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Uganda needs political hygiene – Prof. Nsibambi

By Julius Odeke and Joseph Were

Former Prime Minister Apolo Nsibambi spoke to The Independent’s Julius Odeke and Joseph Were about the ongoing corruption investigations in OPM.

The Accountant General, Gustavio Bwoch, told the Parliamentary Accounts Committee investigating alleged corruption in the Office of the Prime Minister that while you served, you influenced the transfer of Shaban Wejula, the internal auditor.  Did this happen?

It’s clear that Bwoch lied to PAC in order to tarnish my name. I wish to state clearly that the PS, Pius Bigirimana wrote to the permanent secretary to the Treasury complaining that Wejula had failed to interpret and apply the requisite regulations and lacked the capacity to respond to daily demands in his office in a timely manner.  He referred Wejula to the Permanent Secretary/ Secretary to the Treasury for appropriate management and concluded that he needed a Principal Internal Auditor in the real sense of the word.

I rung Muhakanizi and requested him to handle Bigirimana’s concerns.  Muhakanizi confirms that I never urged him to replace Wejula.  I could not do so since as a political leader, I do not have professional skills to know whether or not an internal Auditor is performing their duty properly. Furthermore, the mandate of deploying Internal Auditors to the Prime Minister’s Office and to other Ministries belongs to the Permanent Secretary/Secretary to the Treasury working with the Accountant General.

Fortunately, Keith Muhakanizi, the deputy secretary to the Treasury, has made it clear that he was a 100% sure that I never went to his office because Bwoch was ridiculous even to state that I went to Muhakanizi’s office and demanded that the internal auditor be removed from office. A Prime Minister summons ministers and public servants to his office.  I would not demean myself to violate protocol.

The Office of Prime Minister is embroiled in an embarrassing corruption scandal involving theft of billions of shillings. While you served as Prime Minister did you sense that there was all this corruption in OPM?

Let inform you that the report on a Special Investigation on this impropriety in OPM by John Muwanga, the auditor General, never implicated me in any financial scandal. On the contrary, the report on page 10 notes that Bwoch, the accountant General, participated in the fraudulent transfer of Shs 14.8bn from PRDP to the Crisis Management and Recovery programme account.  Bwoch deliberately told ridiculous lies by highlighting his malicious allegations against me. But PAC pinned him down for his fraudulent actions. So you can see this man is playing games.  But at last things are becoming clear that this man has no credibility.

But while you were a Prime Minister did you sense that there was corruption in OPM?

I don’t recollect that we detected this corruption because this technical work is normally detected by the permanent secretary.

But from your interaction with the suspects, the Principal Accountant Godfrey Kazinda, and the PS Pius Bigirimana, what was your impression of them?

I can only speak about Bigirimana because he was the one I was interacting with. As far as I am concerned he was doing a good job but I do not want to prejudice what is going on with PAC. I prefer not to add.  I can say we were able to ensure that good work was done in the north and some MPs from the area thanked us. So I regret that the looting of very essential resources occurred without being detected early. From what you are reading, it was not only in OPM but other areas like Bank of Uganda. So we need to strengthen the systems so that the accounting officers detect these problems early enough.

It has been said that systems are there but it’s only the cadres who are not the right ones?

I don’t have the competence to comment on that because I read in newspapers that Ministry of Finance intends to put in place better systems.

There have been demands for some of these officers to resign from their positions. Do you think, in principle, an official should resign when suspected or resign when implicated?

I think in order for an official to resign, it is essential to first take them to courts of law. When found guilty they should not only resign, but they should pay back what they have stolen.

There is an ongoing debate on corruption with some saying it does not stifle economic growth.

I don’t agree.  Corruption is cancerous and it destroys and it must be handled very firmly and properly.

What is your empirical evidence that corruption stifles development?

Check, for example, where money is given to people for the construction of boreholes in Karamoja and it is stolen and people suffer. They don’t have water. By the way we came across those cases of corruption because we would go to inspect what was happening and when we discovered that instead of constructing five boreholes, they construct only two; those people would be called upon to answer.

I like the way you use the metaphor of cancer in relation to corruption. Does it mean corruption is impossible to cure or merely difficult?

