It is almost half a year since Judge Irene Mulyagonja was appointed Inspector General of Government (IGG). Sulaiman Kakaire and Hussein Bogere interviewed Mulyagonja on her new job and the war on corruption.
How do you find the job?
The office is challenging but the work is also interesting. You have to make quick decisions whether to investigate or not, whether to prosecute or not, whether to let someone off the hook or not. Sometimes the amounts of money that are talked about in a complaint are big, sometimes they are tiny; sometimes it's the difference between somebody having a certificate to get them a job or not.
For instance every complaint that comes into the inspectorate has to pass through this desk. And every decision, whether at headquarters here or upcountry stations, on whether to investigate or not, has to be made by the IGG. It is a lot of work.
Your predecessor [Raphael Baku] complained about inadequate staffing at the Inspectorate...
The IGG is extremely limited. Right now we have the headquarters here and 16 regional offices around the country. We don't have enough staff both at the headquarters and the regions.
[In a] worst case scenario, the regional offices each handle five to seven districts and in each of those offices we have a maximum of three or four technical people. Now if you put four people in a region where you have seven districts, you have three inspectorate officers, you have seven CAOs, you have the lower ones because they have complaints as well, then you have ombudsman complaints of a personal nature which people bring due to abuse of their rights or failure to provide services to them. It becomes overwhelming.
How is that affecting the inspectorate's operations?
There are some things we cannot do. For instance, when we talk about the ombudsman complaints, those are complaints by citizens about their rights like service delivery, which usually result from failure of systems in delivering services.
If I'm trying to access my pension but I cannot access it quickly and the reason for that is because the pension process is slow, what the directorate of the ombudsman would do in such situations is to study the operation of systems, where and why they are failing and make recommendations to government to see how they can be improved.
We cannot carry out that function because we still have very many complaints from all over the country on failure to pay salaries, deletion of names from the payroll, processes of recruitment that have gone wrong, failure of people to access services in health centres and so many other services.
You have complained to Parliament about staffing; what has been done?
Our budget had a funding gap on recruiting staff. And, we were given some money to recruit staff and I think you know that we put adverts in the papers. However, you also realize that we were not given enough money because [with] the funds we were given, we managed to recruit only 16 staff. Sixteen people are not much and we need to go back to government and get money to recruit more staff.
Any other challenges?
Very many [challenges]. We are dealing with governance [and it] has a political aspect. The people who make government are the people who won the elections. In our system of doing things, say in local government and central government, people tend to have godfathers and godmothers.
So, when you touch a person in public service for wrongdoing, many times there will be someone who will come and say: "Why are you doing this? This person has been helping us." Sometimes it is even said that they are being witch-hunted ... that the IGG is sent to investigate certain parliamentarians out of political motivation or at the urging of some MPs or the head of state.
Another instance was when we had started investigations into the Karuma dam project, [and] some politicians perceived it to be political. Parliament said that my work was blocking the procurement process and, therefore, government was not going to deliver. So, political interference is something we deal with every day.
But, some claimed that you were instructed by the president to investigate MPs about the Constituency fund?
They said that it was the president who instructed [us] but that was different from what was happening here because the investigations came from written complaints that originated from Parliament, State House and their constituencies.
Actually, some of these MPs have been investigated before and this is not something new because at the end of the day those who acted in accordance with the law are cleared and those who didn't are prosecuted.
But how are you going to restore public confidence in the institution?
Political interference will always be there and there is nothing you can do about [it]; because our work deals with political abuse and you can't deal with it without being affected by politics. However, what we should also know is that politicians are Ugandans like us and we are all equal before the law.
So, when politicians make complaints, these complaints are dealt with like any complaint from any other Ugandan. For instance, when the president makes a complaint it is treated like any other complaint whether coming from my uncle in Kaliro. And, if I cannot investigate it, I will give the answers accordingly.
But there are claims and a perception that this office handles certain cases ... gives them a priority and shelves others.
