The sweeping staff changes at the Electoral Commission (EC) headquarters have decimated the influential power structure of Sam Rwakoojo, the recently sacked secretary of the commission.
However, the purge against Rwakoojo loyalists has bred discontent and threats of sabotage just six months before the country goes to polls, writes BAKER BATTE LULE.
Last week on September 8, a group of about 10 security operatives stormed the EC offices on Jinja road and headed straight to the office of Justice Simon Byabakama, the EC chairman. This threw the staff in panic but after a few minutes, the operatives moved outside and returned immediately with Jotham Taremwa, the former EC spokesperson, who was sacked in July.
In what onlookers described as a situation similar to handling a fugitive, they led Taremwa to his former office and was forced to hand over to Paul Bukenya, the acting spokesperson, in a brief ceremony. Shortly after, Taremwa was whisked away in a double-cabin pickup.
“It was a humiliating experience for him,” said an EC staff that preferred anonymity. “He looked nervous and crestfallen. He avoided any eye contact with anyone. It is possible he is under house arrest as investigations into the corruption here go on.”
The said incident, according to impeccable sources at the EC, is just a tip of the goings-on at the commission after President Museveni sacked four top officials in July.
On July 21, four senior EC staff led by Rwakoojo abruptly tendered in their resignations before Justice Byabakama who carefully claimed the officials had taken “early retirement.”
Others were Taremwa; Godfrey Wanyoto, the former head of procurement; and Pontius Namugera, the former Information Technology director. This impression, however, has always been viewed as a smokescreen and on September 7, President Museveni cleared the air when he said he sacked them for corruption.
Insiders within EC claim the sackings came at the height of several petitions to President Museveni about the corrupt tendencies of the said officials.
Key among the high-profile corruption scandals at EC involve the controversial procurement of biometric machines for digital recognition of voters in the 2016 general election as well as the contract for printing all ballot material for the 2021 elections.
“For the general election, we must get a method which does not allow cheating. We must have digital recognition of voters using the biometric machine. This was supposed to be done in the previous  elections, but the corrupt fellows in the EC, who were sacked recently, bought machines which did not do this,” the president said on September 7.
“The corrupt team that was in EC refused to procure this system. It is, however, being procured now. This will end this sad story of the anti-democratic forces, at least as far as the problem of multiple voting and multiple registrations is concerned. It will also deal with the problem of ballot-stuffing because the fingerprints digitally read must be equal to the votes in the ballot box.”
However, those in the know say that Museveni had ordered the EC to give, not only a printing contract of all ballot material for the 2021 elections to Veridos Identity Solutions Ltd, but also the management of the biometric system of the voter register. A source with knowledge of the saga says that the EC bosses were not comfortable with awarding the same company all the responsibilities relating to the elections.
“What would we be left with to manage if one company is printing the ballot materials and managing the voter register?” the source told us. He added that the EC officials’ fears were compounded by the ownership of Veridos Identity Solutions Ltd.
“This company was brought in Uganda by Hilmer Froelich, the husband of Museveni’s sister Violet Kajubiri. So, imagine a situation where somebody so close to the president who is also a candidate is managing the election,” the source said.
NAIL IN COFFIN
Our source in EC says that for years, President Museveni had tolerated corruption within the EC as long as it didn’t jeopardise his stranglehold onto power. However, after a growing pile of corruption complaints, the president reached a breaking point when it came to the procurement of the new EC headquarters away from the congested Jinja road office.
Since 2018, the EC set aside Shs 6 billion per year as capital development fund to buy assets such as warehouses. EC wanted to buy a warehouse [headquarters] covering 9,000 square metres in order to move away from the clogged Jinja road headquarters. And EC has been paying Shs 3 billion per year for rent.
In November 2018, Rwakoojo called for tenders to buy land within 15km of the central business district of Kampala. However, all the initial bidders, including White Snowman, Meera Investments, Henley Property Development and Brejo Uganda turned down the offer on grounds that the figure was “too low to make business sense.”
According to an impeccable source within EC, it was an inside job by the EC Contracts committee to project a low figure to deliberately price out big-time players.
Afterwards, the EC tactfully reduced the needed space to 8,000 square metres and re-advertised the bids. This time round, it only attracted two bidders; Kenlloyd Logistics and White Snowman. Yet again, both companies didn’t make final bids, citing low return on investment.
It was at this point in March 2019, that Rwakoojo tactfully sought the approval of the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Authority (PPDA) to hold an emergency procurement process. This meant that the EC would have to bypass the elaborate bureaucratic process that requires publishing the bids in the mainstream print news media outlets and only deal with a few selected entities.
This third process had Megha Industries, Grid Energy Systems, Jesani Constructions, Space Holdings and Mumbejja Rebecca & Marion Industrial Steel Masters (U) vie for the deal. But in yet another tactical masterstroke from the EC, all the companies did not fulfil the requirements and their bids were rejected.
At this point, the EC decided to go for restrictive bidding, which meant that open bidding was now off-the-table. The EC ostensibly reduced the area requirement from 8,000 square metres to just 2,600 square metres in May, 2019 without any explanation.
Afterwards, only bids from Space Holdings, Sechi Enterprises and Fast Track Enterprise were accepted by the EC Contracts committee.
