By Ariel rubin and John Njoroge
In the last three weeks, the suspended Executive Director of National Forestry Authority (NFA) Damian Akankwasa has been in the spotlight over Shs 900m that he says was stolen from his house in Naguru by his estranged wife Juliet Akankwasa. He told The Independent’s Ariel Rubin and John Njoroge how he lost the money, and why it was in the house.
How has it been for you in last three weeks?
People are taking advantage of my predicament to make fun. Someone loses money and the press finds cause or reason to celebrate. I had decided not to speak to the press because of this. It is very surprising that people don’t sympathise with one who has lost this money. Some people I think am the beneficiary of this money.
How did you come to have Shs 900m in your house?
In my village in Isingiro, there is a lot of cross-border trade [with Tanzania]. My brothers John Bagambe and George Akankwasa, like many others are engaged in cross-border trade in agricultural produce. It is not true that my brothers are needy like the papers have depicted. In my village people have more money than I have and many of them have never seen the entrance of a bank. They keep their money in their houses. My brothers developed interest in buying land in Kampala for reselling. They had learnt that land in Kampala appreciates quickly. They asked me for advice. I contacted different brokers to identify pieces of land and compare prices. My brothers convinced other traders to come on board and they collected Shs 400m for starters, which they brought to me. Two weeks later they brought another Shs 400m.
This was quite a bit of money. Why didn’t you deposit it in a bank?
I think I should have. But I never thought that my wife would steal it. Besides, these people don’t believe in banking and the money was not mine to bank on my account. It was safer and quicker for me to keep the money at my house. I had put my brothers in touch with a real estate company called ‘Mpaa Nkuwe’. When they came to negotiate with the seller, he did not turn up. I was to arrange for another meeting and call them to return to Kampala. They left me with the money. About a week later on August 27, my wife disappeared with the money.
How did your brothers transport this money to Kampala?
They put the money in suitcases and sat in a bus from Mbarara to Kampala. It may sound strange but this is not the first time they have done it. If you told them that you are shocked they would laugh at you. Besides, if you are travelling on a bus, do you think your fellow passengers would suspect that you are carrying a suitcase full of money? Another thing is that it is more risky to withdraw large amounts of money like this. Taking Shs 900m from a bank is like suicide. There are thieves in these banks.
Why did you conclude that it was your wife who stole this money?
The money was in three suitcases in my bedroom. My wife and I are the only people in our household who have access to our bedroom and who knew that there was money in the house. Not even the children or house help knew. I arrived home that evening at 9 pm. I went to my bedroom and looked around but couldn’t see the suitcases and she was not at home. They had been in a very visible place. At first I thought my wife was playing tricks on me, hiding somewhere in the house. It was not until I saw her note to me next to my bed that I panicked. It was written in a mixture of Runyankore and Runyoro local languages saying, ‘œdo not look for me, I have gone’, etc. I don’t know what time she left but the maid said it was in the morning.
What did you do?
For a few minutes I could not talk, I was in shock. I noticed many of her things were scattered all over the bedroom and her shoes were missing from her shoe rack. I called her but her mobile phone was switched off. The maid said that in the morning she sent her to the shops and when she returned, my wife had left. The first person I thought of contacting was her brother, Maj. Godfrey Kyomuhendo. He is closer to her than any of her other siblings. I called him and he came to my home. I showed him the note. I also told him she had gone with Shs 900m belonging to my brothers.
We called her again but her phone was off. Later, Kyomuhendo left promising to look for her and get back to me. I did not call my brothers that night. The next day she sent me a text message saying she was not in hiding and that I could find her if I wanted to. I replied asking her why she had left and requested her to come back home or meet me somewhere. She switched her phone off. Kyomuhendo called me later that he had talked to her and she denied taking the money. The next day I called her on her mobile phone. She said she was very far and that if I wanted to see her, it had to be after two weeks. I told her this was unfair. She switched off her phone.
After two weeks I decided to tell my brothers. I asked them to come to Kampala. They thought they were going to conclude their land deal but when they got here I told them the truth. They were shocked and asked me what I was doing. I asked for time to sort out the issues. They stayed for three days and left. She began calling my brothers threatening them, particularly George. She had changed her telephone number by this time. She was in fact calling them more than her own brothers. Soon, her brother Kyomuhendo began to distance himself from me. I even provided transport so that he could go and speak to my mother-in-law so that she could talk to my wife. When he returned, he said my mother-in-law had tried to speak to her but she was indifferent. My brothers reported the case to Kira Road Police Station on September 24, after a month of negotiations.
Are you accustomed to having huge sums of cash at your house?
Never this huge; I have had money like any other person but this was the very first time I had such a large sum.
Had you been having marital problems?
Not really. Of course when one is married, you do not expect to smile all the time with your wife? We did not have major problems. I was shocked that she could steal from me. If I had any major problem with her, I would not have left all that money with her in the house.
I have not been having an [extramarital] affair and I do not want her dead. All I want is my brothers’ money back.