The perception is a perception but [you] need to know that the inspectorate handles many cases and in these cases there are some which are politically motivated. But I can assure you that those cases are very few compared to what we receive. So, when you are assessing the work of the inspectorate, it is important to look at the whole body and not single out a few.
For instance, when I receive complaints that are tinged with [political] motives, it does not mean that there is no element of wrongdoing. There may be a [political motive] behind the whistleblowers' mind but that doesn't mean that the complaint does not have substance. So, I think the result from the complaint upon investigation is what matters; if we find that there is wrongdoing, we have to take action.
Talking of complaints, how many have you received and handled so far?
We have not finalized our report to give a clear assessment because the six months just ended in January.
How much have you achieved so far?
I don't have the exact figures...
Corruption keeps growing.
Corruption is about human nature. I don't think there is a country in the world where there is no corruption. The way we cry about corruption is the way others are crying about it and actually there are jurisdictions where people are crying about corruption more than us.
But, what tends to make corruption is because we are going into the realm of grand corruption schemes, where government is losing billions. But, why is it looking like it is going up, is it in our perception as the inspectorate? We don't have a measure of showing whether it is going up or down because this is a challenge we are facing but what I know [and] I agree with the perception that it is going up.
However, we have also to know that the perception is like that because there are many people who are aware of the corruption and it continues to be unearthed. Actually, when the media continue to report about these cases and the civil society continue to educate the people about corruption this also helps in shaping the perception.
The inspectorate continues to lose some of the prosecuted cases, [often because] the evidence is lacking...
Losing cases is not new because almost everyone loses cases including the director of public prosecutions. However, if you check the Anti-Corruption court registry where our cases are reported, you will realize that we are making successful convictions and we need to put our records straight.
So, when you say that the inspectorate is losing cases, maybe [you are talking about] the grand corruption cases where the big government officials are named, for instance you are talking about the case of the three ministers, the one of the vice president and those big cases. But, this perception based on the character prosecuted should not be used to undermine our successful convictions.
I didn't hear people celebrate when we won the Mukula case, what I only heard were people going to the president to lobby for his release. So, what I know is that the [public does not] appreciate what we are doing.
They claim that you do selective prosecution.
As far as the public is concerned the inspectorate will never win, because when you win others are sad and when you lose they are happy. So, for us we stand in a position where we never win as far as the public is concerned.
When you prosecute the former [Vice President], a certain section thinks that it is selective and when you prosecute Mukula, they claim that others have been acquitted; so, according to them, we shall never win.
As a judge who is now on the prosecution side, do you feel there is pressure in the way grand corruption cases are handled?
You see, the way government works is known, the accounting officers are accountable and not ministers because the political leaders don't authorize payments. And, if they use their influence to make people pay, the accounting officers will be liable because it is hard to get the evidence.
Although at times the accounting officers allege that they were pressurized, it is hard to prove because court also needs to see sufficient [evidence] before it infers that there was pressure on the side of the accounting officer. So, this has made it difficult to convict some of these ministers.
Is it a problem in law?
I don't think that there is anything that needs to be done but we just need to strengthen the public service because if the accounting officers are empowered they will not succumb to the temptation.
From your explanation it seems like the law exonerates those who influence the civil servants.
But are they children to be influenced? For us as lawyers you need to prove that you were coerced. The law does not exonerate civil servant but it protects them. All they need to do is to stay firm and carry out their work in accordance with the law.
Recently, Parliament asked the IGG to investigate some government departments and projects, for instance the LC bicycle and national Identity Card project; how far have you gone with some of these investigations?
We have been acting upon those reports we receive and they are expeditiously handled. For instance, we received the Chogm report and we did what we could. Recently, we were told to investigate Kyambogo University and we completed our investigations. However, on those projects like the national identity cards we have not received any instruction. And, at least that I know, we have not received the report as well.
Is the inspectorate well constituted now?
