Time check is 8am on a Wednesday. Elderly people queue at Ministry of Public Service headquarters in Kampala. They are conversing in low tones and in different languages after beating the sweet early morning sleep to be at the ministry on time.
With dusty shoes and creased clothes, some of the elderly statesmen and women are visibly weary for they have been through the process again and again with little progress.
Sitting nearer to the inquiries desk, none of the pensioners is smiling for it is problems that have seen them lining up at the office. I move closer to one Peter Iku Dolo, holding the biggest file. He seems more composed than most of his peers. Two to three words to the man at the inquiry desk and he is sent to the Pension registry office.
Thrown in towel
Unlike most of those who turned up, Mr Iku has come to represent three members of the Moyo Pension Association which he chairs. They had individually, tried to follow up their benefits but gave up. “It is not easy to have a problem solved. Most of the people here [Ministry] are inconsiderate. I am trying to help three of my members have their pension and gratuity,” Mr Iku says.
His association has many suffering pensioners but due to limited funds and time to the chase, Mr Iku is only handling three cases. One of the cases, he says, is about Anthony Anjiri, who had been tossed up and down for three years.
Mr Anjiri was an academic registrar and although his name is on the payroll as receiving a monthly payment pension of Shs695,000, he has never received a shilling. He has put all his hopes on Mr Iku to do the chasing. Mr Anjiri has also written to the Permanent Secretary over his plight.
“I regret to painfully inform you that although my name is on your teaching services monthly pension payment schedule as E/2691087221 receiving Shs695, 987, I do not get any cash. This means that the real cash goes elsewhere,” reads part of the October 22, 2012 letter.
Mr Iku says Mr Anjiri is not the only one in despair in Moyo District. “When we asked for the full list of pensioners on the payroll in Moyo District, we realised that so many people were suffering from similar issues,” Mr Iku says.
Another case is about Mr Dominic Ottugo Drabua, who worked as an agricultural mechanic in the Ministry of Agriculture. Apparently, Mr Drabua was receiving his monthly pension payment of Shs118,647 until 2009 when his name was allegedly deleted from the payroll.“He has received promises from all sides [officials] until he eventually gave up. But what is most saddening is that the payroll indicates that he is still receiving the money,” Mr Iku said.
Mr Iku is among the lucky few receiving their entitlement, however, he is egalitarian. “I may be getting my pension but so many old people are suffering in the villages,” he said.
Mr Iku narrates a story of one Daniel Drapin, a retired assistant agricultural officer in the Ministry of Agriculture. According to the payroll, he is alleged to have been paid his gratuity of Shs37 million in July but the money has never reached his account to date. According to Mr Iku, it is unbelievable that human beings can be so heartless. But he has preferred to give benefit of doubt and believe that it is a system error that will be sorted. “I do not want to think anyone stole the money. The members I am representing lost all hope because of such thoughts. I know systems have problems,” the retired civil servant says.
He adds: “Yes, the officials may delay to help and sometimes ignore us but I know people will get their money.” Having been used to a monthly salary, retirement is now dreaded because of the uncertainty of its benefits.
A pension payment amounts to three quarters of a working civil servant’s salary as per the new system that was introduced in 2008. Good as it sounds, no one is sure when or whether they will get the money yet the majority of pensioners are of advanced age.
They are faced with challenges of sustaining larger families coupled with children still studying. In addition, some pensioners have to contend with grandchildren dumped in the villages because their parents were unable to sustain them in towns due to either unemployment or meager pay.
“The older you become, the sicker you get. You need to feed well, rest and have all comforts but how will you have the comfort when you cannot even get the little money you are entitled to?” Mr Iku asks.
Mr Iku, the former Moyo District Chairperson, says “the system should be able to assist people get their money. There should be some incentives for the officer working on pension and gratuity in the Ministry of Public Service to rule out temptations of pocketing people money.”
Having founded the Moyo District Pensioners Association in 1994, it later became part of the Uganda Government Pensioners Cooperation Society in 1997. This painful narrative from Mr Iku becomes unpleasant given the revelations that more than Shs169 billion was paid out to nonexistent beneficiaries now christened ghosts by officials from the Public Service ministry.
Police are investigating the officials for possible connivance with officials in Cairo International Bank, Bank of Uganda, Ministry of Finance and East Africa Beneficiary Association to gift ghosts with billions of taxpayers’ money. According to the Ministry of Public Service system, government remits Shs14 billion pension money to more than 63,000 pensioners on a monthly basis.
The Shs169 billion that was paid to ghost pensioners would have at least benefitted all pensioners for a year. And if all pensioners were being paid an average of Shs600,000 each monthly, the money lost to ghosts would have financed 281,667 pensioners for one month.
Battle to restore sanity in payroll
The Ministry of Finance and Public Service are carrying out a cleanup of the payroll exercise that is meant to eliminate ghost pensioners that have over the years inflicted the payroll.
Three officials of the Ministry of Public Service have so far been interdicted in connection with the alleged fraud.
Mr Jimmy Lwamafa, the permanent secretary, Mr Christopher Obey, the principal accountant Pension, Mr Richard Lubega, the head of IT and Mr Kiwanuka Kunsa are among those interdicted.
Daily Monitor, ran a story that exposed the scam in the pension sector that saw more than 17 officials from the Ministry of Finance, Cairo International Bank, Ministry of Finance and the East Africa Benficiary Association preferred on charges ranging from fraud, conspiracy to defraud, forgery and causing a financial loss.
An internal audit report that barely saw the public eye queried the Public Service ministry for the misuse of Shs63b paid to 969 ghost pensioners as well as Shs263.4 million that was disbursed by Bank of Uganda to ex-gratia officials. According to the documents this newspaper has seen, the list of ex-gratia (former military) officials got from the ministry consists of 171 names.
Most of the names appear more than once, having similar accounts numbers, but varying pension numbers.
The report also indicates that apart from the Shs63b and Shs263m, the Ministry of Public Service misappropriated Shs119.5m which was granted to among others, officials whose NS 7 forms indicate that they are still in service and have never been in the Ministry to which they allegedly retired from and the signatures on their retirement letters were forged.
Among the ‘pensioners’ who are still in service are Mr Micheal Opio, who has allegedly been working in the Office of the Prime Minister and Ms Racheal Ngonzebwa. However, until police instituted investigations, the Ministry of Public service had not yet acted on the internal audit report which contained recommendations as well.
The three internal auditors who were under the guidance of the internal Audit Commissioner, Mr Fixon Akonye Okonye recommended that the Mr Lwamafa should have the accounts reviewed and the beneficiaries of the Ex-Gratia money made to refund it.
As of the Shs63b paid to ghost pensioners, the report recommended that thorough investigations be carried to establish officials that led to the loss and the accounting officer (Mr Lwamafa) to make sure the money is recovered from the officials.