By Peter Nyanzi
Minister lobbied Museveni over disgraced principal accountant
Geoffrey Kazinda, the former Principal Account in OPM, the Office of the Prime Minister, who is before the Anti-Corruption Court on 29 counts of embezzlement, false accounting, forgery, conspiracy to commit a felony and causing financial loss amounting to Shs 316.8 million, remains jolly under pressure.
In the narrow corridors of OPM, he and about 80 others who have been sucked into the case are called “abalwadde” – the sick-ones. But Kazinda, who is quite a big fellow, always spots a mischievous grin even as he ambles to the dock, waves to the crowd like a superstar, and pumps a few palms of friends and relatives who throng the court to wish him luck. Those who know him say he is a confident, cocky customer partly because he is smart, has powerful godfathers, and is not new to such controversy.
The Independent has learnt that before the current scandal, at least two top accounting officials had written to Gustavio Bwoch, the Accountant General who assigns accountants to ministries and government departments, to remove Kazinda from his job because of alleged corruption. In both cases, Kazinda defied them with the support of godfathers.
In the latest case, OPM’s chief accounting officer, Permanent Secretary Pius Bigirimana, wrote to the accountant general to remove him in January 2011. But almost two years later, Kazinda was still at his job although Bigirimana had on January 10, 2011 also penned a harsh and head-on internal memo to Kazinda, copied to all heads of departments.
“It has been reported to me that you run the Accounts division like your private entity,” the PS wrote to Kazinda in the memo headed: “Improvement in your work habits”.
“Worst of all,” Bigirimana continued, “it has been brought to my attention that you directly and indirectly create a false impression that your irregular behavior and poor work habits have got my blessing. Desist from falsely using the PS’s name to cover up for your omissions, excesses and failures.”
At the time, the memo underlined the frigid and sometimes acrimonious relationship between Kazinda and his boss, but it was common knowledge in the corridors of OPM that there was no love lost between them.
Kazinda became the Principal Accountant in OPM on July 11, 2007, one year earlier than Bigirimana – who was deployed to the OPM in 2008. Insiders say their relationship was frosty from the beginning because Bigirimana was reluctant to be “inducted” into Kazinda’s “dubious deals.”
Undaunted, insiders say, Kazinda resorted to his “obscure financial management style” to beat the weak systems, ineffective controls, and unsuspecting bosses. According to a memo by Bigirmana, he refused to provided details of money released to the ministry, rarely worked in his office, refused to delegate, embezzled funds using forged signatures, and made it known that the boss, Bigirimana backs him. Kazinda allegedly crafted a “syndicate” involving officials in the finance ministry and Bank of Uganda.
Sensing that Kazinda was allegedly causing a lot of financial damage, Bigirimana wrote a second memo to his supervisor, Bwoch. But as happened in January when Kazinda went underground and resurfaced in February, he again claimed he was sick in May and left office, possibly hoping the storm would pass. But Bigirimana had other ideas.
Apparently, Kazinda’s disappearance followed a notification from the Auditor General that they would carry out a Value-for-Money audit on programmes in the OPM. On July 18, therefore, Bigirimana wrote to the Inspector General of Police highlighting Kazinda’s “professional misconduct” and files being “smuggled out” of his finance office.
“I have evidence, which suggests that Mr Kazinda forged or super imposed my signature on cash withdraw documents which enabled him to get cash from Bank of Uganda,” Bigirimana told the IGP. “I have evidence that Mr Kazinda caused and charged and got money from programmes against my directive thereby co-mingling funds and denying me the capacity to follow up [the] trail of expenditures.” He also double-locked Kazinda’s office to prevent unauthorised access, and reported him as “missing” to Bwoch.
The same month when Kazinda should have been reprimanded, Bwoch again re-assigned Kazinda under acrimonious circumstances to the ministry of Gender and Labour. Kazinda refused to prepare final accounts, hand-over, and report to his new station. The joke is that Gender is a poor ministry. Meanwhile, the police who were supposed to hunt him claimed they could not trace Kazinda, and newspapers ran an apparently orchestrated campaign that he was missing.
