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MPs scared of arrest at Budget reading

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Members of Parliament during a plenary session chaired by Deputy Speaker,Thomas Tayebwa on October 31, 2023.  PHOTO | DAVID LUBOWA

Several Members of Parliament (MPs) are reportedly planning to skip today’s Budget reading, fearing arrest after three of their colleagues were yesterday remanded to prison on budget-related corruption charges.

Mr Stephen Baka (Bukooli North, NRM) told this publication that “we are hearing talks that MPs will not be able to attend the Budget reading because they fear getting arrested”. 

His disclosure of palpable dread among legislators dovetails with separate accounts some MPs and staff of Parliament offered in confidence to this publication after police announced that they are widening the probe.

Sources said the spreading panic has been fuelled in part by confirmation that dozens of security and intelligence chiefs, among them AIGP Tom Magambo, police’s director of Criminal Investigations, who is leading ongoing inquiries, will attend today’s Budget reading at Kololo Ceremonial Grounds in Kampala.

“These MPs [plotting to skip Budget reading] should know that when they are at Parliament, they have immunity, which means no [security forces] … can arrest you,” Mr Baka said.

He added: “They have to go through the Speaker before they arrest you; in fact, I will make sure I attend the Budget reading because at home, they arrest you like a chicken thief.”

High on the wanted list, according to sources close to the investigations, are present and past members of Parliament’s Budget Committee, senior parliamentary staff, accounting officers in ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) and top technocrats at Finance ministry.

The mood at Parliament has been sombre since Monday when detectives took into custody three legislators – sent on remand by the Anti-Corruption Court yesterday - for two nights at Kira Division Police.

MPs Cissy Namujju (Lwengo District Woman), Yusuf Mutembuli (Bunyole East) and Paul Akamba (Busiki South) were indicted for “corruption” and taken to Luzira prison following a failed bail bid.

They all subscribe to the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party and two are former members of the powerful House Budget Committee which, among others, undertakes preliminary scrutiny of the national revenue and expenditure estimates before a final appropriation by Parliament.

This is a constitutional mandate, but both President Museveni and Finance Ministry Permanent Secretary Ramadhan Ggoobi have questioned the manner in which legislators exercise this discretion.

This publication in a June 2022 exposé reported that members of the Budget Committee had flooded their individual constituencies and that of House leadership with health and educational services by withdrawing the projects from other areas and converting them to their own.

PS Ggoobi in an address to Ugandan diplomats accredited to East African partner states on Tuesday restated that parliamentarians have been tampering with allocations and upending priorities of the Executive, which owns and is duty-bound to execute the Budget.

President Museveni last week called it transactional budgeting where a syndicate between Parliament, Finance and accounting officers inflate the Budget for kickbacks and then promised action on the “dishonest” individuals whom he a day later ordered police to catch.

The first to be taken into custody were MPs Namujju, Mutembuli and Akamba.

Prosecution yesterday told presiding Chief Magistrate Joan Aciro of the Anti-Corruption Court in Kampala that the trio offered to lobby Parliament’s Budget Committee to increase the annual budget of Uganda Human Rights Commission on condition that 20 percent of the increment was passed back to them.

They denied the charge, but were remanded to Luzira prison, sparking panic among colleagues on what awaits them.

Parliament is on recess, meaning it is not teeming with many elected members, but MPs who appeared there this week could be spotted clustered in smaller groups for hush-hush discussions.

It was a similar pattern with parliamentary staff, with the main question for both the political and technical leadership of the Legislature being who is next to be arrested. 

Officials said the talk was not on if, but rather when, more people would be incarcerated after police announced it was widening the net to catch more suspects at the House, Finance ministry and other government agencies.

Things are not helped that the arrests come in the wake of exposés on social media by activities – among them Agora Dialogue’s Agather Atuhaire and academic-cum-cartoonist Jimmy Ssentongo, alias Spire –  of questionable pending of tax payers’ money.

The exhibition showed billions of shillings budgeted for Parliament work were passed through personal bank accounts of aides of Speaker Anita Among and withdrawn in her name by the account holders.

