Uganda: Battle for Control of Uganda Airlines Claims Casualties

The sacking, in quick succession, of the top management team at Uganda Airlines on April 28 and the entire board a week later, is the climax of a long simmering conflict between the management and government bureaucrats that started even before the first aircraft was bought.

Chief executive Cornwell Muleya, finance director Paul Turacayisenga, safety and compliance director Bruno Oringi, human resources director Paul Ssebowa and ground handling manager Harvey Kalama were sent home to pave the way for an investigation into the airline's operations. Later, Gen Edward Katumba Wamala, Minister for Works and Transport, said they had been forced to take accumulated leave.

On May 5, the entire board, led by Perez Ahabwe, was also sent packing. Although the letter sacking them was written on April 30, it only got to the board in the first week of May.

The developments have sent ripples throughout the industry, with frantic suppliers trying to make sense of the situation.

According to sources, Mr Muleya, who since assuming office has been battling vested interests from politicians and employees who were proxies of powerful figures, felt undermined and tried to reach out to President Yoweri Museveni.

On January 27, he wrote a brief to the president on the conflicted situation at the airline. He delivered the brief to Gen Caleb Akandwanho aka Salim Saleh (Museveni's younger brother) in Gulu, for onward delivery to the president. Feeling that the issues raised could be addressed by the line ministry, Gen Saleh gave the confidential brief to Joy Kabatsi, junior minister for works and immediate supervisor of the airline.

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On April 26, the board and management team were shocked to receive a 12-point letter from Ms Kabatsi, raising issues which were a mirror image of the contents of Mr Muleya's brief to the president. The letter gave the board chair an ultimatum to respond to the issues raised by May 7 or risk a sack.

Titled Pertinent Issues Regarding the Management and Operations of Uganda Airlines, the letter questioned the board's role in recruitment and procurement for the airline, supposed delayed certification of the A330 fleet, failure by the technical department to develop operations manuals to the satisfaction of the Ugandan Civil Aviation Authority and delayed establishment of an aircraft maintenance and repair organisation as per the business plan.

Ms Kabatsi also questions what she sees as costly recurrent training in simulators for pilots whose frequency she wants reduced from six months to one year. These are the very issues that were raised by Mr Muleya in the brief. According to Mr Muleya, board members frequently overstepped their roles, involving themselves in recruitment of junior staff and procurement. He also accused them of collusion with managers to cheat the airline through inflated invoices.

"There is a problem of corruption in the airline. The new entrants are greedy. Sacked employees have teamed up with politicians to generate false intelligence reports to the president about the airline," said a source.

But Mr Muleya's efforts to discipline errant managers were often overridden by the board. For instance, a substandard system for maintaining communication between pilots and dispatchers on the ground was bought. After setup, it was discovered that it had a range of just 80 nautical miles whereas it was supposed to have a global reach. Mr Muleya's efforts to fire the officer were blocked by the board, who told him he had no such powers.

It was not unusual for board members to bypass the chief executive to deal directly with line managers. Ministers and other politicians wanted jobs for their relatives making recruitment of personnel contentious. The board insisted on recruiting junior staff, which was the preserve of management. Despite concluding interviews for the post, the airline does not have a company secretary because members of the board could not agree on whom to give the job.

Contacted, Ms Kabatsi referred us to Gen Wamala. "I wrote a letter raising matters that needed urgent action. But before I could get answers, matters took a different turn," she said.

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