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Trouble from above

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

Intrigue delays appointment of an executive director at Uganda’s Forest Authority

Remember Damian Akankwasa? He is the former executive director of the National Forestry Authority (NFA) who hit fame after he accused his wife of pinching Shs 900 million from him in a story that shook the nation. Questions were subsequently asked about how Akankwansa got so much money. He was subsequently kicked out of office in 2009. Surprisingly, about three years later, NFA has not appointed another ED.

Members of parliament in August raised questions about the issue but to date no official answer has been given. Investigations by The Independent now show that the appointment of a substantive ED has been delayed because of intrigue within the NFA board, the ministry of Water and Environment, and President’s Office. Each side has a candidate it favours for the job but donors, who fund NFA, appear determined to weigh in.


The fight for the NFA top job is stiff because the holder of the lucrative office has control over Uganda’s 506 Central Forest Reserves measuring up to 1.9 million hectares or 9% of total area of the country and is mandated to harvest, issue licenses to harvest and sell timber among other forest products. That is how is said Akankwasa to have made his millions.

But Akankwasa only got the job after Olav Bjella , who was the NFA ED until December 2006 resigned over a disagreement with President Yoweri Museveni to giveaway 2,800 hectares of the Bugala Forest on Lake Victoria’s second biggest island, the 27,000 hectare Bugala Island, to palm oil growing. Most of the NFA board and senior managers soon resigned in 2007 in opposition to President Museveni’s plan to give away the Mabira tropical rainforest to a sugar baron to grow sugarcane.

Infighting

NFA has since Akankwasa’s dismissal had two acting executive directors, Hudson Andrua and Gershom Onyango. Both ran into more trouble as board members came under scrutiny over a range of improper forest exploitation allegations.

After acting as NFA executive director for almost two years Andrua was sacked by the line minister of Water and Environment, Maria Mutagamba and Inspector General of Government, Raphael Baku. He was accused of mismanaging Shs 2 billion belonging to the forests body.

Gershom Onyango, a Director of Environmental Planning in the ministry of Water and Environment, replaced Andrua in acting capacity that would originally last for three months starting June. Onyango’s appointment was also opposed by NFA board that refused to allow him to sanction any financial transaction at NFA for two months. This was a direct attempt to frustrate Mutagamba who had hurriedly appointed him.

Onyango is a cautious elderly gentleman determined to stay out of trouble. He declined to talk about the delayed appointment of the NFA Executive Director and referred The Independent to the line minister, who is the appointing authority. “My role is of a caretaker and I wait for the minister to appoint the director and my duty will be over,” he said.

But Mutagamba, whom Onyango said is the appointing authority, says she does n’t have that authority. Instead, she told The Independent that the appointment of NFA head is determined by a number of players including the President and donors who finance Uganda’s conservation projects.

Confusion

The confusion has reigned since the NFA board began shopping for an executive director in December 2010 and 11 candidates were interviewed.

Five months later in April this year, the NFA board recommended three candidates; Dr Arthur Mugisha, Robert Nabanyumya and Hudson Andrua, to minister Mutagamba to appoint one. However, Mutagamba declined to appoint any of them and said there was need to “review the whole exercise”. She said the shortlisted candidates were not the “right people”.

Subsequently, the position was re-advertised on July 6 and the responsibility for recruitment was switched from a hired consultant; Java Consulting Company, to NFA’s human resource manager. “This raised suspicions among the some board members,” says an NFA insider. “The government’s desire has been to appoint cadres to lead the NFA, a move that has not augured well with the donors who heavily finance the parastatal.”

Predictably, a board member at NFA who declined to be named said the “vetting of the three top candidates did not yield a substantive ED because State House was uncertain of the loyalty of any of the candidates.”

The Independent has learnt that State House instead fronted the former Kabarole District chairman Michael Mugisa for the job although he had not sat the interviews.

Mutagamba confirmed that President’s Office has to approve the name of the candidate before she appoints him or her.

“But this time the name they gave me was rejected by development partners, because he had mismanaged (NFA) the previous years,” she said.

To make their point and maintain a say in the NFA appointment process, donors had to win a protracted cold war with government. The donors who are the main funders of Uganda’s forest development and conservation projects led by Norway and the World Bank closed the accounts of NFA, paralyzing its operations. The government had to give in.

The recruitment exercise was once again up for review. It is at this point that candidates and some members of NFA board dissatisfied with the recruitment process ran to the Inspectorate of Government to block the process. The IGG, Raphael Baku, suspended the recruitment process until September when he realised his mistake and rescinded the decision.

NFA re-advertised the position and eight candidates applied for the job but Mutagamba says none of these qualified for the job and “now we have readvertised for the job”.

She denies that the delayed appointment of substantive executive director is having any impact on NFA’s operations. “I don’t want to hear any staff saying I am not working because there is no executive director. There is an acting executive director,” Mutagamba said.

The confusion over appointing an ED for the NFA is certainly not about to end.

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