Kampala — Raging over the extraordinary scale of corruption in his Cabinet, President Museveni has described the Finance ministry as "a ministry of thieves" and volunteered more details on how senior government officials arrested last week, had solicited a bribe of more than Shs15b from Chinese investors who wanted to establish a Shs2 trillion phosphates plant in Tororo District.
Briefing Cabinet last week about the plunder in the Finance ministry and the arrest of the senior officials in the ministry, the President evoked the Biblical allusion in Matthew 6:23 to point out how "thieving officials" in the ministry sabotaged the livelihoods of more than 1,200 Ugandans who would be employed by the Osukuru phosphate factory in eastern Uganda if the venture succeeded.
"... .if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!" the President is quoted to have told Cabinet.
Although the President did not explain the context of the Biblical verse, he made it clear to the ministers that he would not tolerate thieving government officials.
The President described by sources as 'furious', castigated Finance ministry officials, accusing them of failing to check corruption, and particularly singled out Finance Minister Matia Kasaija and Secretary to the Treasury Keith Muhakanizi for running "a ministry of thieves".
In Cabinet, the president narrated how his men caught the two Finance ministry officials (Mr Charles Ogol, the principal finance officer, and Mr Geoffrey Turyamuhika, a senior economist) red-handed, pocketing $60,000 (about Shs216m) from Guangzhou Dongsong Energy Group (U) Company.
He said this amount was "just a deposit" and that the total bribe was in excess of Shs15b. This money, according to sources, was to be shared by at least five officials in ministries of Finance and Energy.
It was not readily established whether the two Finance officials who were arrested last week have named any accomplices in the racket, but Daily Monitor has learnt that the identities of the rest of the racketeers in Finance and Energy ministries, will be revealed when the Director of Public Prosecutions takes the matter to court.
The President is also investigating information that some officials in Finance struck deals with multinational money lenders under the guise of raising funds for development purposes.
According to President Museveni, government officials in the phosphates deal asked the Chinese to give them $1.5m (about Shs5b) so that they write to Uganda Revenue Authority to waive stamp duty of $8m (about Shs29b). They also demanded another $3m (Shs11b) for connecting electricity to the factory.
The Chinese, however, ran to the President through his contacts and a plot to arrest the racketeers was made.
Asked to explain why Mr Museveni called Finance "a ministry of thieves" and perhaps give context to NRM's efforts in fighting corruption, Mr Don Wanyama, the senior Presidential Press Secretary, and the government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo, said fighting thieves has been on but the tempo is being stepped up in the President's current term dubbed Kisanja Hakuna Mchezo (era of no-compromise).
"The biggest trend of corruption now is that of technocrats demanding kickbacks from investors before attending to them... some even demand shares in companies! The President has now shifted a lot of focus to courting investors. So these people come back and report to him whenever these government technocrats ask for bribes and make operations difficult for investors," Mr Wanyama said.
"That's the light in which he warned ministry of Finance officials because it's them who deal with investors a lot. And true, technocrats who are in the habit of asking for bribes should be very afraid. They will not know what will hit them," Mr Wanyama added.
Mr Kasaija and Mr Muhakanizi could not be reached for a comment on the President's reprimand. Mr Mugunga said he was not privy to the discussions in Cabinet.
However, Mr Opondo explained that the reference to ministry of Finance as "a ministry of thieves" could have come from intelligence reports and that because the President cannot just mention people's names anyhow, he opts for blanket condemnation, the same way he talked about police being infiltrated by criminals after the assassination of Assistant Inspector General of Police Andrew Felix Kaweesi mid-last month.
"The President is not saying that everyone in Finance is a thief but he is talking about the general malaise in government. Ministry of Finance is responsible for resource mobilisation and allocation. He was explaining a situation that has gone out of hand," Mr Opondo explained.
"The government machinery has been compromised, that's why the President is taking action based on his political clout and intelligence briefs he receives on a daily basis. There are reports that some ministers and government officials receive favours from investors in form of cash, business trips, school fees and shares. There are reports that people design fake projects to enrich themselves. Government has not utilised borrowed money and people don't care as long as they get their cuts," he added.
The President told Cabinet that he sacked a minister in the 2016 reshuffle for asking a bribe of $4 million (Shs14.4 billion) from an investor. He further revealed that before Finance officials "harassed" the Chinese investor for the Shs15 billion bribe, the same Chinese had paid Shs10b to a former MP who had promised to help them "get things done quickly".
The President, according to sources, has instructed the Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, to investigate the MP and also ensure that the arrested suspects Ogol and Turyamuhika reveal their accomplices.
About the Osukuru project
To expedite the construction of Osukuru Phosphate Project in Tororo District, the President had directed in August 2014 that the investors be given a tax holiday, among other incentives.
Although investors had hoped to complete the factory by December last year, Cabinet heard that the project stalled due to bureaucracy and officials asking for bribes.
The Chinese, according to a State House statement released after the President commissioned the project in 2014, wanted to establish a chain of factories with an annual production of 300,000 tonnes from the phosphates plant, 300,000 tonness from the steel plant, 200,000 tonnes from the sulphuric acid plant, 100,000 tonnes from the Rare Earth factory, 300,000 tonnes of gypsum from the gypsum plant, as well as produce 12-MW of electricity from the waste heat power generation plant.
At the commissioning of the project, the then Prime Minister, Mr Amama Mbabazi, noted that phosphates offer Uganda opportunities, especially in the agricultural sector that today stands at only 30 per cent total output. He described the ceremony as a defining moment for agriculture in Uganda that should trigger production.