Sunday August 31 2014

Byandala: Minister in eye of the storm

Mr Byandala appearing before the parliamentary committee

Mr Byandala appearing before the parliamentary committee on Physical Infrastructure last week. PHOTO BY Geoffrey Sseruyange 


Was he angry? Would he say the same things in another newspaper interview? What was running through his mind as he dropped names of fellow ministers in a multimillion dollar scam whose heat had surged? And to make the magnitude of allegations he threw here and there?
Abraham Byandala, if the past few weeks and the baggage of media fodder they have come with are anything to go by, is certainly a man with an action packed life albeit tucked in the confines of a low profile. Beyond the Mukono-Katosi road saga and subsequent outbursts, Mr Byandala is an engineer cum politician whose script of life reads like a fairy tale.

The 64-year-old mean looking, bespectacled minister, with medium body build and height, is not the type to give away so much of his personal life for instance.

Life at KCC
When contacted for a comment and reflections of his time at Kampala City Council (KCC) where the Makerere University trained civil engineer was chief city engineer for more than 20 years, Mr John Ssebana Kizito, who served as mayor for 10 years, said: “That man is in trouble now, I wouldn’t want to comment about him,” he said, adding when pressed on, “I didn’t know him personally even when he was my city engineer”.

Of his performance as engineer, Mr Ssebana said: “Whatever you see in form of roads was supervised by him. I think he tried his best because he had a lot of challenges in his area.”

Former KCC spokesman Herbert Ssemakula painted an image of a man whose life rotated around the technical maps and master plans that loosely dangled on his office walls. Committed to his job and quiet.

“He is a very humble and principled man. I heard no complaints from his department, it was quiet. I think he also delivered given that KCC was constrained financially,” he said. What the two men share in common is the shock wave that blew off those who knew him when Byandala took to electoral politics.

“I had never known him as a politician but you know people change,” Mr Ssebana said. But back to his performance as city engineer, from where he literally cut his career teeth, once asked by K-fm Saturday show, Hard Talk host Chris Obore to account for his years at KCC, the dark skinned politician stammered, taking time to recollect what difference he made in Kampala. He was to later point out a road in town.

In fact, Sunday Monitor’s columnist Bernard Tabaire wrote in his column recently, “……….which Abraham Byandala was once upon a time KCC(A) chief engineer who happily presided over the rapid expansion of potholes and gullies in the city.”

President Museveni in his characteristic humour joked as Mr Byandala swore in as minister for Works and Transport in 2011, “The Monitor wrote that from Nasasira to Byandala means more potholes. So Byandala has to work harder.” The President that day actually cracked a joke as minister after minister swore in at State House Entebbe but his choice of this particular joke as Byandala swore in almost gave credence (inadvertently so), to skeptics who wrote off the elderly politician from the outset. The jury is still out on whether he actually took his boss’ advice or not.

Be that as it may, former Kampala Town Clerk Gordon Mwesigye described his former colleague’s performance as “average.” Asked to expound on this average performance, he told this reporter, “You understand English and you know what average means.”

Mr Mwesigye added reluctantly: “I had no problems with him. We did intersections at Clock Tower, Wandegeya, Kitgum House and fixed roads at Industrial Area that had died. Studies were also done on the transport master plan and all that was under the engineering department.”

Byandala headed this department for a considerably long time. To believe or not that his performance was largely hampered by the inadequate funding from government to KCC is a matter of personal choice and debate.

The only logical point of convergence can only be the plain assertion that Mr Byandala’s performance to say the least was neither here nor there. It was average to borrow Mr Mwesigye’s moderate tongue.

Off to politics
After more than two decades at KCC, Byandala in an evolution of self put his feet to electoral politics. In 2006, he trounced Mr James Kinobe (now ambassador) right from the NRM party primaries, protecting his electoral throne again in 2011 against current Luweero Woman MP Brenda Nabukenya.

Voters from Luweero this writer spoke to attribute Mr Byandala’s election victories to the god-fathering of Hajj Abdul Naduli, the indomitable NRM elder in Luweero, whose vast experience in the area’s political terrain and weight behind the engineer scored goals.

As a backbencher, Byandala took no time to shoot his star to the August house’s limelight, especially when he chaired the committee on Physical Infrastructure.

There, he did two things. One was defending the NRM at all costs and secondly stamping his authority and passion on matters roads.
Once debating a motion for a resolution of Parliament urging the government to stay the eviction of Shimoni Demonstration School from its premises on December 14, 2006, Mr Byandala rubbed former Kampala Central MP Erias Lukwago the wrong way.