Why did you contact the RRU instead of the police?
I did not contact Rapid Response Unit (RRU) to arrest Juliet. I only contacted CMI. I had gone to their offices for official NFA business and I informed the person I was speaking to about this issue. He gave me advice and that was it. He told me to wait for the police to conduct their own investigation. I don’t know who arrested Juliet. If it was RRU they would have taken her to Kireka not Kira police station. The people saying this are people who want to destroy my name. They will not succeed. Only fools will take these stories of Juliet.
Do you know what she may have done with the money?
According to different sources, she bought cars for her relatives and village mates. The village mates in Masindi are supposed to pay her back slowly. I think she went into vehicles because she can keep the logbook before you pay back. She is lending out some of the money and has paid off her relatives’ debts. I meet people and they tell me that they got paid. I am told she has also bought pieces of land. Some of the pieces of land lumped on me don’t belong to her now. I am told their lifestyles have changed ever since she stole the money.
There were pictures of grass-thatched houses apparently belonging to your brother. How can he have money and live in such a house?
I challenge anyone to show me a grass-thatched house in my village let alone in my home. There are no huts in my village. It is more expensive to build with grass than with iron sheets in my village since there is no grass there. There are no poles for building. You have to travel long distances to get grass. If we were living in a grass thatched house I would not have gone to school. To go to secondary school, university at the time when I did was not a joke. If someone thinks I started seeing money when I got into NFA they are jokers.
Do you speak to your wife currently?
No. There was a time we met at CPS and I only asked her to return the money.
What about the hotel you are building in Naguru compared to what you earn?
Do you know what I earn really? The media speculates about my earnings. Why don’t you ask me or my employer? That is not a hotel. It is my personal house. It is in the same compound as my current house in Naguru. I have been building that house since 1995. It’s a big house. I am big and I have planned I will retire in a big house. If I had all this kind of money that people are talking about, I would have finished it long time ago. The four-bedroom double-storey house I live in is the boys’ quarter of my big house. The house that was photographed as mine is not mine; it belongs to the owner of Bamwe House of Ceramics. I am sure he is very angry that the media is calling his house mine.
What other businesses do you run?
Allegations that I have many properties and other businesses are rubbish. I have no other business apart from my job. No properties apart from my house in Naguru. I challenge anyone to prove that I have any business or property in Kampala apart from my job at NFA and my house in Naguru. I challenge anyone to show properties under my nephew’s name or my drivers’ names. Why would I do that? I have children of my own. If you send somebody to the shops to buy cement and they are given a receipt in their names for the items, do these items become theirs? Must they write Akankwasa? People should use their common sense. If someone is driving my car does it mean that I have given them my car to hide it from people? No.
What about the property in Kabuyanda?
Kabuyanda is my home village. What I have there is a country home. In my culture if you do not have a house in the village you are not a man. In fact, it also took years to complete. That other property is not a hotel but ‘mizingo’, single room houses. The previous owner had a bank loan that I helped pay back for him and I bought the property from him in installments. I bought it at Shs 50m but when I hear people saying that it is Shs 280m hotel, I wonder. If anybody can give me that money I would sell that plot and finish my house here.
Why do you think your wife did all this?
I think she confused her priorities and probably has realised her mistake. Now she wants to derail me from getting back my brother’s money. She may have been advised to disorganise me in the press so that I concentrate on clearing myself as she spends that money. But let me assure the world that I will follow up this case to my grave. Even my own soul will follow that money to make sure that Juliet is bothered until she confesses and returns that money to its rightful owners.
How are your brothers reacting now?
They are angry. Do you expect them to smile when they have lost money not only belonging to them but also to other traders? As if that is not enough, my wife is going around spoiling our names. How do you steal from somebody, then abuse him? It is strange how you newspapers are supporting thieves. I am told there are people in security circles who are supporting her.
What did you think about the letter she wrote to the president?
She did not write any letter because at that time she was in police custody. It may have been written under her instructions by her lawyers. Besides, I can also tell you that the letter did not reach the president. They made copies and distributed them to the media and individuals to cause commotion.
Did the president suspend you?
The president did not suspend me. I was asked to go on leave by the minister. I was actually on leave but I had been called back to assist at the office. The president has no time for domestic issues like these ones. This is a domestic matter so how does the president fit in? The allegations in the papers are absurd.
What do you say about claims of mismanagement of NFA?
That is very interesting. I do not want to comment so much about NFA because I do not have the authority to speak on its behalf now. However, most of those allegations are made out of misunderstanding the context of issues. Issues of Vicro Holdings for example started back in 2005. When I came in I found them as they are. Land was already allocated to them. The only unfortunate thing is that they had not yet signed the contract. However the negotiations and resolutions were done in my absence. We never backdated the contract because we had not received the president’s instructions. Nile Ply was already transacting business with NFA when I came. It was however promising air, that is why we opted for the second highest offer. There is not a single corruption at the NFA. I am innocent.