12 February 2018

Uganda: OPM in Fresh Shs8b Scandal

Photo: Daily Monitor
President Yoweri Museveni with ministers and area leaders at the scene of a mudslide in Bufumpa Parish, Masaba Sub-county, Sironko District, last year.

Kampala — The Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), caught in the murky waters of a deepening refugee scandal, is once again in the eye of the storm as security operatives corner top government officials, who are accused of buying a wetland with a forged land title at Shs8b.

The contested wetland is part of 2,880 acres, which OPM officials bought from a company linked to a local MP to resettle between 5,000 and 8,000 people from landslide-prone places in Bududa District in the Mount Elgon area. The wetland is deemed unfit for human settlement.

Contested land

The land is labelled Plot 10 and 93 in Bunambutye, Bulambuli District. Although the land, according to the district land office, is customarily owned by 18 clans (300 families), OPM officials reportedly struck a deal with Elgon County MP Nyasio Mudiimi Wamakuyu, who is accused of fraudulently obtaining the land title in the name of his family company, Simu Oil (U) Ltd.

At the time of purchasing the land, Mr Wamakuyu was MP for Bulambuli.

According to Mr Rotich Abraham and Mr Gibboyi Francis, who represent the land claimants, Mr Wamakuyu made a deal with some OPM officials led by the permanent secretary, Ms Christine Guwatudde Kintu. They say Mr Wamakuyu sold their customary land to government at more than Shs8 billion and they protested but were ignored.

The money for the land was transferred to an account in Centenary Bank belonging to Simu Oil (U).

However, Mr Wamakuyu denied the allegations of forging the title for the land. He admitted that Simu Oil (U) Ltd, a company where his wife is a director, sold the 1,680 acres on plot 10 to OPM but said the land title in question was issued to Bamasaba Cooperative Union by the Uganda Land Commission in 1971. He said the land title was later transferred to his wife's company when it bought the land in 2012.

"Whoever says the land title is forged should ask the Uganda Land Commission, which gave out the title to Bamasaba Cooperative Union in 1971. And the land is not for those who are claiming it. They are masqueraders and should be asked to produce the forged title. The claims they are talking about were investigated and cleared," Mr Wamakuyu said yesterday.

Mr Rotich told Daily Monitor at the weekend that prior to what he calls "a dubious transaction", 'the land owners' had indicated to many people who came to inspect the land that it belonged to 300 families customarily.

"Indeed, many investigators came to Bulambuli and established that we are the rightful owners of the land and payment was blocked," he said.

On July 26 last year, Mr Rotich and Mr Gibboyi, petitioned Security minister Henry Tumukunde over the matter.

"Without any further due diligence, the payment was released to the fraudulent company even where there was no urgency and where we had been contacted by OPM and verified as the customary owners and that the land title had been fraudulently procured," the petition reads in part.

Daily Monitor has learnt that the Inspector General of Government (IGG), the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) and the Financial Intelligence Authority (FIA) attempted to inquire into the transaction but no report was issued.

According to documents seen by Daily Monitor, the matter was brought to the attention of CID director Grace Akullo.

"The IGG and CID officers were all compromised because the IGG's office did authorise the bank to release funds to the fraudulent company without investigations," Mr Rotich alleges in the petition to Lt Gen Tumukunde.

The petition says no investigation was carried out and all that the officers sought was to release money, which had been blocked in Centenary Bank.

When contacted, the IGG, Justice Irene Mulyagonja, said she needed time to check the records about the matter.

"You have called me at a weekend, so I cannot give any information. Send me the reference number of the case so that I can check the record when I return to office on Tuesday," the IGG said.

CID not aware

CID spokesperson Vincent Sekatte said: "I am not aware of that case but given time, I can consult the lands people to see if there is record of that case is available."

DPP spokesperson Jane Kajuga said: "I can't give out any information offhand since it is a Sunday but the DPP only stops investigations after finding no evidence to continue a criminal prosecution or when it is clear that the matter is civil and it is referred to a civil court."

Although sources say a transaction of this magnitude should have been investigated by the CID headquarters, it was left to a divisional CID officer, Mr Daniel Batter, who on October 21, 2014, wrote to manager of Centenary Bank, Entebbe Road branch, giving green light to release the withheld funds to Simu Oil company.

