Minister of Finance Matia Kasaija has come under increasing pressure to name the public officials whom he says are hiding billions of shillings stolen from public coffers in their homes.
A week ago Kasaija told an accountants’ meeting in Kampala that he knew of people who had “stolen [in government] and even in their own private companies. Somebody was telling me people keep billions of shillings in their houses; what if thieves break in the house or if it catches fire?”
A senior State House official last evening accused the minister of abetting the theft of taxpayers’ money when he withholds such key information about individuals who are looting from Ugandans.
James Tweheyo, head of a new Anti-corruption unit appointed by President Museveni in July to work under State House, told The Observer that he was “not ashamed to say the minister is condoning corruption if he cannot name” the officials he says are stealing money.
“It is not enough to say I know and then keep the information to himself…,” Tweheyo said. “It is not fair. He should better come out and tell us if he knows so that they [corrupt officials] can be prosecuted.”
Tweheyo also said: “First of all, let him withhold the signatures or block the chain [for the money going to corrupt ministries or officials]. We shall reach him to see if he can be supportive."
Hours before State House had weighed in on the matter, anti-graft activists were already baying for Kasaija’s blood, saying he should resign if he cannot name public officials. Anti-corruption warrior and head of the Anti-Corruption Coalition of Uganda, Cissy Kagaba told The Observer on Tuesday that it was shameful to see a senior minister lamenting almost helplessly about a vice which is eating up the country.
“It is an embarrassment and the best thing to do is to resign. What this means is that the corrupt are high up there. I mean if he can’t name them, then it means they are not ordinary people like you and me. They are high up there.”
This is not the first time Kasaija has said he knows the corrupt officials or ministries. In May, while appearing before the Justice Catherine Bamugemerire-led commission of inquiry into land matters, Kasaija said a lot of government money is finding its way into the wrong hands illegally.
“There are some ministries where if I am signing off their money, I sign when my hands are shaking because I don’t know whether the money will reach where it is supposed to be,” Kasaija said, sending commissioners into a bout of laughter.
When he was asked to name the thieving ministries, Kasaija declined to name any publicly but promised to expose them in camera. The minister further said that despite his efforts to plug the holes, money continues to leak out.
To-date, Kasaija is not known to have revealed the identities of colleagues in government he believes are robbing from the nation. Earlier in February, Kasaija had said during a high-level meeting in Entebbe that he was “amazed by people wanting to get rich overnight, others wanting to take things by force.”
He said systems allow stealing money because there is a weakness somewhere. To Kagaba, this admission shows that the corrupt were probably more highly placed than Kasaija within government, probably the reason the minister was finding it hard to name them.
It also showed, she said, that this whole “talk of fighting corruption is a delusion, hoodwinking Ugandans.”
Tweheyo’s State House unit was formed after President Museveni expressed frustration at the way the Inspectorate of Government was handling corruption cases. Museveni said during the state-of-the-nation address in June that he thought the IGG was not doing enough to end corruption.
The president has repeatedly made declarations of zero tolerance to corruption a part of his election manifestos. However, despite such public rhetoric, graft continues to fester in a government he has led for three decades.
The IGG, Irene Mulyagonja, responded immediately telling Daily Monitor in June that the corrupt and powerful ‘big fish’ were hiding behind Museveni to frustrate her investigations.
“I still have a lot to do in fighting corruption. There are people who present the front that we are not competent enough to investigate them. Maybe they think my officers are too junior to investigate them…,” Mulyagonja said.
An official in the IGG’s office told The Observer yesterday that in the instance of Kasaija’s remarks, they always encourage these officials to bring the information forward. This official could not, however, say whether Kasaija had shared with the inspectorate what he knows.
Repeated calls to Kasaija went unanswered as this newspaper sought to know whether he has handed his information to investigating agencies. The corrupt are known, at least going by public outbursts of senior officials in government.
Richard Todwong, the vice chair of the ruling NRM party, said this year that people in his party were stealing so much “Ugandans were disgusted”.
Former regime insider and one-time minister for the presidency, Dr Martin Aliker, writes in his recent book, The Bell is Ringing, that while negotiating the sale of Sheraton Kampala hotel with an Ethiopian investor during the 1990s privatisation hysteria, a senior government official in Kampala placed a gun on the negotiating table, and asked the investor to pay them a bribe of $3 million. Museveni was told of the incident and the officials. He was annoyed, Aliker writes, but he did not act because they were his friends.
In September, Museveni gave out a toll-free number and that of Major Edith Nakalema, a State House aide, through which he said the public can report directly those involved in corruption. But one of the numbers which had been in use at Uganda Investment Authority had spent a year without receiving any complaint.
Corruption is a serious problem for Uganda, with the country scoring 26 on the Transparency International 2018 index. Zero is the most corrupt while 100 is the cleanest. This places Uganda among the most corrupt countries in world. The country ranks 151st out of 180 countries ranked by the organisation.
Transparency International said the key ingredient that the top-performing African countries have in common is the political leadership that is consistently committed to anti-corruption -- they go an extra mile to ensure implementation of anti-graft measures.
Kasaija himself admitted before Bamugemerire commission: “This problem [corruption] is a problem that touches all of us. These people who want to be rich quickly by looting the state in broad daylight must be dealt with quickly. If we don’t, it will become ugly.”
At a high level, corruption is a patronage tool, according to analysts, and the most powerful corrupt individuals might walk scot-free because of support they offer a standing government.
Widespread corruption is one of the major causes of poor delivery of public services across sectors, with education, health services, local government, infrastructure projects and public procurement particularly hit.