How OPM staff stole from the poor

Officials from the Office of the Prime Minister after appearing at the Ant-Corruption Court recently. More than half of the money under investigation in the OPM was withdrawn using what might have been forged documents . PHOTO BY Abubaker Lubowa.

What you need to know:

The money that went missing from the Office of the Prime Minister was meant to help the poorest and most desperate Ugandans recovering from war, disease and disaster.

Monitor Reporter

Billions of shillings meant to help Ugandans affected by two decades of war rebuild their lives ended up building mansions for corrupt OPM officials in Kampala and buying luxury vehicles.

As parents in war-ravaged northern Uganda tied their children affected by nodding disease to trees, corrupt technocrats in the ministry were flying off to exotic holiday destinations.

Such was the impunity of the scam that a cashier, whose monthly salary is less than Shs1.5 million, regularly ‘lent’ the government hundreds of millions of shillings, which were paid back to his personal bank account. “Funds advanced to the cashier’s personal account were described as a refund of borrowed cash, making it appear as if the cashier lent government money from his personal savings,” the audit report noted.

The cashier, Isaiah Oonyu, withdrew Shs3.2 billion in cash over a period of many months, often withdrawing as much as Shs100 million per day.

More than half of the money was withdrawn using what might have been forged documents but another Shs1.5 billion was withdrawn with the authority and knowledge of the accounting officer and permanent secretary, Mr Pius Bigirimana, according to an audit by the office of the Auditor General.

The multi-billion corruption scandal at the Office of the Prime Minister might never have been uncovered had it not been for a disagreement between two senior officials (names withheld for legal reasons) over sharing the loot.

After mastering the system, rogue civil servants in the Office of the Prime Minister, in probably collusion with officials in the Finance ministry and the Central Bank, had managed to create a secret account to which they squirrelled billions of money in a few months.

Meeting difficulties
Stealing the money from the Treasury was the easier part, however. Collecting it and sharing it would become fraught with difficulties and lead to a fight that led to the unravelling of the scam.

The Shs20 billion that was paid into the ‘secret’ Crisis Management Account (CMA) was gone within a few months. About Shs1.5 billion was withdrawn in cash. Another Shs2 billion was sent to the personal bank accounts of OPM staff, ostensibly to carry out government work.

Another Shs1.8 billion was spent on buying motor vehicles, including, sources say, a state-of-the-art Mercedes Benz official car for the Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi.

The contracts for the purchase of the car had been signed before the money was sent to the account, the audit found, raising questions as to why the technocrats at the OPM would use money fraudulently obtained to pay for a budgeted activity. Another Shs4.6 billion was paid out from the CMA using what appear to be the forged signatures of Permanent Secretary Pius Bigirimana.

An audit report by the Office of the Auditor General, however, suggests a wide conspiracy by several officials in the OPM to steal from taxpayers or, at best, mismanage public resources.

Over the two years covered by the audit, Shs35 billion was paid into the personal accounts of OPM staff to carry out government work with the knowledge and authority of the accounting officer.

Auditors did not find any accountability documents for the money and the payments into personal accounts was in violation of government regulations on managing public finances.
Around the time the government could not find enough money to feed and treat children affected by nodding disease in northern Uganda, or rebuild homes for landslide survivors in Bududa, the OPM spent Shs6.9 billion on drafting a policy on disaster management.

In the all-you-can-eat corruption buffet that was served up in Postel Building, the home of the OPM, thieving technocrats forgot to cover their tracks. A clever scam that was built on the ability to game one of the most sophisticated financial control systems ultimately foundered on the rocks of impunity and carelessness.

The thieving technocrats did not expect the CMA to be audited, since it was ‘off budget’ and had, in many cases, not bothered to create accountability for the money they took. When the investigators came knocking, the hurriedly-assembled accountability stood out like a sore thumb.

The hurriedly-assembled accountability

An officer claimed to have bought 50 cartons of salt for the survivors of the Bududa landslide from a hardware shop. Shop owners confirmed they are not in the business of selling salt or other food items.

•Another claimed to have used two trailers and Shs3.6 million in fuel to transport 35 bags (one tonne) of nails yet each trailer has the capacity to transport 400 bags (20 tonnes).

•Two trailers were allegedly hired from Kampala, driven to Kigumba and then used to transport some firewood to the nearby town of Kiryandongo, only 10 kilometres away.

•Receipts for money paid to a firm to plough a field in Kiryandongo were dated December 2010 yet payments were made in February 2011.

•Officials claimed that 28 people had attended a workshop in eastern Uganda – the same number of OPM staff (11) and facilitators (17) who received Shs340,000 each.

•A ministry vehicle reportedly used in supervision of a building project was serviced twice in the space of three days.

•Accountability documents presented showed that a trailer that was delivering food in Kiryandongo, was also in Rakai, over 300 kilometres away, on the same dates.