Accounts about how Kazinda was eventually flushed out of his palatial home in a city suburb vary, but it is clear that until Bigirimana intervened, Kazinda had remained untouchable. In the most believable report that The Independent has heard, Bigirimana took matters in his hands and decided to play Inspector Derrick, the famous TV crime buster.
Reportedly donning, casual shorts and camouflage Hanna hat, Bigirimana knocked on Kazinda’s gate one Sunday afternoon. When the gateman let him in, Bigirimana reportedly found Kazinda who had claimed to be away in Nairobi for treatment, happily watching TV. Kazinda still refused to report to the office to make the official handover report.
Police then raided Kazinda’s home. While appearing before the Presidential Affairs Committee, Bigirimana said the police raid on Kazinda’s multibillion mansion in Bukoto had discovered that it was “a factory of forged documents” including blank withdraw forms with the PS’s signature already appended on them. It must be pointed out that these are allegations. The case is in court and nothing has been proved against Kazinda yet.
Questions are, however, being asked about how Kazinda whose salary scale U2 is not more than Shs 1.2 million a month amassed the kind of wealth he boasts of. Where does Kazinda get the courage to defy his entire superior’s with impunity? Apparently, he has highly placed godfathers.
The Independent has evidence that Kazinda allegedly did the same thing five years ago, and walked away scot-free; this time in the ministry of Water and Environment.
That scandal broke out between 2006 and 2007 when, in a case similar to what is happening now, then-Ag. Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Water, Sottie Bomukama, requested the Accountant General in the Ministry of Finance, Gustavio Bwoch, to remove Kazinda.
On December 12, 2006, Bwoch wrote a memo to Bank of Uganda, copied to the PS ministry of Finance, the Auditor General and PS ministry of Water, confirming that Kazinda had been removed from the ministry of Water. As Accountant General, Bwoch is responsible for the deployment of accountants to the various ministries and government departments.
Bomukama wanted him out because Kazinda had failed to account for Shs 52 million office imprest, and had taken up to Shs 13 million from the cashier without documentation. In a letter to the then-minister of Water, Maria Mutagamba, the PS recalled that Kazinda’s former boss in the Directorate of Water Development (DWD), Patrick Kahangire, had warned of Kazinda’s “obscure financial management style”.
But on December 20, 2006, Mutagamba defied him and wrote to Bomukama insisting that Kazinda stays in his job.
“I am the political head of this ministry,” she wrote, “Mr Kazinda is directed to stay until I get proper guidance from the Ministry of Finance. Please take this matter as a directive.”
Bomukama wrote another memo dated November 8, 2006reminding Mutagamba that at the time of Kazinda’s transfer from DWD to Water, “tens of millions of shillings in cash could not be accounted for and he (Kazinda) started running around PCs literally crying for signatures.”
Despite this, it emerged that Mutagamba had personally lobbied President Yoweri Museveni to have Kazinda posted to her ministry as Principal Accountant. Summarising, Mutagamba’s role in Kazinda’s promotion, Bomukama wrote: “To cut a long story short, when he came to me lobbying after he had successfully lobbied you, he said and I quote, `Sir, this is a reformed Kazinda, give me a chance’.”
When Kazinda, with Mutagamba’s blessing, refused to leave Water, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance, Keith Muhakanizi, wrote to Kazinda on December 22, 2006, warning of stern action over his refusal to handover office. Kazinda defied him too. It is not clear how it happened but finally, Kazinda was posted to the Prime Minister’s Office. Concluding the saga, the Head of Public Service and Secretary to the Cabinet, John Mitala wrote to Bomukama to forget the incident.
“Since the matter appears to have been solved, that disturbing chapter should be erased from our minds so that everybody moves forward for the good of the ministry,” Mitala wrote on February 2, 2007.