Whereas Ms Among muffled the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament Joel Ssenyonyi and Lwemiyaga MP Theodore Ssekikubo’s proposal that the House discuss the allegations, President Museveni in his State-of-the-Nation-Address last week dropped the bombshell of a wider syndicated corruption involving lawmakers who should be standard bearers on integrity and accountability watchdogs.

“I had been hearing stories that there is a racket from…(the) Ministry of Finance, they are bringing accounting officers of ministries to come to Parliament working with some people, to provide certain funds, provided they (officials) take a share. I did not believe it at first, but now I have proof,” he said exactly a week ago, today.

The head of state’s revelation, and his subsequent orders informing the arrests, have put bureaucrats across government on tenterhooks, officials said yesterday.

Finance Minister Matia Kasaija is today expected to unveil to the nation the 2024/2025 Financial Year Budget, which jumped by Shs20 trillion to Shs72 trillion through last-minute corrigendum that some legislators questioned.

Most of 25 lawmakers this publication sounded yesterday said they would attend the Budget reading, with two of them elected on Independent ticket, saying they would snub in protest over neglect of concerns they raised in their Minority Report on the Budget.

Otuke East MP Julius Acon said he will attend the Budget reading because he is a “clean” man.

“But those who are misusing taxpayers’ money should be arrested on arrival [at Kololo Ceremonial Grounds. Tomorrow’s [today] Budget reading will reveal which MPs have been misusing taxpayers’ money,” Mr Acon said.

He added: “Those who attend will be seen as clean, and those who don’t attend should be held accountable by the voters, who should ask them why they didn’t attend.”

Like him, Vurra MP Yovan Adriko said he too is a “clean man”, and was on his way from Arua District to attend the Budget reading.

Former minister and Koboko County MP Baba James Boliba said the corruption claims are allegations which are still being investigated and lawmakers should not worry. 

“We should attend the Budget reading because if we don’t want to, we miss out on many things and in the end, it’s us to be answerable to our voters,” he said.

Pakwach District Woman MP Jane Pacutho said one cannot evade arrest if he/she is wanted by police. 

“You mean there are people who are afraid to attend the Budget day? If you are innocent, why do you fear?” she said.

Agago North’s Amos Okot said “anybody sensible enough can’t decide to run away from Kololo [because] he or she has been suspected for doing dubious things”.

A similar view was shared by Kashari North MP Basil Bataringaya.

“If they are looking for murderers, can you fear being arrested if you have not been involved in murder? Those who fear to attend may have reasons to fear, but for me, I will attend unless I fall sick tonight,” he said.

Kitgum District Woman MP Lillian Aber, named junior Disaster Preparedness and Refugees minister in March, declined to comment on arrest of her colleagues and simply said: “I will attend tomorrow’s Budget speech”.

Busiki North MP Yona Kayogera, whose counterpart in Busiki South is one of three legislators remanded on corruption claims, said he has indulged in no graft, and does not plan to, and nothing stands in his way of attending today’s Budget reading.

For Mbarara North lawmaker Robert Mwesigwa: “MPs … have a duty to attend the Budget reading and leave other issues to be sorted by the security”.

“Whether one is scared or not, the arm of government will look for them; so, we should all be there,” he said.

Gulu District Woman Representative Sharon Laker said “if police say they are going to continue with the arrests, they [already] have the suspects who should be arrested. I am 100 percent sure I am not among them.”

Her Amolatar counterpart, Ms Agnes Apea, described the ongoing inquiries into corruption claims in which some members of the House are implicated, as “unfortunate”.

Other NRM legislators who confirmed that they will attend today’s Budget reading are Jesca Ababiku (Adjuman District Woman), Susan Abeja (Otuke District Woman), Tonny Ayoo  (Kwania), Gerald Nangoli (Elgon North), Emely Kugonza (Buyanja East), Paska Aciro (Pader District Woman), Ignatius Wamakuyu (Elgon), John  Lematia (Ayivu West), and Philiphs Lokwang (Napore West).

Reported by Busein Samilu, Sylivia Katushabe, Karim Muyobo, Damali Mukhaye & Lydia Felly Akullu