An afternoon phone call from Engineer Abraham Byandala late in October 2013 began a sustained push by the minister of Works and Transport to end months of Unra’s hesitation to sign the Mukono-Katosi road contract with Eutaw.
The phone call, according to an insider source familiar with the workings of Unra, was placed to Berunado Ssebbugga-Kimeze, the acting managing director of the authority.
“It must have been an unusual call,” the source who declined to be named said in a recent interview. “He [Kimeze] was tense as he took the call and kept moving from one corner of his office to another.”
After the call, the source said, Ssebbugga-Kimeze told some colleagues: “The minister wants us to sign the contract as soon as possible but I have told him that we are still carrying out some verification [due diligence] on the company.”
Minutes later, according to the source, he (Kimeze) convened a brief meeting of Unra’s technical team working on the road project in his office and sought their advice. Opinion was split, the source said.
According to the source, some officials urged Ssebbugga-Kimeze to clearly tell Byandala that Unra could not sign the contract until they were certain they were dealing with a genuine company. Others, however, advised that the contract could still be signed while due diligence was ongoing.
Ssebbugga-Kimeze went with the first opinion and decided to buy some time. But he had underestimated Byandala’s tenacity. Early in November 2013, the minister called again and “ordered” that the contract be signed without any further delay, the source told us.
He reminded Ssebbugga-Kimeze that the project had been pending for close to 20 years. He said any further dilly-dallying could affect the political fortunes of President Museveni in Mukono come 2016. Confused and afraid of what may befall him in the event Unra signs a contract with a bogus firm, Ssebbugga-Kimeze told Byandala to put his “order” in writing.
However, around the same time, on November 7, he wrote to Eutaw requesting them to furnish Unra with the performance security within 28 days.
“He was trying to hold out thinking maybe the minister could relent and let the due processes take their course,” the source said.
It was never going to be. On November 14, Byandala put his order in writing directing Ssebbugga-Kimeze to sign the contract “while due diligence was still being carried out by the Unra technical team.”
Our source said the minister followed up the letter with a phone call insisting that the signing must go ahead very soon. Indeed, a day later on November 15, 2014, the Shs 165bn contract between Unra and Eutaw was signed in the Unra boardroom under the watchful eye of Byandala.
Our source said that Byandala’s presence at the signing ceremony was conspicuous.
“He came early and went straight to the boardroom even before some Unra officials had arrived,” the source said.
The minister’s interference did not end there. Byandala would, later in 2014, advise Unra to make an advance payment of Shs 24.7bn to Eutaw, to start the construction of the road. Our insider source said that Byandala’s motive in pushing for the contract (as well as the advance payment) was not clear.
“Maybe he was safeguarding his job. It could be that he wanted to show the president that he is a performer,” the source said.
And the way Ssebbugga-Kimeze buckled under pressure, the source said, was also an indication that he might not have the steel and verve to lead an organisation of Unra’s stature. The source said the Unra board would have supported Kimeze if he stood firm and ignored the minister’s orders.
But Ssebbugga-Kimeze was also in a fix. He could have feared to disappoint the minister who only a year before had elevated him from director of operations to acting managing director. For giving in to the minister’s orders, Ssebbugga-Kimeze and three senior officials, Joe Ssemugooma (director, finance and administration), David Luyimbazi (director, planning) and Marvin Baryaruha (legal counsel) were suspended by the board on August 29.
The officials will know their fate after the Inspectorate of Government and police conclude their investigations. We could not talk to Ssebbugga-Kimeze because he is under instruction from the board not talk to the media. Interviewed on Monday about his alleged interference, Byandala denied exercising any undue influence on Ssebbugga-Kimeze to sign the contract “at all cost.”
“Whoever is telling you that I applied pressure on Kimeze or anyone is lying. I cannot do that. My role was to ensure that the project kicks off in time because it had been pending for almost 20 years…but I did not put pressure on anyone,”Byandala said.
Interviewed on Monday, Unra Spokesman Dan Alinange said despite the criticism directed at Unra, the authority should be given credit for managing to sign contracts for 18 road projects in one financial year.
“Recent media reports have created the perception that everything has fallen apart at Unra. That is very false. With the exception of one road, all other projects are on track and will be completed on time,” Alinange said on Monday.
EUTAW, high tides fallout
Our sources have said that the Mukono-Katosi road controversy could have easily been kept out of public view if Eutaw had not disagreed with High Tides, the firm they hired as procurement consultants for the contract. The falling out was triggered by Eutaw’s failure to pay the entire $1.75 million to High Tides for services rendered, as had been agreed in their contract, which The Observer has seen.
The agreement was signed on December 1, 2010. Betty Kyasiimire signed on behalf of High Tides while Richard Pratt signed for Eutaw. This money ($1.75 million) was supposed to be deducted from the advance payment to Eutaw, according to the four-page contract.
So when Unra released an advance payment of Shs 24.7 billion to Eutaw in January, officials from High Tides started pressuring them (Eutaw) to meet their part of the bargain.
Eutaw country representative Apolo Senkeeto, who signed on as a witness to the agreement, reportedly started giving excuses to High Tides, promising to pay up soon.
When it became apparent that some Eutaw officials were dilly-dallying, some High Tides officials decided to blow the whistle.
“It was like if you don’t give us what is due to us, we shall blow the entire deal and expose how you are a bogus company,” the insider source told us.