It is now clear that the Kazinda issue was solved for anybody’s good. The man who opposed Kazinda, Sottie Bomuka, was never promoted to full PS. He retired in a lower position as director of DWD. Kazinda, meanwhile, was promoted to Principal Accountant in the PM’s Office where, six years later, he now faces charges of causing more finan cial loss. Why wasn’t he stopped in 2006? Why wasn’t he reprimanded in 2011 when Bigirimana first complained? Why wasn’t he fired instead of merely being transferred to another ministry? Anti-corruption campaigners say the public service has a powerful network of corrupt individuals with godfathers in high places. They fear Kazinda might walk scot-free courtesy of this syndicate and his godfathers.
“The Kazinda saga exposes how corruption has become deeply institutionalised and it all starts from the top where high profile officials embezzle funds without shame, others are shielded or promised to be protected,” says Cissy Kagaba, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda, an umbrella body of NGOs fighting corruption.
An official who preferred anonymity told The Independent that the police officers handling the case have received orders to “go slow”. But such claims are never easy to verify. Already, however, Kazinda appears to be winning. The initial allegations were that Kazinda embezzled Shs15 billion, which was whittled down the Shs 5 billion. It now stands at Shs 318 million.
Masaka Municipality MP Mathias Mpuuga, who sits on the Presidential Affairs Committee, is not optimistic that Kazinda’s trial will lead to a conviction. He describes the prosecution as “mere window dressing” and predicted that the “real big fish” in the mess in the OPM would walk away Scot-free “as usual.”
“Kazinda’s case is an indication not just of what is happening in the OPM, but also mirrors the grand corruption that is happening in government. I am not interested in the Kazindas of this world being charged because they are the small fish in that scam and the big fish have not been and might never be touched at all,” he says. “It is really sad because the OPM and its programmes are supposed to help vulnerable people but instead a few looters are just enriching themselves.”
Bigirimana confirmed the existence of the syndicate when he appeared before the Parliamentary Committee chaired by Buyaga County West MP Barnabas Tinkasiimire. He said Kazinda was working with a “syndicate” involving the Office of the Auditor General, Bank of Uganda, and the Finance Ministry.
Tinkasiimire says the committee had written to the Office of the Auditor General to conduct a special forensic audit on the OPM but the Auditor General, John Muwanga, refused to comment on the matter. President Museveni is reportedly following the matter keenly and has had several direct interactions with Bigirimana and other top officials since the Kazinda scandal broke. Bigirimana too, refused to discuss the matter when contacted, arguing that he wanted to allow the police to do its work.
But Tinkasiimire insists that it is the top politicians who have failed the fight against corruption either by deliberately keeping a blind eye on the corrupt or shielding them from punishment.
Meanwhile, answers are being sought as to why corruption with impunity is rampant it in ministries and public institutions.
Cissy Kagaba blames this situation on the protection the corrupt get from highly placed politicians whom she described as “godfathers.” “The issue of godfathers has led to selective application of the law where the godfathers will move out to protect their children,” she said. “We have all witnessed scenarios where cases are dropped, abandoned, or gone in limbo for years as a result of direct or indirect interference from godfathers.”
Since the godfathers offer protection to the corrupt and punish anyone who stands in their way, PS Bigirimana in the PM’s Office appears to be walking on needles. Many fear his efforts to fight corruption, right from when he was in the ministry of Health, might get punctured this time. All it takes is for the ‘godfather’ of the syndicate to make one or two calls urging those responsible to transfer or sack him.
Some observers are warning that it is an eye opener to the extent to which public power in Uganda is exercised for private gain, as well as the “capture” of the state by corrupt elites and private interests.
Since President Museveni came to power in 1986, corruption continues to be a major concern. Initially, viewed as a “stage” of primitive accumulation of wealth, corruption has endemically become “the way Uganda civil service works”.
According to a recent study by the Makerere-based Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC) on corruption trends in Uganda, outstanding advances, or excess expenditures are endemic and “systemic” in the public service and a clear sign of financial leakages. Most corruption – the abuse of office for private gain – manifests through bribery, financial leakages, conflict of interest, embezzlement, false accounting, fraud, influence peddling, nepotism and outright theft of public assets.
