UWA fires five staff over gorilla permits scandal

A tour guide tends to a gorilla in Virunga National Park. Photo/Virunga National Park

What you need to know:

  • Officials from the Office of the Auditor General are currently stationed at the authority to carry out a forensic audit whose report will be handed over to Tourism, Wildlife, and Antiquities Minister Tom Butime for further action.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has dismissed four staff members and terminated the contract of another over the gorilla permits fraud that rocked the Authority last year.
Daily Monitor first unearthed the fraud after a tip-off from an inside source that later drew the attention of both the police and the Office of the Auditor General who then launched parallel investigations and a forensic audit into the matter.

At the CID headquarters in Kibuli, the police are also combing records to piece together evidence, which the officials say will be handed over to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) for sanctioning.
Mr Sam Mwandha, the UWA Executive Director, yesterday confirmed the dismissals. He said the firing followed a thorough internal investigation by the disciplinary committee of the authority.

“We have concluded seven cases with four staff being dismissed, one terminated and two exonerated,” he said. 
Although Mwandha did not cite any names, our sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said those affected include a senior accountant, an IT personnel, a reservation staff, and another.
Mr Mwandha said the disciplinary panel is also investigating seven others whose fate will be determined in the next one or two weeks.

“We are currently having the disciplinary committee handle another seven staff members. We expect that in the next one to two weeks, they will conclude because they’ve already done the disciplinary hearing and are organising to sit and determine the evidence they were given and make a verdict on whether they are guilty or not,” he said.

Officials from the Office of the Auditor General are currently stationed at the Authority to carry out a forensic audit whose report will be handed over to Tourism, Wildlife, and Antiquities Minister Tom Butime for further action.

Mr Mwandha yesterday said the entity has engaged in a three-pronged approach to investigate the fraud by involving UWA for internal disciplinary proceedings, the police, and the DPP for any eventual prosecution.

“What I can let you know is that they’ve gathered adequate information from us, and many of us have made statements at CID, and we are waiting for their final report that I hope will end in the prosecution of those who participated in the fraud,” he said.

The forensic audit delay
Mr Butime on October 5, 2023, told a press conference in Kampala that he had given the Auditor General and his team 30 days to produce a forensic audit report on the suspected fraud in the issuance of gorilla permits.
The audit report was to be handed over to the minister by November 5, 2023, but this has not been done.
Mr Butime admitted that the audit had taken longer than he expected but promised to make it public and invoke punitive action against those who will be found culpable.

Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) Director of Finance Jimmy Mugisa (left) and Executive Director Sam Mwandha appear before the Committee on Commissions, Statutory Authorities and State Enterprise (Cosase) at Parliament on February 19, 2024. PHOTO/DAVID LUBOWA

The scandal
The gorilla permit scandal rocked the Uganda Wildlife Authority mid-last year after staff posted to the Bwindi Conservation Area unearthed the rot and alerted the head office.
While inside sources said the scandal could have cost UWA in excess of Shs60 billion, Mr Mwandha yesterday said the fraud only cost the authority Shs500 million.
Asked about the wide variation in the figures, Mr Mwandha said, “I don’t know where you got the billion figure. In our records, it is Shs500 million that is lost,” he said. 
UWA is one of few government entities that are allowed to spend their revenue at source and it is this arrangement that its senior staff have abused. But our source said the staff at the IT department connived with those from reservation and finance and would print gorilla permits whose funds were not remitted to the authority’s account.
“These officers created a system to divert the money for tracking gorillas to their personal accounts,” a source said.

Ordinarily, when one books a gorilla permit, one would be asked to pay the money at the bank and bring the payslip to the accounts department to be verified. Once confirmed, one is then issued a receipt and directed to the reservations to get the gorilla permit. On reaching the park, one presents the permit and the accountants at the park cross-check to confirm if the permit matches the identity of the person and records in the system.
But our sources said the team had people at the parks with whom they shared the sums and bypassed the system and took the tourists to track the gorillas.

New booking system in place
UWA has since introduced a new system called the booking and revenue collection that the authority is now using. Mr Mwandha said the system was introduced after the massive fraud that saw at least 14 staff suspended last year.

He said the new system is directly integrated with the financial system so that when one books a permit; one gets an invoice from the financial system.
“When one pays, the money is reflected in the financial system and we use that to track the booking and the money because it has some security features that can be scanned at the gates to confirm whether it is valid or not,” he said.

But Mr Mwandha said because the system is still under development, UWA has not yet enabled the functionality for the tour operators but intends to roll it out to them before June this year.