Sunday February 9 2014

Shs300 billion project at stake as crisis hits Education ministry

Fr Epiphany Picho Odubuker (R) the Muni

Fr Epiphany Picho Odubuker (R) the Muni University Secretary with Education minister Jessica Alupo (L) display a plan for Muni University campus in Arua last year. Muni University is meant to be one of the beneficiaries of the AfDB project. FILE PHOTo 



A project worth $115million (about Shs287 billion) meant to improve the teaching and development of science and technology in higher education institutions has delayed for nine months and is at the risk of collapse.
The project is funded through a loan from the African Development Bank (AfDB).
The delay is a result of a protracted fight between the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Education and Sports, Ms Rose Nassali Lukwago and the Country Representative of the AfDB, Medjomo Coulibaly.

Mr Coulibaly has raised objections to the manner in which Ms Nassali conducted the recruitment of staff to the project code-named AfDB V, saying it did not meet the bank’s rules and procedures. But Ms Nassali insists the bank should endorse the staff she has selected through PILA Consultants, a recruitment agency.

Sunday Monitor investigations show that AfDB officials are angry that while the memorandum they signed with the government indicated that project activities, including recruitment of staff should be done in accordance with the bank’s best practices, the Education ministry had employed underhand methods.

According to several correspondences between Ms Nassali and Mr Coulibaly, copies of which Sunday Monitor has seen, AfDB argues that while in the past the ministry recommended serving officials to coordinate AfDB projects, Ms Nassali changed the method, reasoning that she needed a competitive recruitment process. While the bank agreed to it, AfDB is now afraid that it was a ploy to recruit people outside procedures.

“The recruitment process of the Project Coordinator was done according to the rules and regulations governing Public Service. The bank has always been informed of all the process and there is no time it has ever objected,” reads Ms Nassali’s letter January 3, 2014.

But on January 24, Mr Coulibaly wrote back, saying Ms Nassali only sent terms of reference and request for expression of interest which the bank approved.
“Subsequently the MoES undertook to process the received applications from expressions of interest. However, no shortlist of applicants was received in the bank for review and clearance, and to date, this has not been submitted,” reads Mr Coulibaly’s letter.
He said “the statement in your letter that interviews were held and the best candidate recommended to MoES in order of merit for appointment has not received the no-objection of the Bank to lead to the interviews.”

“According to the submitted report, some of the applicants have not been graded based on the criteria set for evaluation. It is imperative that all who applied and complied with the criteria set in the request for expression of interest be graded, and reasons be inserted for level of grading,” Mr Coulibaly said.
He said PILA Consultants had not been recruited into AfDB project activities, therefore; they should be seen as advisors to the Ministry who should not have a final say on AfDB related activities. The bank insists that the Ministry should “clearly indicate reasons for disqualification of any applicant…”
AfDB is unhappy that in spite of several meetings between the bank and key ministry officials, the action of the Ministry appeared aimed at violating the terms of the memorandum between the government and the Bank.

The bank has threatened not to pay salaries of staff recruited without adherence to their rules and regulations. They have also threatened not to release the money. The implication is that taxpayers will continue to pay commitment fees even when the loan has not been utilised.

Genesis of stalemate
Apparently, the stalemate is an extension of the already ‘poisonous’ work environment at the ministry.
Basic communication has broken down in the ministry, with Ms Nassali reportedly writing letters of policy nature without copying to ministers.
Ms Nassali who was appointed PS last year but delayed to assume office after the Public Service Commission raised questions about her suitability for the job, is accused of orchestrating vendetta against some officials.
Ms Nassali once worked as the boss of Education Standards Agency (ESA) and a member of the contracts committee under the same ministry but she was interdicted and later demoted over alleged “condoning of crime and concealment of information from senior management, negligence of duty and insubordination”.

Apparently she seems to be carrying over animosity against her predecessor Francis Xavier Lubanga and officials who worked closely with him. The staff currently running AfDB project activities worked with Mr Lubanga and Ms Nassali’s is accused of interfering with the recruitment process in order to eliminate them. According to the consultants grading which Sunday Monitor has seen, the officials running AfDB project activities but applied for the next project, were scored zero in experience even when they hold senior positions. PILA consultants give no reasons for the zero score of the candidates.
Apparently, the decision not to allow staff running AfDB projects was made by Ms Nassali after applications had been submitted. A letter to the Undersecretary Doreen Katusiime from assistant commissioner Joseph Eilor revealed that the PS wanted Ms Katusiime to communicate to PILA Consults to exclude AfDB project staff from the shortlist and interviews.

