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How malaria drugs thieves kill Ugandans

Journalist Solomon Sserwanjja with some of the stolen drugs

Journalist Solomon Sserwanjja with some of the stolen drugs

If one act serves as a symbol of Ugandan corruption, it would be the grand theft of anti-malarial drugs, which treat malaria, a disease that threatens nearly half of the world’s population. Ugandans were shocked to the core recently when a BBC investigation uncovered the widespread theft and sale of free anti-malarial medicines in various government and private facilities.

According to a BBC investigation done by Solomon Sserwanjja, Mohammed Kassimu and Godfrey Bedebye, medicines meant to be free for everyone in Uganda are sold on the black market by the ‘medical mafias’ working in government and private medical facilities.

“We are not supposed to sell it [medicine]; it’s for free,” one mafia interviewed on camera said.

To infiltrate the anti-malarial drugs sale cartel, Mohammed Kassimu and Godfery Bedebye posed as foreign businessmen looking to buy stolen Uganda government medicine. The drugs are easy to spot. The boxes carry an imprint; “GOVERNMENT OF UGANDA, NOT FOR SALE.”

The investigation was first taken to the northern Uganda border town of Arua in the main hospital, which is widely known for shortages of medicine. Here, Jamila Atim, the records officer at Arua hospital, offered to sell stolen hepatitis B vaccines.

“I don’t want you people to go empty handed, the vial of hepatitis B is for ten doses and the bottle is used on ten people; so, we have 2,000 bottles,” she said.

She said the vaccine was meant to provide protection for Sudanese refugees in northern Uganda. But how did Atim get her hands on the medicine?

“If they want 5,000 bottles of hepatitis B vaccine, we sign for 7,000 bottles, you understand?” Atim explained to the investigating team.

The BBC team, however, paid $800 (about Shs 2.9 million) for the 2,000 bottles of vaccine on offer. The sale was a greedy act. Atim cared for her family, and not the people who would be saved by the vaccines. The BBC team kept the vaccines safe in the mobile fridge so that they could be returned to the government of Uganda after the investigation.

However, the BBC investigation found that the problem spread beyond Arua to other places with high death rates. In Arua, the BBC team met Patrick Kidege. Kidege ran a private clinic in stolen government medicines. He accepted an equivalent of US$ 2,000 (about Shs 7.2 million) from the BBC team and promised to deliver anti-malarial medicines, enough to treat a whole village.

Five days later, Kidege took the BBC team to a village unknown to any of them and brandished a full carton of stolen anti-malarial medicines. According to Sserwanjja, Kidege also took the team to a place where the medicines were taken from the original packaging with an imprint showing it is a government property and not for sale and repacked so that serial numbers cannot be traced.

Interviewed for this story, Sarah Opendi, the minister of state for Health (General Duties), said, “If these people are really punished severely, it will become very risky to touch government medicines; we would really have fewer crimes in the field...”

In the course of the investigation, the BBC team discovered a higher supply chain in the stolen medicine business, which is more profitable than gold. Kidege took the team to the district health officer, Francis Odur, who is one of the topmost government employees at the district level and has authority to order for more medicine than they actually need. Odur agreed to meet the disguised ‘buyers.’

“I like the business, truth should be there because the deal is dirty. We need to be trustworthy so that you leave [this place] in peace,” Odur said. 

To get more drugs at his disposal, Odur asked for a surplus amount of the government medicines just like Atim, the records officer from Arua, did. Later in the day, Odur called the ‘buyers’ and told them he had 96 boxes of anti-malarial drugs but the team couldn’t afford to buy such a huge consignment; so, they decided to return to Kampala.

Sserwanjja said he decided to keep the medicines at his place before handing them back to the government of Uganda at the end of the investigation. “This turned out a big mistake,” Sserwanjja added.

The last deal with pharmacists was in Kampala. Sserwanjja stayed in his hotel while his two colleagues went to meet the dealer. At some point he lost contact with Kassim and Bedebye.

The loss of contact unsettled Sserwanjja. He thought his colleagues could have been entrapped by “some criminals who wanted a ransom.”

Sserwanjja’s fears were confirmed shortly. His colleagues were arrested and put in jail by security forces who also stormed his home to arrest him. They didn’t find him and so they arrested his wife.

“I was in my [hotel] room and saw on television, ‘we are looking for Mr Sserwanjja to help us with the investigation into how government drugs ended up in his home’ by Patrick Onyango, the [Kampala Metropolitan] police spokesman,” Sserwanjja said.

And so Sserwanjja had to surrender himself to the police.

Sserwanjja said, “Journalists came with me chanting this is our own, we have to get him out of here…but the police blocked them saying they were not supposed to go beyond some place.”

However, all the three were released on the same day on police bond pending further investigations.

Sserwanjja said no response was got from Arua hospital management. Both Atim and Kidege have since disappeared, believed to be kidnapped. Odur turned out to be a health worker in a government health centre in Gulu, not a district health officer as he claimed. The real district officer of Gulu did not respond to the BBC reporters’ quest for a relevant comment.

Additional reporting and compilation by Doreen Nanziri

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd