The decision by officials from four government entities to solicit a Shs 6 billion reward from President Museveni after their role in a multi-million dollar oil tax court case has drawn unusually bipartisan condemnation.
By the end of the weekend, nearly 10 high profile NRM officials had spoken out against what has now been dubbed the “Presidential handshake,” adding to the avalanche of social media condemnation by ‘NRM attack dogs.’
Some of the key NRM figures who have spoken out include the party secretary general Kasule Lumumba, chairperson of the NRM Women’s League Lydia Wanyoto, and the NRM deputy spokesperson Ofwono Opondo (who is also the executive director of the Uganda Media Centre).
Others who have spoken out against the cash bonanza are Tamale Mirundi, the presidential advisor on media affairs, as well as his former deputy Sarah Kagingo, who is contesting on the NRM ticket to represent Uganda at the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA).
Lumumba expressed her reservations about the payment on Thursday, saying on a live television show that token payments to specific public servants were “bad” because they cast the government in bad light before the Ugandan population.
“Why should government start awarding its own people in such a fashion?” she asked. “If such payment is necessary, then it should be legalised and things done openly.”
Opondo said the president was misadvised into giving the go-ahead for the payments, which went to the 42-member government team that secured $700 million in two separate court cases against oil companies that attempted to avoid paying taxes for transactions involving Uganda’s oil wells.
Some of the beneficiaries include Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) commissioner general Doris Akol, Uganda National Roads Authority boss Allen Kagina, Kampala Capital City Authority boss Jennifer Musisi, Finance ministry Permanent Secretary Keith Muhakanizi (and his predecessor Chris Kassami), former attorney generals Peter Nyombi and Fred Ruhindi, as well as the solicitor general.
Kagingo says she was incensed by the payout because the government paid out another Shs 10 billion to a law firm that represented government in the case. She adds that even the government officials who rewarded themselves with hefty bonuses had been handsomely facilitated to do the job.
“I think it’s unethical for one to solicit a reward after doing his work,” she said. “The president has been very clear; he says we need to improve our infrastructure so our officials should really help him achieve that so that every Ugandan benefits.”
Defending the payout on CBS radio on Friday, Muhakanizi, who is also the secretary to the treasury, said awarding themselves bonuses was not against the law. Muhakanizi, who received close to Shs 100 million, said all organisations reward their employees for doing exceptional work.
“We won a case and government gave us bonuses; what is the problem with that?” he asked, adding; “Bonuses are legal, everyone gets them.”
Muhakanizi said the fact that the president endorsed the bonus payment shows that it was a legitimate payment to those who helped government “win” the court cases.
“If the president tells you, ‘you have done an extraordinary work [and] you deserve bonuses,’ do you refuse them? It is you in the media making noise about it but the law allows it,” he argued.
However, former Museveni press secretary Tamale Mirundi said the 42 officials should stop dragging the president’s name in a bid to cover their tracks.
“If you say it is legal [and] Museveni gave you money, have you ever seen parliament investigating money donated by the president?” he asked. “Whether the president agreed, I don’t care. They have eaten everything but some time they will be forced to vomit what they have eaten.”
When contacted by The Observer for comment, the minister for Information and Communciation Technology, also in charge of and National Guidance, Frank Tumwebaze, declined to respond to the NRM officials critical of the cash payout.
“You have a comprehensive clarification from URA. That’s it,” he said.
On Thursday, the URA assistant commissioner for public and corporate affairs, Sarah Birungi Banage, released a statement saying “all [the] payments underwent the necessary approval processes as provided for under the Public Finance Management Act as amended – for close to a year.”
She said: “The presidential handshake granted to the multi-disciplinary and multisectoral team of officials was not illegal and followed all due government processes. It was meant to appreciate the professionalism and patriotism exhibited by the team members, especially their ability to resist all pressure and compromise given the magnitude of the figures involved.”
However, Mirundi argued that the bonuses that Muhakanizi and group took home become even more incomprehensible when the duty they performed on behalf of Uganda is compared with the sacrifices other Ugandans make in the service of their nation.
“What about soldiers who stepped on landmines and their legs were amputated? What handshake did they get from the president? What about doctors who died while treating Ebola? Those using the president are trying to scare away people,” he said.
Mirundi added that the officials should respect themselves and resign immediately.
“Their names are going to be blacklisted and they will never serve in any sober government. They should stop hiding behind President Museveni,” he charged.
According to Mirundi, if every government official was to be paid a bonus for doing extraordinary work, then even teachers whose schools perform better should be rewarded.
“They were doing their work like anybody else and they should not implicate the president,” he said. “If they don’t, one day we will have a government that will not only put them in prison but will also auction the properties bought with this money.”
Kagingo, on her part, wondered why people who receive seven-digit salaries are the very people who need to receive monetary slaps on their back.
“Many of those people who received that money are the people who receive salaries that are between 30-45 million shillings,” she said, before asking, “What will happen if all government officials ask for kasiimo [token of appreciation] after doing their work?”