the political heads, have been known to be told off by PSs that understand their powers well.
But the job also comes with huge responsibility to account for all the ministry's financial resources. And Many are taking the fall for largely failing to detect or stop the grand theft, or to account for lost funds altogether.
In the grand scheme of things, even where a minister had a hand, the buck stops with the PS. In the last three years, two permanent secretaries have been interdicted, one suspended, while a host of others have faced tough audit queries.
Presently, Bigirimana is in the eye of the storm after a Shs 50bn cash swindle in his office came to the fore. Bigirimana denies any wrongdoing and instead blames his interdicted former Principal Accountant Geoffrey Kazinda. But Parliament's Public Accounts inquiry into the scam isn't letting Bigirimana off easily. He's been interrogated twice and remains at the centre of the investigation.
A retired permanent secretary told The Observer that the major role of a PS is to manage the human and financial resources in the ministry. This retiree, who declined to be named so he could speak freely, says the holder is not required to seek guidance from the minister when making decisions, but "could as a matter of courtesy inform the minister about the decisions taken."
He however says, some politicians often exert pressure on a PS. "If the PS gives in to pressure, he/she should take responsibility for the actions," he said.
In face of mounting pressure, the former PS says, the plausible thing for the PS to do is to ask ministers to put any controversial requests in writing to be used as a fallback safe net during audit queries. Speaking shortly after swearing in his ministers in June 2011, President Museveni asked the PSs to be mindful of this kind of pressure from his ministers.
"You are the accounting officers in charge of money, contracts and personnel. Even if ministers tell you to do something bad don't accept" Museveni declared. "However, if they insist, tell them to do it in writing. You should be the one to guide these ministers not to fall into temptation, deliver them from evil."
Previously, some PSs have ignored directives from ministers. For instance in 2010, Hilary Onek, who was the Energy minister, complained to the President that Kabagambe Kaliisa, the PS, had frustrated his efforts to reduce electricity tariffs when he blocked attempts to implement the key findings of the Salim Saleh Electricity Reduction Tariffs Committee Report of September 2009.
Onek eventually left the ministry and Kabagambe is still the PS.
So what should be the ideal working relationship between a PS and a minister?
"The ideal relationship would be when each one does their work because their roles are different," said a serving PS who, also, didn't want to be named.
A balance has to be struck - hostility is undesirable because it often paralyzes ministry work. However, a too rosy relationship between the two could lead to temptation to wrong doing. A permanent secretary's success rests largely on high integrity, understanding of his/her role, clarity of their relationship with ministers, personal discipline and cooperation with subordinate technical staff.
The retired PS believes the crisis in the OPM came to be because of a lack of discipline between staff and ministers who often bypass the PS to crack deals. He says it should be made clear to subordinate staff that they aren't supposed to talk to ministers on official work without the PS's permission.
"I would also tell my staff not to consult, make appeals or seek favours from ministers," he said.
He says however, that it is common for ministers to deal directly with ministry staff bypassing the PS.
"It is totally outrageous and unacceptable," he says.
"I can't find my junior officer sitting with a minister, discussing ministry issues and I join in. That will be indiscipline."
So is the PS' job hard or it's just riddled with many political pressures?
A serving PS, who doesn't want to be named, says the pressures differ with the actors. Some ministers may be powerful and domineering, and it does not help if they are blessed with a weak permanent secretary. However, another former PS says it is not a hard job if someone is disciplined and principled. Asked whether junior staff can collude and spend money without a PS's knowledge, he said:
"How can they? You are the signatory on all money that is spent," he says adding, "Unless they forge your signature."
And that is not impossible. OPM's Bigirimana has argued that some of the fraud was only possible because people like Kazinda allegedly forged his signatures. But Bigirimana also brought out another dimension of the problem, when he visited Parliament this week. He reported that in one crucial meeting, he asked Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi if he (Bigirimana) could call in his technical staff. The Premier is reported to have refused, saying: "I am the prime minister; there is no way."
Many PSs have been caught on the wrong side of the law. In 1996, Prof Gastavus Senyonga, the then Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries was sentenced to eight years in jail along with Christine Namuddu Kiggundu, his under-secretary for causing financial loss and abuse of office.
