By Flavia Nassaka
The National Drug Authority (NDA) has a new executive director; Donna Asiimwe Kusemererwa. A pharmacist and former director at Joint Medical Stores, she appears keenly aware that she must have rebuilding the image of the authority high on her agenda. Two days before she officially reported at her new work station on Jan.07, she called a meeting to brief journalists. Several members of her staff attended a small ceremony held at the Authority headquarters on Lumumba Avenue in Kampala.
Kusemererwa showed up in corporate wear – black skirt with a black and white sleeveless blouse accompanied with a pearl chocker around her neck. The message was clear. She seemed prepared for the tough business ahead. And she spoke boldly about the challenges.
“There is a lot of perceptions about what NDA as an organization is doing or not doing,” she said, “That’s why my emphasis is on changing the image of the institution in the first quarter.”
She did not say exactly how she plans to do this.
But top on her agenda could be an overhaul of the registration and licensing processes to ensure that counterfeit drugs are wiped out of circulation. She could also be looking into ensuring that pharmacies/ drug shops are supervised more regularly.
Established in 1993, NDA is mandated to ensure the availability, at all times, of essential, efficacious and cost-effective drugs to the population as a means of providing satisfactory healthcare and safeguarding the appropriate use of drugs.
But, for many years, stories told about the authority have been of bribery, poor performance, corruption scandals and abuse of office yet the authority has crucial roles of regulating pharmacies and drug shops, controlling importation and exportation of pharmaceuticals.
For instance last year, when the Auditor General’s Office released its report for 2014, it noted that most drug shops and pharmacies were operating illegally because NDA had failed to issue them with license. In the report, the auditor general pointed out that NDA management attributed their inability to issue licenses to all Pharmacies and Drug shops by the due date of Jan. 31, 2014 to low staffing levels and general complacency of the operators of drug outlets. This means that the public was continuously risking seeking health services from people’s whose qualification is unknown.
The authority has suffered administrative problems too and Kusemererwa might also be keen to avoid the administrative problems, in-fighting, and accusations and counter accusations at the Authority.
The acrimony dates back as far as 2002 when retired dentist Dr. William Nganwa was the board chairman and Dr. John Lule was the Executive Secretary.
The two were arrested in November 2002 over alleged abuse of office and charged with permitting illegal importation and local distribution of anti-malarial drugs from a blacklisted pharmaceutical factory in Ningbo, China.
The controversy exploded when the top officials were immediately allowed to go back to the job by the then Health Minister Jim Muhwezi even when investigations were still ongoing contrary to the Pharmaceutical Society of Uganda (PSU) standing orders that provide for interdiction of any administrator being investigated. Many accused Muhwezi of allowing the two back on the job because Nganwa was his relative. Such fights have persisted.
Unhappy former boss
Kusemererwa received instruments of power from Kate Kikule, the Chief Drug Inspector, who had been acting in the position of Executive Director. He took over in February last year when the then-ED, Dr. Gordon Katende Sematiko, was kicked out quietly. But he appears determined to make noise about it.
When he spoke to The Independent spoke on Jan.23, he sounded frustrated. He said that the board that appointed Kusemererwa was “acting out of shame”.
“I was suspended to give way for investigations but a few days later I received another letter signed by the chairman that I had been dismissed with immediate effect. I wasn’t given chance to explain myself,” he said.
That was in February last year and he was booted together with two other bosses over alleged abuse of office.
He said he had written to board chairman four months before the expiry of his contract requesting for renewal but he never got any form of feedback. Even when he petitioned the Inspector General of Government (IGG) over being unfairly kicked out of office, he never got any response.
It is alleged that Sematiko, without permission from the board transferred $5 million ( then Shs14 billion) of NDA money from the official authority account in Standard Chartered Bank to an unauthorized fixed deposit account in Orient Bank.
But Sematiko who maintains that he possesses minutes and audio recordings of the board meeting that authorized him to open up a new fixed deposit account accuses the board of using that as an excuse to get rid of him so that they can get their favorite candidate in the position.
“I had informed the board that we had a surplus and suggested we save it on a fixed deposit account to earn the authority some interest. They agreed and I have evidence. That account has fetched profit worth Shs.350 million so far which they are using,” he says. According to him, the board members have denied their own words by accusing him of fraud. He said the Directorate of Public Prosecution (DPP) last year cleared him and ordered that the case file be closed. He says he has taken his case to President YoweriMuseveni and is awaiting a response.
“My fate now depends on what the president decides. The IGG that I ran to is also compromised and I no longer trust that they can handle my issues. They have delayed justice and am planning to officially withdraw the petition,” he said.
Dr. Samuel Zaramba, the chairman of the board, is unimpressed.
“That person who is going around saying the choice wasn’t fair knows why he didn’t get the job,” he told The Independent without mentioning names. He said many competent applicants wanted the job and therefore went through a very competitive sieving process in order to end up with Kusemererwa.
“We (NDA) never had any input in this. An independent body handled the recruitment process and they forwarded the best three candidates to the board. When we interviewed them, she came out the best candidate again,” he said adding that those who think this was not a fair choice should have applied for the job since it was advertised for every one with the required qualifications to apply.He said the account Sematiko spoke of was frozen and that Sematiko knows exactly why he was not considered for the job again.
Sematiko’s stay at the helm of NDA was riddled with problems right from the day of his appointment as NDA’s Executive Secretary/ registrar in 2011. His appointment was contested by the then Minister of Health Dr. Christine Ondoa. The decision possibly led to Ondoa’s firing of the entire board of 20 members that had appointed him.
Six months later when he had to be confirmed on the job as provided for by the National Drug Policy and Authority Act, the new board refused. As a result in 2013, he was summoned by the parliamentary committee on Commissions, Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises (COSASE) to explain why he was occupying the office illegally without a confirmation letter from the board.
The board consists of members from major health institutions in the country, including a representative from Mulago National Referral Hospital, one from the pharmaceutical society of Uganda, Ministry of Health, Uganda AIDS Commission, National Chemotherapeutic laboratory, a legal advisor, Joint medical stores, national medical stores, and representatives of herbalists, medical students, and dentists, among others.
“The new board was of course siding with Ondoa. Even when she left the ministry, she came back to the board as Director General of Uganda AIDs Commission. She still has influence,” Sematiko says.
The Independent failed to reach Ondoa for a comment because she did not pick her calls but media reports show that she rejected Sematiko because he had wrong dealings while still working at Mulago hospital as chief pharmacist.
Kusemererwa appears determined to steer clear of such controversy. When asked to comment, for example, she told The Independent that she would only speak to the media about her execution plan after 90 days in office. For now, the board is optimistic that things are going to change for the good at the drugs body.