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Ministry of Health scholarship money stolen?

By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi

There could be a racket in the Ministry of Health swindling money meant for medical students

A number of students who had been sent to study abroad have had their scholarships cancelled and they have been advised to return to Ugandan universities, The Independent has learnt. Some of the affected individuals claim the concerned officials swindle the money.

As a policy, the Ministry of Health sponsors doctors serving in hard-to-reach areas in Uganda to study abroad in medical specialities that are not offered by local universities. But in a twist of events about which some whistleblowers have raised a red flag, some of the students who had already started their studies abroad have been recalled to study in Ugandan universities.

A case in point is a one Dr. Christopher Masiale, who has just finished his first semester in Nairobi University, where he is pursuing a five-year Masters course in Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. Masiale’s application to the University of Nairobi was backed by a commitment by the government of Uganda, signed by Dr. Jacinto Amandua for the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Health, to provide sponsorship. But the first semester ended at the end of last year without any money being paid to the University of Nairobi.

Instead, on November 3, 2011, towards the end of the semester, a letter signed by Dr. Jane Ruth Acheng on behalf of the acting Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Health, informed Masiale that his training financial support had been terminated.

The letter, a copy of which The Independent has seen, communicated the decisions of the Ministry of Health Training Committee that ‘due to financial constraints, the available resources would be utilised for training health workers in Uganda’.

Charles Isabirye, the principal training officer in the ministry, told The Independent that Masiale had been awarded the scholarship about five years earlier and failed to take it up. Isabirye adds that by the time Masiale, a dental surgeon in Bugiri Hospital, finally came to take up the offer, there was no money. Isabirye says he declined to back Masiale’s application to Nairobi University last year, something a senior ministry official did.

Isabiye added that the budget for the training section of Ministry of Health was cut in favour of other activities like recruiting more health workers, and that it was resolved that the ministry’s training support, in light of the limited resources, should emphasise training in local universities since it is cheaper.

Isabirye said the ministry supports every medical student pursuing a Masters degree in a Ugandan university with Shs 5m per year, while those doing nursing get up to Shs 900,000 in a cost sharing arrangement. On the other hand, foreign students are fully supported by the government and the fees are substantially higher. Masiale, for example, was supposed to pay close to Shs 25m for the first year in Nairobi University. His course runs for five years.

Another student doing a Bachelors in Dental Technology in a university in the United Kingdom, we have learnt, pays Shs 66m annually. This student, who is in his second year in the UK, has also been informed that the government will not support him next academic year. Makerere University has started the course, now in its first year. The student in UK, unless he pays for himself for the rest of the course, will be required to return to Uganda and wait for at least a year for the Makerere University students to reach third year before he joins them.

But recalling students who are already studying in foreign universities would present legal and other challenges. Some of the students who have been recalled, we have learnt, have threatened legal action. They suspect that ministry officials want them to return to Ugandan universities which are cheaper, and therefore pocket the difference off the scholarship funds that have already been approved.

One of the affected students The Independent talked to suspects the money was sent to the ministry’s account but was diverted. There are also claims the ministry officials prefer to sponsor students in Ugandan universities with which they can negotiate for a ‘commission’.

Isabirye told this reporter that Masiale should return to Uganda and wait for August 2012 when Makerere University is expected to resume offering his course. Isabirye said Masiale had no case since he had no letter of award of scholarship. But a copy of a ‘loose minute’ we have seen, drawn by Isabirye himself on November 11, 2011, requested the Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Health to pay Shs 24,850,200 for Masiale in Nairobi University.

In the letter, titled “Request for Shs 24,850,200/= for fees and welfare of Dr. Masiale Christopher (Student Ref. No.23317/2011) at Nairobi University”, Isabirye wrote, “Dr. Masiale Christopher was offered a scholarship to undertake a five year masters course in Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at Nairobi University”.

In a footer to the letter, Isabirye wrote, “The funds should be charged from program 07, vote function 0802, chart of accounts 080201, item 221003 staff training of the 2011/12 FY”. A ministry of Health source has told us that the money could have been embezzled by the concerned officers, a practice they say is ‘fairly common’ in the ministry.

But Isabirye denies these accusations. He says the dwindling resources to support training are to be blamed on the budget. “Students should also apply for scholarships in other areas apart from the ministry,” Isabirye advised.

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