He was however, pardoned by President Museveni in 1999 after serving three years in Luzira prison and ordered to pay Shs 20m that was lost. In October 2009, Mary Nannono was interdicted as PS in the ministry of Health for allegedly sabotaging the President's efforts to stem drugs thefts in health centres, while John Kashaka Muhanguzi was also sacked as PS Ministry of Local Government in November 2011 over the loss of Shs 5.6bn meant to procure bicycles for local council chiefs.
Currently, Jimmy Lwamafa of Public Service is on indefinite suspension after it emerged that Shs 63bn was paid to ghost pensioners. Efforts to have Stephen Kagoda, the PS Ministry of Internal Affairs interdicted for signing a contract for the stalled national identity card project, fell through.
Roles of a PS:
The office, roles and powers of permanent secretaries are derived from article 174 of the Constitution.
It states that PSs are appointed by the president on the advice of the Public Service Commission.
It stipulates their roles as;
(a) Running of the department or ministry;
(b) Giving advice to the responsible minister in respect of the business of the department or ministry;
(c) Implementing government policies; and
(d) Being responsible for the proper expenditure of public funds by the ministry or department.
On accountability, article 164 of the Constitution says that PSs and or accounting officers in charge of a ministry or department are accountable to Parliament for the funds in their ministry or department. It puts huge liability on them when it says in 164 (2) that,
"Any person holding a political or public office who directs or concurs in the use of public funds contrary to existing instructions shall be accountable for any loss arising from that use and shall be required to make good the loss even if he or she has ceased to hold that office."
Serving permanent secretaries:
Edith N. Mwanje
She is the PS ministry of East African Community Affairs.
Born on November 11, 1958, Mwanje's first appointment in public service came on June 1, 1982. She took on her present job on April 29, 2010.
She holds a MSC in Policy Planning, a BSc (Economics), MUK and a Diploma in Business Management.
Until recently, the towering Lwamafa with his trademark afro hairstyle was the PS in the ministry of Public Service. He was suspended.
He was in September 2012 suspended at the urging of President Yoweri Museveni following reports that Shs 63 billion had been paid to ghost pensioners.
He is the under fire PS in the OPM currently facing audit queries over the grand theft of at least Shs50 billion meant for the recovery of war ravaged northern Uganda.
Bigirimana has been PS in the OPM since 2007. He replaced Martin Odwedo who also left under a dark cloud of CHOGM corruption.
Amb. James Mugume
He is the PS in the ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has also been in the hot seat over the mismanagement of CHOGM cash.
Dr. Saamanya Jimmy P
He is the Ps in the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology. He has moved through the ranks. Born on December 23, 1956, Saamanya has been PS in that ministry since February 27, 2007. He was first appointed in Public Service on July 19, 1979.
Chris M. Kassami
He is the Secretary to the Treasury (PS), ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development. He has a long track record in civil service having previously served as Deputy Secretary to the Treasury in charge of Budget duties, PS in the Ministry of Planning and Economic Development and Ministry of Education, Chief Government Planning Economist, Chief Economist and Principal Economist.
He is the PS, ministry of Internal Affairs. He recently survived a parliamentary call for his interdiction for his role in the botched procurement of the stalled national identity card project.
He is the PS ministry of Energy. He is known for asserting his authority.
She is PS in the ministry of Defense. She replaced Brig. Noble Mayombo who died in May 2007.
He is the longest serving Ps in the ministry of Education. His reign has not been scandal free having been previously accused of employing relatives in the ministry. Under his reign, the issue of ghost pupils and schools keeps cropping up.
Dr. Asumani Lukwago
He is the PS in the Ministry of Health. He replaced Mary Nannono who was interdicted in October 2009.
PS ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities
He is the PS in the ministry of Works.
He is the PS in the ministry of Water and Environment. He faced tough questioning in the wake of the 2007 CHOGM scandal.
He is the PS in the ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development
Julius Baker Onen
He is the Ps ministry of Trade, Industry and Cooperatives.
Christine Guwatudde Kintu
She is the PS ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development.
He is the PS ministry of Agriculture.
Lucy Nakyobe Mbonye
She is State House Comptroller since 2010. She replaced Richard Muhinda. Nakyobe is the equivalent of a PS in State House. She heads administration in State House.
Information on the State House website says that her duties include ensuring proper coordination and organisation of all operations and activities in State House, tendering advice to the President in respect of the business, general administration and policy issues, ensuring implementation of Government business and also ensuring proper expenditure of public funds in accordance with laid down Government accounting procedures. Before her appointment, she worked as Undersecretary of Finance and administration in State House.