It’s difficult but it is possible to cure corruption with good leadership. You need accountable leadership and accountable followership. These should be able to testify to the people in charge. But sometimes they are cowards to testify.

If you were still in office how would you have handled the scandal in OPM right now?

Well, the same way they have done it. You need to use CID and other security organs. Then after getting enough evidence they are taken to courts of law.  Secondly, I would have used experts, and they are there internationally, to assist Uganda to improve its systems of managing these scarce resources. That is essential so that these things don’t happen again.

You talk about using experts; we have many parallel investigations by CID, IGG, and Parliament. Some people say too many investigators might spoil the scene of crime?

If there is adequate evidence, these investigations will not destroy the evidence. But it’s essential to ensure that we don’t prejudice a matter that has been taken to courts of law. There are problems because there are people taken to courts of law and some of the information may either influence their cases wrongly or it might actually make them escape.

But these corrupt people have become so powerful. Do you think the government has the capacity to handle them?

They are powerful but the damage the have caused has harmed Ugandans so much that people will not tolerate these people. I mean for example; the development partners have cut their aid, this is extremely bad, the harm it has caused the country, I am sure people are so annoyed that these corrupt people will not get away with it.

Do you think donors are right to cut aid to Uganda over corruption?

I think they are wrong. They had initially done the right thing by suspending aid and getting in touch with government to find out what government is doing.  When government is still investigating and has already taken some people to courts of law, they should not have cut aid. When they do, those very vulnerable people will be even more vulnerable. That is the problem.  What donors should have done was to put their requirements and say do ABC and then we can work together.

People have said the worst effects of this corruption will be revealed further in the future when young people, whose only role models are these corrupt people, mature. What do you say about that?

No. The harm is already there and if you take deliberate steps to sort out this mess then our children will have a bright future. If we don’t, we shall make their future darker.

Should the pursuit of zero corruption be allowed to block big projects like the Karuma Hydropower Dam, or should enforcers be flexible?

If we pursue the flexible line, then the corrupt are going to be so powerful that this country will not develop. It is better to pursue zero tolerance and face the consequences. In the short run, the consequences might hurt us but in the long run those issues must be sorted out. We must have political hygiene.

Political hygiene; what do you mean?

It essentially entails accountability and to ensure that public servants are also accountable to the people.  These can be both the political leaders and the followers. The followers must have what I call civic competence. People must read and when they read they will understand these issues, and then they will be able to give evidence when required.

Mention any prominent name, and they will most likely be a corruption scandal, behind the name. Don’t you, therefore, think pursing every corruption case will stifle the middle class?

No, you are wrong. There are many prominent people who are not corrupt. What we need are strong institutions given more resources and also the judiciary must be strengthened so that it can carry out its mandate.  Also, I must say, we must pray.  My wife, Esther, and I, we pray for this country every day and call on the almighty to bless it, because there are many people who were corrupt but when they believed Jesus as their personal savior, their lives changed.

In what other ways has your name, as Mr. Clean, being dragged into the OPM corruption scandal impacted on you?

I have been disgusted. But many people have rung me, and counseled me. One Bishop for example, rang me. Even political leaders have called me. Otherwise it was very hurting because I have served this country diligently for 15 years, 12 years as a Prime Minister.  And I have been very careful and I have lived a simple life.

There is an allegation that the government you served in initially tolerated corruption as a means of primitive accumulation of wealth helping the emergence of a middle class in Uganda.

I have heard that argument but to my knowledge, in countries that have developed and has sustained it, it has been essential to grapple with corruption. Otherwise you have a middle class which is corrupt. It will not have the credibility when interfacing with international community. So eventually the country will suffer from credibility problems and it will not develop as fast as it should have done.

Is it right for officials tainted by corruption to be re-appointed as ministers when the scandal is still ongoing?

Well, the thing is people are presumed innocent until proved guilty. That is our law.

How are you getting on with your retirement?

Very well; I am the Vice chancellor of Victoria University and I am also writing a book on National Integration. I am also a member of the LC in this village of Bulange where we deal with issues of security and environment. I also play the piano. I am enjoying myself very much.

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