A PPDA source privy to the government tendering process told us that formulating restrictive bids by government agencies is one way of keeping off big players from winning the process.
“The trick is simple…create tough terms that put off big players and afterwards create an emergency situation that requires zeroing down on a contractor to get the tender,” says the source.
Indeed, the EC procurement department led by Godfrey Wanyoto, invited Space Holdings under direct procurement method, whose Shs 16.9 billion bid could be accommodated in three financial years (2018/19,2019/2020 and 2020/21). However, James Nuwamanya, the EC Contracts committee chairperson, queried the transaction.
“Whereas the Contracts committee approved direct method of procurement, you were advised to pick on a firm to bid, as part of your responsibility. Contracts committee never advised that you write to Space Holdings. Further as a technical officer, your role is to offer advice to Contracts Committee. Given this shortcoming listed herein, is it prudent to solicit this firm to bid again?” reads part of the letter.
“The selected firm had participated previously for the same transaction and was eliminated due to reasons highlighted in the evaluation report, please take note and advise on the choice of the selected firm, given the above scenario.”
RWAKOOJO, TAREMWA STEP IN
With Nuwamanya objecting to the deal, Rwakoojo warned Nuwamanya that the EC would lose a significant sum of its budget for the 2020-2021 final year.
“The purpose of this note is to urge you to exercise utmost sense of responsibility and put EC’s interest first by handling this procurement as quickly as possible, keeping in mind that we have less than one month to complete the process,” Rwakoojo advised Nuwamanya.
In reply, Nuwamanya highlighted glaring gaps in the deal such as the reduction of acreage from 9,000 square metres to 2,600 square metres and the increase in cost from Shs 6bn to Shs 16.9bn. It was at this point that Taremwa, a member of the Contracts committee, lambasted Nuwamanya for taking a unilateral position against the committee.
Buoyed by the recommendation of procurement department boss, Godfrey Wanyoto, Taremwa, together with committee members; Abdul Kibesi, Opar Malakwang and Eric Sabiiti, on June 10, 2019, accused Nuwamanya of frustrating the process to award Space Holdings the deal.
“We strongly dissociate ourselves with the said contents and humbly request you to provide to the members an explanation to why you acted ultra-vires in respect of the above issues raised,” the members stated.
SHAKY DEAL SIGNED
With Nuwamanya alienated, the EC went ahead to sign the Shs 16.9bn deal with on June 11, 2019, in spite of protestation from Uthman Segawa, the PPDA legal director, about the illegalities involved.
When The Observer reached out to winner he said the EC got value for it money. The businessman added that EC had only Shs 6 billion per year as capital development and it is only his company which could accommodate payment in instalment for not more than three financial years.
“The question is, did they get value for the space they got? They came to us after trying three times with other bidders. We did not participate in the previous bidding. And we are the one who made the lowest offer,” the person who spoke on behalf of this company added.
However, The Observer has learnt that PPDA, Justice Byabakama and Leonard Mulekwa, Rwakoojo successor, are unsatisfied with the transaction and are pushing to have it cancelled.
WAVE OF CHANGE
Observers say that it was upon this background that President Museveni decided to fire Rwakoojo and Taremwa, both of whom were also accused of undermining Justice Byabakama ever since he took over office in 2017.
In fact, upon unearthing these scandals, Byabakama is reported to have told President Museveni to relieve him of the said staff in order for him to fulfil his job as mandated by the EC Act.
At the moment, there is a great deal of relief among EC staff, according to our sources, even though some sticking issues remain in regard to staff payments.
According to our sources, the firing of Rwakoojo, who has held the secretary position for almost 15 years, offered a sigh of relief for staff.
“He had infiltrated all directorates and departments by recruiting and placing his people in sensitive positions as personal assistants and secretaries of top officials but fortunately most of them were not permanent staff and they have been ordered to go away by the chairperson [Byabakama]” said the source.
The source added there is an ongoing purge of Rwakoojo loyalists within the EC, which has in turn caused tensions between the dominant Banyankore and Bakiga staff.
“At the moment, everyone is keen on what he/she consumes at office lest you take poison because the environment is so tense,” she said. “Those from Ankole feel threatened by the new establishment because there is an impending reapplication for jobs in the commission.”
Interviewed for this story, Bukenya dismissed the tensions as far-fetched.
“As far as EC work is concerned, there is no such tension because everything is going on smoothly as we prepare for the upcoming elections,” he said.
In a related development, the fate of millions of shillings of savings by EC staff could be up in smoke. According to a source, at the time Rwakoojo and Taremwa were sacked, they had borrowed huge sums from the staff Sacco, which they have refused to pay.
“They used to have an overbearing influence on the staff Sacco and took away as much as Shs 300m. Unfortunately, they left the Sacco depleted and have not paid back a coin since,” adds the source.
“The staff are now worried that they will never pay our money and what is most worrying is that each time we go to withdraw part of our savings, the Sacco management says there is no money…and so, we have to wait for Rwakoojo and Taremwa to pay.”
However, Bukenya dismissed this notion by maintaining that the duo has no outstanding bill with the Sacco.
“They didn’t own the Sacco and got clearance before exiting…so, there is no reason to worry.”
All in all, it remains to be seen whether the issues will be settled amicably but there is no denying that the EC house needs to be put in order so as not to affect public confidence ahead of the eagerly-anticipated general elections.