In the letter titled "Clearance of EFT payment to A/C No 3010311186 Simu Oil Company", Mr Batter cleared payment of the funds that had been blocked, pending conclusion of investigations into the alleged fraud.

"This is to bring to your attention that subject to our investigations inquiries vide CPS K'LA GEF: 77/2014 into this matter, the Directorate of Public Prosecutions has directed that our case file be closed and the owner of the account [Simu Oil (U) Ltd] be allowed to freely operate and run their account... this is therefore to direct you to comply with the directive," Mr Batter wrote.

The letter was copied to the then director for supervision at Bank of Uganda, Ms Justine Bagyenda, and FIA boss Sydney Asubo.

Earlier on October 16, 2014, Mr Asubo had written to Centenary Bank, revoking his instructions to halt financial activity on the account of Simu Oil (U). His clearance, based on "findings from preliminary investigations", came 10 days after he had instructed the bank to freeze the company's accounts on grounds that the land owners had accused the firm of forging a title deed for land it later sold to OPM.

In the letter, the FIA boss indicated "the transaction is authentic" even after the intelligence officer attached to OPM had informed Ms Guwatudde that the land government was planning to buy for the landslide victims was under contestation and the title for it had been forged with about half of it being a swamp and unfit for human settlement.

"The purpose of this letter, therefore, is to revoke our earlier instructions to hold financial activity on the account... ," Mr Asubo's clearance letter reads.

On November 22, 2013, an intelligence officer attached to OPM had written to Ms Guwatudde, raising several red flags on the deal but was ignored. The officer also reported what he called, "the fraudulent transaction" to his bosses at State House.

The controversy

Daily Monitor could not reach Ms Guwatudde for a comment on the matter as she neither picked nor returned our repeated calls to her cellular telephone line throughout the weekend.

In the intelligence officer's caution letter to OPM titled "Suspected anomalies in Procurement Department of Disaster Preparedness Management", he indicated the title for the said land was a forgery and about half of it was a swamp.

He also questioned the motive of re-advertising the deal, two days to the closing of the bids. The bids were closed on October 31, 2013. The first advert went out on October 18, 2013 and later, through unclear circumstances, was re-advertised on October 28, 2013.

The intelligence officer proposed an independent verification team and warned OPM of future audit queries if procurement procedures were flouted. However despite this warning, Ms Guwatudde appointed a team of eight officers, including one Richard Masereje, who is presented as a consultant transaction advisor.

The inspection team also included a one Viola Namutebi, who was an intern in OPM at the time.

Others were MP Vincent Wamboya, who was the principal disaster officer at OPM, Mr Wilson Owuzu, the senior urban officer in the ministry of Lands, Mr Gilbert Kamundu from Lands and Henry Obbo, the state attorney from the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.

Sources in OPM said State minister for Relief and Disaster Preparedness Musa Ecweru was aware of the transaction.

Others involved in the transaction, according to sources, include Mr Stanley Ahabwe, the assistant commissioner for procurement at OPM, Ms Rose Nakabugo, the assistant commissioner for disaster preparedness at OPM, Mr Gerald Manya, assistant commissioner, Mr Agrey Kibenge, former OPM undersecretary, now undersecretary at ministry of Education, and Mr Kenneth Mugumya, the former OPM principal accountant, who is now assistant commissioner in charge of accounts at the ministry of Agriculture.

Narrow escape

In September 2014, Mr Ecweru and OPM officials were forced to flee after a charged crowd attempted to lynch them for allegedly grabbing their land. Armed with clubs, residents of Tabagony Village in Bunambutye Sub-county chased Mr Ecweru, Ms Guwatudde, Ms Nakabugo and others from the land bought for resettlement of Mt Elgon mudslide victims.

Some of the 2010 landslide survivors in Mt Elgon area were relocated to part of Masindi District, now Kiryandongo District, while others refused to move. Cabinet tasked OPM to identify land in the lower areas of Bugisu to resettle people who had refused to leave their ancestral land but were still in harm's way.

In July 2015, the minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, Mr Hilary Onek, who was not involved in the deal according to sources, organised a meeting in Mabale Village in Bunambutye and promised the victims that they would be relocated.

However, five years after OPM paid the Shs8b to Simu Oil Ltd, the land remains in the hands of the customary owners, who have accused OPM of conniving with land grabbers while the landslide victims remain at risk.

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