“With regard to ADB V project, since the responsibility for recruitment lies with your department, PS instruction [that] we should NOT recruit ADB V staff from ADB V project should immediately become one of the criteria for shortlisting eligible applicants,” reads the letter. “The division of human resource management should be made aware of this position,” it adds.
But Ms Katusiime wrote back. “The terms of reference for this position were developed by your department and submitted to the bank for no objection without specifying the exclusion of current ADB IV staff from applying. Any change in terms of reference would lead to the cancellation of the entire process and start afresh, bearing in mind that project implementation is already behind schedule.”
According to Ms Katusiime, “all human resource matters including recruitment and selection must take into consideration the labour and employment legislation currently in force in the country”. The labour laws prohibit discrimination.

Alupo writes
Following threats from the AfDB to withhold funding, the Education minister Jessica Alupo has written to her colleague at Finance ministry, Ms Maria Kiwanuka to intervene and rescue the project, saying Muni and Busitema universities whose development is hinged on this project would be critically affected.
“I am getting concerned by the pace at which the project activities are being implemented in my ministry which is the Executing Agency,” reads Ms Alupo’s letter dated January 30.

“From the correspondences I have come across between the Bank and the ministry, it appears that the Bank is of the view that the Ministry is not complying with conditions, rules and procedures of the Loan Agreement. Most of these communications between the Bank and my permanent secretary have not been copied to me…” she said.

Ministry of Finance signs loan agreements on behalf of the government.
Ms Alupo is worried that the loan might be cancelled yet delay has already attracted service charges and commitment fees. She is also worried that higher education institutions might lose out if AfDB recalls the loan and gives it to another sector in the country.

“The purpose of this letter is to bring these matters to your attention as the borrower and request you to guide my ministry on how to resolve this impasse between my ministry and the Bank and also bring back the project on track and catch up on the lost time,” reads the letter.
Ms Kiwanuka told Sunday Monitor that she had received Ms Alupo’s letter but referred us to the Secretary to the Treasury, Mr Keith Muhakanizi, to give the ministry position on the matter.

The relationship between Ms Alupo and Ms Nassali is also icy, with both saying they are all presidential appointees, therefore none is superior to the other.
Recently, Ms Nassali also wrote to Ms Alupo warning her never to make policy statements in public without her clearance. The warning provoked debate on whether a civil servant was superior to a politician in a ministry but the head of Public Service, John Mitala personally walked into Ms Nassali’s office and asked her to apologise to the minister saying she was out of order to admonish the minister.

One of the issues that have destroyed collegial relationship at the Ministry of Education headquarters is the recent attempts by the PS Ms Nassali to cause the transfer of several senior civil servants in the ministry. It started with the transfer of Senior Assistant Secretary Charles Kajoba Kitonsa to the Office of the Prime Minister soon after Ms Nassali took over office.
Apparently, Mr Kitonsa was targeted because during Mr Lubanga’s time, he was the one moving paperwork between government offices when Ms Nassali was interdicted in 2007.

Other officers who Ms Nassali wants transferred are Eliab Tibainembabazi, principal personnel officer, Jessica Naluze, personnel officer, Joseph Tingo Openja, personnel officer and their boss Stephen Okiror Opio, the assistant commissioner for Human Resources. She also asked for the transfer of Jimmy Lubwama, the assistant commissioner for accounts.

The PS accused the officers of alleged misconduct. But the Ministry of Public Service wrote to Ms Nassali raising suspicion about her intentions.
In a letter dated December 8, 2008, the PS Public Service said: “I wish to observe that the officers mentioned above have had a clean performance record in their previous work assignments. Your letter however, suggests misconduct on the part of the officers which would require disciplinary action,” reads the letter signed by Jane K. Mwesiga.
Ms Nassali was reminded that public service Standing Orders provide that transfer should not be used as a punitive measure or a way of disciplining public officers.

“In this regard therefore, you are advised, in case there are sufficient grounds, to discipline the officers in line with the existing regulations.”
The Accountant General also wrote to Ms Nassali informing her that her desire to transfer Mr Lubwama who heads accounts in the ministry, looked an ill-conceived idea.

“I wish to advise that since you are likely to be a new Accounting Officer, you need someone to orient you in areas of financial management and to handle previous issues relating to finances especially regarding the Auditor General reports,” reads a letter by Gustavio Bwoch who has since retired.
Sunday Monitor has learnt that since then, Ms Nassali has backed off. But the work relationship remains frosty. One of the bureaucrats, Mr John Mary Agaba, the Commissioner for Secondary Education, sought early retirement from service when Ms Nassali was appointed, fearing vengeance from the new PS.
Mr Agaba had earlier reportedly exposed Ms Nassali’s failure to ensure standards and the two had also disagreed during contract committee meetings.

