Iron sheets scandal adds to Karamoja safety woes

Left-Right: State Minister for Defence and Veteran Affairs Jacob Oboth-Oboth, Finance Minister Matia Kasaija and Minister of State for Disaster Preparedness Esther Anyakun appear before Parliament’s Presidential Affairs Committee at Parliament on March 31, 2023. PHOTO | DAVID LUBOWA

What you need to know:

  • During the March 31 interface, it was also revealed that the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) overlooked the original list of intended beneficiaries developed by the commanding officers. It is alleged that the OPM came up with its own list that included a number of politicians.

The ongoing iron sheets scandal that saw relief items meant for Karamoja Sub-region diverted to other areas through senior government officials threatens to undermine government efforts to pacify the tinderbox.
The House Committee on Presidential Affairs chaired by Ms Jesca Ababiku (Adjuman Woman) heard on Friday that the anger of would-be beneficiaries at missing out on the relief items could boil over. 
Mr David Lagen (Agago County) told the committee that resentment has driven many to Sudan to buy guns, sparking an increase in raids.

READ: Karamoja school applied for iron sheets, never got
The government procured the iron sheets through a supplementary vote for distribution to vulnerable Karimojong and youthful warriors, locally called Karachunas, as a sweetener to them for renouncing armed violence.
Government investigations have, however, revealed that the items ended in the home of Ms Mary Goretti Kitutu— Karamoja Affairs minister—as well as other senior government leaders.
“The biggest problem is to first give out to non Karachunas, and leave out the Karachunas who are meant to be the first beneficiaries,” Ms Ababiku said.
Mr Jacob Oboth, the junior Defence minister, who has been listed as one of the recipients, revealed that the policy to give iron sheets to those who handed in guns was intelligence-based. 
He added that departing from the policy was counterproductive.  
During the March 31 interface, it was also revealed that the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) overlooked the original list of intended beneficiaries developed by the commanding officers. It is alleged that the OPM came up with its own list that included a number of politicians.
“The UPDF identified these Karachuans. They would give them a black card to show this one returned a gun. The OPM and the Ministry of Karamoja decided to make a parallel list and they used the local leaders to identify. Even the goats were not given to the Karachunas,” Ms Esther Anyakun, the junior Disaster Preparedness minister, who doubles as the Nakapiripirit Woman lawmaker, revealed.
Mr Oboth, who denies receiving iron sheets meant for Karamoja, conceded that “there are no results” if a cost-benefit analysis of the government’s interventions in Karamoja is undertaken.
Mid last year, President Museveni camped in the Karamoja Sub-region as raids, killings and cattle rustling peaked. Mr Museveni argued that ridding the region of arms would be the only sure way of ending insecurity.
Kitutu disowned
Mr Kyakulaga, a recipient of 300 pieces, said: “We had a joint activity and I spoke to the minister not to ask for Karamoja iron sheets, but as one of the ministers in the OPM to help me. My discussion with her was less than a minute and she quickly said send your PA (personal assistant) to my PA. I feel bad, but unfortunately, I cannot retrieve them. I would be willing to buy but not to withdraw.”
Ms Anyakun, who got 5,000 pieces, said thus: “We had a meeting with OPM [officials] as MPs from Karamoja and agreed that some iron sheets procured from the Shs39 billion be given to MPs and LC5s. I was disturbed because I am in OPM and yet I did not know our iron sheets were being diverted. I do not feel guilty,”
On her part, Ms Namuyangu said: “As we walked out of a meeting, I was called by my colleague Kitutu, and she asked me if I had picked iron sheets from the store. What came to my mind was maybe it was a response to the previous requests I had made. She told me if I do not pick the iron sheets, others would take them. I feel sorry. For [my name] to be tarnished, I do not know the intention … I did not expect her to dupe me.”
Mr Kasaija revealed that “someone rang my PA to say I had been allocated 300 iron sheets. They were delivered in my compound, and as I was organising to distribute them, this thing blew up.” 
The Finance minister said he was awaiting “an instruction from the OPM on how to dispose of the iron sheets. I do not know if someone wanted to frame us. We are hurt.”
Mr Lugoloobi confessed to receiving 300 iron sheets, which he used to roof a goat pen. 
He further explained that he was to breed the goats for distribution to the community. He, however, deroofed it and handled the used pieces to the State House Anti-Corruption Unit, one of the entities investigating the diversion. 
“It is unfortunate that this happened and I feel sorry about this. We can discuss a way forward because it was not intentional,” he said.
Lawmakers unconvinced
Despite their professed ignorance of the motive to divert the roofing materials, the members of the Committee wondered how such senior members would be  ignorant of government due processes. 
“You requested for iron sheets from Disaster and Northern Affairs and instead were told to go pick iron sheets by the minister for Karamoja Affairs. Did anything come into your conscience to try to ask if the person was the right one or not? Did you ask that?” Mr Brahan Ezama (Aringa County) wondered in response to Ms Namuyangu’s confession.
“There are systems and processes of doing things. When it comes to the process, it implicates you. There is nowhere in this country where you only use phones to transact business. It is normally through paperwork,” Mr Albert Lokuru (Tepeth County) said while addressing Mr Kasaija. 
The committee now wants Prime Minister Robinah Nabbaja to appear and explain the mess in the OPM docket.
It is unclear if other implicated senior officials—including Vice President Jessica Alupo and House Speaker Anita Among, who pledged to return what she received—will also be summoned.
How items were dished out
At the Friday meeting, it emerged that iron sheets were dished out through casual conversations, phone calls and WhatsApp chats.
Due process requires that the accounting officers oversee the requisitioning, receipt, and distribution of items. All processes must be documented.
Five ministers—Finance minister Matia Kasaija, junior Finance minister Amos Lugoloobi, Ms Anyakun, Bunyoro Affairs minister Jennifer Namyangu, and Agriculture minister Fred Bwino Kyakulaga—and Agnes Kirabo (Central Uganda Youth lawmaker), who appeared before the committee, confessed to receiving iron sheets. They, however, maintained their innocence, claiming to be unaware that the items were for Karamoja. They were also hesitant to commit to restituting the items. They all point to possible malicious intent by their colleague Ms Kitutu to tarnish their names. Mr Oboth even threatened to sue Ms Kitutu. 
“I did not know or have any reason to know that the iron sheets allocated to me were for Karamoja region. I knew the OPM was responding to previous requests I had made earlier … I can refund it, but before I refund, I will sue that person for damaging my name,” he said.