Well, we have an appointee who has been passed by parliament. So, there is me and the one pending to be sworn in, there is another deputy whose contract is expiring on the 23rd of this month.
But I have an assurance that there is another deputy whose name will be sent to Parliament very soon. But, to prosecute, yes, we do prosecute on the licence of the DPP which even you can do to prosecute someone. So, the inspectorate can prosecute.
Recently, you said that your office should be granted a legal status, to sue and be sued, why do you want this?
There are instances where we can be sued and where we want to sue as an inspectorate but unfortunately we cannot do this because the law does not allow.
But, the attorney general can help, maybe you have a different reason?
Usually, the Attorney General can do it, but as a department if granted that status, it can be very easy for us to follow up on a case and we can carry out due diligence which possibly the AG may not do. However, since the law is like this, we have nothing to do apart from proposing an amendment.
What has the inspectorate done with the investigation of MPs who allegedly received money from civil society organizations in order to influence the passing of the oil bills?
Yes, the president sent us the complaint in that regard. We assessed the complaint and told him that 'your excellence sir we have studied your complaint sir but we don't have the mandate to investigate the affairs of the NGOs, neither do we have the mandate to enter foreign missions which were alleged to have funded these MPs.' And, he took it in good faith.
But, do these MPs declare this money?
The MPs are supposed to declare their assets as provided for under the leadership code, whether they declare everything, I don't know.
Why are these declarations not made public?
The act lays down the procedure of how these declarations can be made public. And it says that you apply to the inspectorate to have them made public ... to give you my analysis...section 7 of the act says that the contents of the declaration shall be treated as public information and shall be accessed by the public upon application to the IGG in the form prescribed by the code. Unfortunately, the code does not provide the form. So, if you don't [give me the power to make it public], what can I do?
So, the law needs to be amended?
We have proposed that the law should be amended to provide for the procedure on how these declarations should be made public because it serves a purpose in a free and democratic society.
But are leaders filing their declaration forms?
Yes, the response has been good so far and I can comfortably say that the response is good.
But, do you verify the declared assets?
The verification is done later on and we do it often but what we verify is what has been filed and last year we did the one of the permanent secretaries including the one of the governor of the bank of Uganda. However, in those declarations, there are leads we try to assess whether their source of income amounts to the declared property.
Are there cases of under-declaration?
Of late there have been no finds of people under-declaring except of course in the obvious cases of people who have been prosecuted in the case of Office of the Prime Minister and Public Service. There are some declarations which I won't disclose that are glaring and we are trying to verify those people's assets, ever since the news broke revealing their shocking wealth. ...
Don't you think if these declarations are made public it will help in verification?
Obviously, that is one of the benefits in our proposed amendment. I know there will be a big debate on making the declarations public but we hope to convince Parliament to change the law and make declarations public because it will improve transparency in governance.
What is your opinion on the proposal to amend the law and provide for the confiscation of the property of convicted corrupt officials?
I support it because it is already in the law. The current anti-corruption act has a provision which empowers the confiscation order.
According to section 63 where a person is convicted of an offence under this act, in addition to penalties imposed under this act, the court may make an order confiscating the property that is the subject of or derived from the act of corruption, where court makes a confiscation order against any property, the property shall vest in the government...the law is already there.
Why are they coming up with the law?
This will augment the law to make it better because under the current law you have to convince the court that the property was derived through the act of corruption which we want to improve in the amendment.
There are some court awards that continue to raise the public's suspicion, has your office picked interest in the matter?
These court awards like the one which has currently attracted public attention where Saverino Twinobusingye [a lawyer from Kanungu] was awarded Shs 13bn, are decisions of courts. But, section 19 of our governing act does not allow us to meddle into the affairs of the courts. So, we cannot do anything about it because we are prohibited.
Besides the aforementioned challenges, do you have any other challenges and what can be done to remove them?
But, most of the challenges are [financial] and the minister of Finance has appreciated our concern and the response has been good so far.