Fight over scholarships management
There is also a big fight in the minister over who should control scholarships. Ms Nassali wrote on January 14 to the director higher education and training, Ms Elizabeth Gabona, withdrawing her role in the central scholarships committee.

“This, therefore, is to withdraw your representation from the Central Scholarship Committee that manages bi-lateral and multi-lateral scholarships within the Ministry of Education and Sports,” reads the memo.
After withdrawing Ms Gabona, the PS placed the management of scholarship in the ministry to the department of Finance and Administration.
However, the Commissioner for Higher Education Robert Odong Ocen who had earlier been removed from the same committee by the PS wrote to Ms Nassali drawing her attention to the fact that Ms Gabona’s role in the scholarships committee was statutory, therefore, it needed change of the structure of the ministry as approved by Public Service.

Removing Ms Gabona from her statutory role, Mr Ocen argued, would mean “the department will fail to perform its mandate on scholarships and admissions as contained in its key functions and key outputs in the Ministry of Education and Sports restructuring report”.

He said with the decreased mandate, the staff of the department would remain redundant. Our investigation shows that since the management of scholarships was withdrawn from the department of Higher Education, the award of scholarships is now foggy.

The officials in the Finance department have no mandate and knowledge in scholarships handling yet those with the mandate don’t know what to do since the PS has not revoked her directive. This is also now one of the causes of paralysis in the ministry.
The Education ministry is also embroiled in a fight over the sacking of Prof Charles Kwesiga as the caretaker Principal of Uganda Petroleum Institute Kigumba (UPIK).

On January 8, 2014, Ms Nassali wrote to Kyambogo University’s Associate Professor Sam Obwoya Kinyera, appointing him as the caretaker principal of the institute. She gave Prof Kinyera a monthly salary of Shs1.6 million with a retention top up allowance of Shs9.9 million.
“By copy of this letter, the Vice Chancellor Kyambogo University is requested to grant you leave without pay,” reads the Ms Nassali’s letter.
The move also exposed the poor working relationship between the PS and minister Alupo.

The minister was only informed of Prof Kinyera’s appointment on January 13 - five days after the appointment had been made.
Ms Nassali said she sacked Prof Kwesiga because of his “intransigent conduct”.
But this move is also peppered with controversies. Senior government officials told Sunday Monitor that the Ministry of Public Service is in the process of establishing the formal structure of UPIK which would create the governing council and administrative structure.

Ms Nassali is accused of replacing an interim management team at UPIK with another interim team which she has handpicked without consultation. Instead, the PS’s critics say she should have coordinated with the Public Service ministry to fast track the process and have a statutory management team in place instead of interim arrangements.

Matters taken to the IGG
A whistleblower has petitioned the Inspector General of Government (IGG) to intervene and investigate “various lapses in the Ministry of Education”.
“I would like to bring to your attention the state of affairs in the Ministry of Education and Sports that is threatening to cause paralysis and has resulted in staff being demotivated,” reads the petition.
“There is a real risk of a mass exodus of experienced and senior staff from this important ministry,” the whistleblower adds, asking the IGG to restore order and sanity in the ministry.

Nassali speaks out

Ms Nassali told Sunday Monitor that she would not comment on Ms Alupo’s letter because she had not internalised its contents. “Don’t you think it is strange for the minister to write to somewhere else before talking to me? I don’t know what to say.”

She said she is not aware of any disagreements between her and AfDB and that she never tempered with the recruitment process since it was under the docket of the assistant commissioner for human resources.
“I never gave him any conditions,” she said.

For the project delays, Ms Nassali said: “I inherited those delays because I joined the ministry when the project was on. Investigate the reasons for those delays.” She also revealed that some of her communications were not copied to the minister because they were of technical nature.

“Where I feel that things are not moving well then I will tell her to intervene at that level but I deal with technical matters,” she said.
The soft-spoken Ms Nassali admitted that she wrote to Public Service asking for the transfer of some staff but that she had reasons for that. “I wouldn’t want to reveal the reason; I will call those officers and tell them the reason why I wanted them to leave,” she said.

On scholarships, she said the minister approved of her action and that she had already talked to the head of department in charge of scholarships about why the mandate was withdrawn from her.

“The handling of scholarships has not come to a standstill. Interviews are to be held for Indian scholarships,” she said.
Ms Nassali declined to comment on the petition to the IGG saying she will be contacted by the investigators to give her position.