The EPRC report on corruption trends highlights a “public acquiescence to corruption as being a part of normal or accepted behaviour to be copied; as a key challenge. Various reports have shown that Uganda’s various anti-corruption agencies in practice are not fully protected from political interference and can be influenced by political or personal incentives, including conflicting family relationships, professional partnerships or personal loyalties, but also threats and other abuses of power.
Also, issues of low pay and poor working conditions have been cited as having a direct relevance to corruption. Higher pay has been proposed as a remedy, but some experts argue that increasing salaries, however justified, will not of itself remove corruption. They say what is needed are overall reforms of the public service systems, including pay reform, reorientation towards greater productivity, providing quality services and ensuring accountability and value for money.
An African Peer Review Mechanism report on Uganda notes that its anti-corruption agencies generally lack the human and financial resources required and are subject to political and executive influence. According official documents on the OPM website, Kazinda holds an ACCA certificate and a B.com degree with 16 years of accounting practice since he was first appointed in the public service in July 1996. It’s doubtful that the police investigators can match his skill in concealing evidence, especially because he allegedly favoured cash transactions.
On paper, Uganda is said to have sufficient laws and policies to fight corruption since they were revised in 2003. The problem though, according to corruption watchdogs, is that corruption is highest in the Police and Judiciary which results in lengthy investigative periods and high rates of dismissal of cases. Critics say getting the Uganda Police to investigate corruption and the judiciary to punish the corrupt is like sending hyenas to supervise a slaughter house. They point to a clear connection between high profile corruption and the police’s investigative machinery, which frustrates the administration of justice against corrupt officials as key evidence often gets tampered with to get the corrupt off the hook.
“In Uganda the greatest challenges are slow implementation of laws and manifest impunity,” says the Global Integrity Report for 2011, which gives Uganda an Actual Implementation Score of 51 (very weak). “Oversight institutions exist, but they operate under considerable restrictions. The executive branch greatly inhibits their independence and often ignores or only partially implements the recommendations in their reports,” the report adds.
According to the Global Corruption Barometer (2010), the Police and Judiciary are perceived to be the most corrupt public institutions followed by public officials, civil servants and Parliamentarians. The East Africa Bribery Index 2011 also showed that the Uganda Police tops the list of the most bribery-prone institutions – not just in Uganda but in the EAC.
Also, six in ten of respondents in Uganda believed their government lacks the commitment to confront corruption. Most of the people (68%) said the incidence of corruption in Uganda has increased in the last one year while 20% thought the situation had not changed. The majority of the respondents said that corruption will increase in the next one year (65.6%), 13% thought it would remain the same while about 11% believed that it would decrease. Also, most respondents (61.1%) felt the government is not committed to the fight against corruption while only 15.8% believed that the government has some level of commitment to the anti-corruption agenda.
Some anti-corruption crusaders are pushing to amend the Leadership Code Act and pass the Anti-Money Laundering Bill. The Anti-Corruption Coalition wants the Anti- Corruption Act amended to provide for forfeiture of wealth got through corruption.
MPs under the African Parliamentarians Network Against Corruption-Uganda Chapter (APNAC -U) are working to table a new law to that will empower the State to confiscate assets and slap a life sentence in prison on those convicted for corruption. On July 31, Makindye East MP John Ssimbwa got permission to introduce a private member’s bill on it. The anti- corruption crusaders know full well that fighting corruption is often “a lonely, difficult and a dangerous undertaking” as corruption always has a tendency to “fight back.” Anti-corruption NGOs are working to strengthen its collaboration with Parliament especially through APNAC-U by feeding it with information. “We are strengthening the people’s capacity to demand for accountability from their leaders,” Kagaba says. “We want the citizens themselves to rise up and hold their leaders accountable, right from the village level. We are envisioning a movement of citizens that will not shy away from demanding accountability.”
But some MPs like, Kajara MP Steven Tashobya, are not optimistic. They fear the government will hijack the fight against corruption and eventually frustrate it.
“All indications are that we are seeing a government that is completely losing control. If for nothing else, this government will collapse because of nothing else but corruption,” says Tinkasiimire.