“If you think of your district or constituency, you are advised to go and become a district councillor or a councillor at the municipality. If you are here, your primary objective is to debate in the interest of Uganda.” He was not done,

“How could Hon. Lukwago accept such a thing to come, apparently that Prince Al Waheed would not accept any other place apart from Shimoni! That man could not have said that. It is your duty to educate your people not to bring such nonsense (Interjections)- I am sorry it is not nonsense, but you should.. (Interruption)”.

Byandala was ruled out of order by the Deputy Speaker. It is such a loose and bitter tongue that has won Byandala the trademark of an arrogant man. But arrogance is relative and a question of personal judgment.

On December 1, 2009, he attracted whispers and jittery body language while eulogising former MP Henry Balikowa who died in a tragic accident in Mabira Forest on the night of Sunday, November 29, 2009 when he grabbed the opportunity to advocate for his committee’s funding.

“Last month, there was a global road safety conference in Moscow and our minister of Works and Transport attended it. I am sure he will put into practice what he learnt there,” he said of John Nasasira then Works and Transport minister. Byandala recently accused him of plotting a come back to Works.

The Parliament Hansard reports verbatim further, “My committee, if voted the necessary funds, will spearhead a sensitisation crusade for road safety on behalf of Parliament -(Interjections)- yesterday, we were in Entebbe discussing about funding of committees. This is one area where I requested for a lot of money and that is why I am pointing it out.” That he took advantage of a funeral to advocate for money for his committee left a bitter taste in mouths of many.

In 2008, he quizzed officials from the Uganda National Roads Authority when they informed Parliament that at least 30 per cent of the Shs1.1 trillion that government allocated to the road sector that financial year was unlikely to be used because it was not planned for.

Placing his spectacles down, Byandala charged: “These are flimsy excuses which cannot be tolerated and it is unfortunate because rural roads have continued to deteriorate and others have collapsed yet we had availed funds for repairs.”

Now as minister
The President’s joke and reminder for him to work harder appears to have tickled Byandala right in the heart. His time at the ministry has seen scandal after scandal pop its head in the public eye.

Only recently, the embattled minister locked horns with UNRA board over the reappointment of then Executive Director Peter Ssebanakitta whom the board had written off on grounds of underperformance. Byandala disagreed and re-appointed him, only to sleep over the decision and revoke the letter.

In 2012, acting on the orders of President Museveni, he ordered for Mr Dennis Ayo’s removal from the ministry after donors, frustrated by corruption and procurement delays, threatened to withdraw support to key projects.

This newspaper reported then that Byandala had written to the Finance minister, sending Mr Ayo for “rehabilitation, re-skilling and deployment elsewhere.” He added, “Administratively, I have asked the Works PS to write to him (Mr Ayo) asking him to vacate his office ...” Mr Byandala told this newspaper adding, “Although I am new in this ministry, I am shocked at the level of sabotage Mr Ayo has overseen during his time here.”

Against corruption?
In a June 26, 2012 letter, Mr Byandala wrote further, “The axis of forgeries works through tampering with and changing original copies of bid documents that the head of procurement keeps in his custody,”.

Describing his actions, which triggered litigation from the said official, as ‘good for the transport sector’ Mr Byandala cut the poise of a man out to catch thieves bedeviling the juicy sector that attracts more than Shs1 trillion off the national Budget.

His passion to catch the thieves was only at ignition stage. On July 3, 2012 this newspaper reported again, the same minister Byandala confirming that four engineers, one of them an assistant commissioner, had received matching orders over alleged mismanagement of more than Shs4.5b assigned for construction of 18 bridges in eastern and western parts of the country.

“The Permanent Secretary (Charles Muganzi) interdicted them, but I do not have their names,” he said then.

Byandala was again acting on President Museveni’s orders. From just these two scenarios, the President appears to have landed on a strategic ally in exorcising the transport sector of demons of corruption.

Byandala was that man, always acting first and fast in effecting the appointing authority’s orders. Himself speaking passionately about and against corruption, painting an adorable picture of a man whose hands itched to grab the next corrupt official (at least in the public eye) and take immediate action.

Byandala from his eulogy of deceased MP Balikowa confessed the fallen MP always reminded him to pray before conducting any parliamentary work. Will he survive the mafia that he alluded to in a recent media interview and accused of plotting his end? Is he clean himself? Time is the best judge!