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PAC grills top ministers: Is it all bark and no bite?

By Isaac Mufumba

Time check: 10:30 a.m., a lean looking man of average height, clad in a white short sleeved shirt and a sky blue necktie enters one of the committee rooms of Uganda’s parliament. This is the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Nathan Nandala Mafabi.

He takes a seat at the center of a long table. His colleagues on PAC follow suit. He then invites the days witness to take a sit.

Mr. Minister please come and sit directly opposite me; I want to be able to protect you very well and look you in the eye when I address you, he says in  what appears to be a sitting ritual with every minister and government official that has appeared before the committee.

Last weeks appearance of the long service Minister of Works Transport and Communications, John Nasasira, and Foreign Affairs Minister, Sam Kahamba Kuteesa, both members of the Cabinet Committee that oversaw the preparations for the Commonwealth Heads of State and Government Meeting (Chogm) Kampala 2007, to explain their roles in the controversial procurement of 114 BMW cars that were leased raised the profile of the committee.

The two Ministers were grilled for long hours amidst dramatic scenes and pointed remarks. At the center of it all was Rwemiyaga MP, Theodore Sekikubo, who faced off first with his Nemesis in Sembabule politics, Sam Kuteesa, and later with John Nasasira, urging them to own up to the procurement mess that cost the tax payer a whopping Shs.9.3 billion.

The two ministers are some of the longest serving ministers of the NRM and they are believed to be part of a cabal of powerful ministers who constitute the first tier of the ruling NRM, therefore their appearance before the committee generated a lot of public excitement.

If they dipped their fingers in the cookie jar, they must be grilled and punished for it, many felt.

The question however, is whether this committee which is mandated to examine audited accounts showing the appropriation of monies granted to parliament to meet the public expenditure of government, has got anything to show for all the barking that the public has been hearing from the North Wing of parliament. Is it all bark and no bite?

While there appears to be some satisfaction in the public, there are also concerns that the committee has nothing to show for its existence, as there is no official record of to indicate so.

The Public Financial Management Performance Report 2008, which was released in June 14, 2009 emphasises this, but quickly points a finger at the politicians.

No recommendation included in the PAC reports has been debated in parliament. This process is politically delayed. As of November 2008, reports for 2001/02 through 2004/05 were completed but had yet to be debated. Likewise, no Treasury Memorandum has been issued since then, so no official status of implementation is available, says the report.

How PAC works

Mafabi says most of the committees work depends on the recommendations of the Auditor General. PAC follows up where the Auditor General raises queries in his annual audit of government departments to ensure that funds appropriated to respective departments are well spent.

The committee scrutinises the AGs reports and where loopholes are found, it summons accounting officers or political heads of those departments who are required to answer.

The committee sometimes also relies on information from the public in the form of complaints and appeals for action. These are first scrutinised and investigated.

After the investigations are complete, PAC compiles a report which is then presented before the plenary and the executive for debate and possibly final implementation. When this is done, the Ministry of Finance sends back a report known as a Treasury Recommendation to acknowledge the implementation of the committees recommendations.

PAC has been accused of bias and failure to operate within its mandate.

And in April last year, Foreign Affairs Minister, Sam Kuteesa, who was implicated in a case of irregularly securing a Shs 1.2 billion deal for UK based PR firm, Hunton and William, to promote image of Uganda between March 2005 and April 2006, accused Mafabi of witch hunting him for political reasons.

Recently on Feb.12, city lawyer Charles Odere, who represents the publicity firm, Saatchi & Saatchi, which was hired to design a media and communication strategy for implementation in the run up to and during the Commonwealth Heads of State and Government Meeting (Chogm) 2007 in Kampala, accused PAC of bias and ignorance of the law.

“That they have always had a prejudiced mind or attitude about Saatchi & Saatchi is the first point of departure. Right from the start they appeared to have already formed an opinion about us. We could see that from the statements that they made. They said that we had delivered empty boxes, that we got the tender through the back door and many other things” he said.

But Mafabi says concerns about Saatchi and Saatchi were first raised by the security committee.

“We are only following up the four reports connected to that. We did not make up those reports,” he says.

Is PAC biting?

Mafabi insists that PAC is not a mere scarecrow. He insists that the committee has been barking and biting at the same time. So what has it got to show for it?

Achievements

He says that PAC has through its operations helped to improve accountability of public resources because those mandated to oversee them and implement government programmes are now aware that the committee is watching.

He says that the committee has since helped government to improve financial management as payments are now effected through Electronic Funds Transfers, as opposed to the previous system of issuing cheques for colossal sums of money, a system that was open to manipulation and fraud.

In the financial year 2008/2009, he says, over Shs 600 billion which could have been stolen was returned to the Consolidated Fund after bodies to which it had been sent failed to spend it.

PAC, he says, has given the office of the Auditor General relevance, and that accounting officers are now more accountable because they have learnt that people in public offices who behave irresponsibly are held personally responsible for losses and abuse.

Parliament, he says, is now more relevant as it is known to be working in the interest of the public and the public too is now more knowledgeable about is resources.

The committee he says, has completed eight reports. Six of those reports, namely those dating from the financial year 2000/2001 running through to that of the financial year 2005/2006 were presented while two more, those of the financial years 2006/2007 and 2007/2008 are ready for presentation.

“We are waiting for the executive to respond to the initial six, but have not yet presented the other two because we have been busy with investigating Chogm,” he says.

Finally, he says, the committee has been able to make a number of people refund money. Top on the list of those that made refunds is Ethics and Integrity Minister, Dr. James Nsaba Buturo, who refunded about 20 million shillings that he had diverted from the government owned Mega FM in 2005.

However, those achievements fall short of what the public wants to see – someone going to jail for having stolen public money.

“I am limited. I can’t work beyond the presentations that I make. Parliament doesn’t have the power to prosecute. That is why we hand over to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to investigate and prosecute” he says.

Now that we see that it is the executive that has not responded to the reports, who has failed in his obligations? Is it PAC which will be held responsible for conducting exercises in futility or is it the executive or the public that will be proven guilty of having abdicated its role?

Nandala says that that is a question that should be left to the public to judge and answer.

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