Iron sheet saga: Is Museveni saving face?

The Uganda police on Monday March 13 announced that President Yoweri Museveni has directed an expeditious inquiry into allegations of theft of iron sheets and other relief items, that were meant for Karamoja region. According to the police, this pronouncement follows increased complaints from the intended beneficiaries and concerned citizens. 

The police state that the Director of Public Prosecution has directed CID working jointly with State House Anti-Corruption Unit to conduct a criminal investigation into the matter, expanding on the preliminary inquiries so far conducted and interact with all the concerned personalities.

When the saga first erupted in February, the Observer Media reported that the iron sheets were procured by the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) for distribution to the people in Karamoja sub-region under the affirmative action programme. It was reported that Cotilda Kitutu, Micheal Nabwaya, and Julius Wabule, the mother, brother, and nephew respectively, of minister of Karamoja Affairs Goretti Kitutu were caught selling the OPM-branded iron sheets to residents of Namisindwa district in Eastern Uganda.

Further media reports quote a Memo dated January 12, 2023, in which minister Kitutu orders that the stores’ department at the OPM release 12,200 iron sheets to her office. “During community mobilization and peace-building missions, I usually meet vulnerable groups and karuchunas (reformed warriors) who are willing to dissociate themselves from rustling. As part of my intervention, I will be distributing iron sheets to such special vulnerable groups,” the Observer quotes the minister to have written. A month later on February 13, 2023, another internal memo reportedly is written by the senior inventory officer at the OPM informing the permanent secretary that the iron sheets were sent to the “beneficiaries” following guidance and a list provided by minister Kitutu’s personal assistant. It is alleged that through a WhatsApp message, the minister’s personal assistant requests that the iron sheets be distributed and the exercise commenced between January 25, 2023 and February 8, 2023, when the release of the iron sheets is halted.

Keith Muhakanizi, the Permanent Secretary of the OPM later comes out to categorically state on record that no iron sheets had been sent to Namisindwa by his office, and pledges to launch an investigation into how iron sheets meant for relief in Karamoja, ended up hundreds of miles away in Namisindwa; on sale. 

Names of Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja, Vice President Jessica Alupo, and Speaker of Parliament Anita Among, among others, were later mentioned in the scandal as having been part of the group that misappropriated relief iron sheets. This, according to the Observer was a ploy by the minister Kitutu’s apologists to deflect attention from herself her bosses, by insinuating Kitutu was not the only beneficiary. The ploy seems to have backfired when Nabbanja issues a statement on February 17, 2023, explaining that the iron sheets that were given to other areas of Uganda, including those she received, were procured by respective ministries for specific responses, including disasters. 

Nabbanja emphasized that OPM is home to several affirmative action ministries like Karamoja Affairs, Bunyoro Affairs, Teso Affairs, Northern Uganda Rehabilitation, Luweero-Rwenzori, Disaster Preparedness, and Refugees. The Prime Minister explained that the ministries procure various items, including iron sheets, for specific interventions to address gaps in livelihood and infrastructure in their respective portfolios; these items are kept in the same store.

Speaker Anita Among confirmed receiving 500 Iron sheets from the Ministry of Relief and Disaster Preparedness meant for Bukedea District, her constituency. Of these, 200 iron sheets went to Kajamaka primary school in Kidongole sub-county, 150 to Kadacar primary school in Kangole sub-county, and 150 to Kalou primary school. 

State Minister for Planning Amos Lugoloobi, was not so fortunate. He last week unroofed a goat shed on his personal farm after it was reported that he had used relief iron sheets on the shed. The minister reportedly called the iron sheets evil and stated that he could afford more iron sheets and did not need those allocated to him by the OPM. The Ntenjeru North MP had reportedly received up to 600 iron sheets said to be part of relief material under the OPM for vulnerable populations in Karamoja, Teso, Northern Uganda, Luweero Triangle, Bunyoro sub-regions. His farm is located in Kayunga, not anywhere close to the intended areas. Mr Lugoloobi has already recorded a statement with the State House Anti-Corruption Unit. 

Asked whether the presidential directive to police will yield any results and find the ministers culpable under the law, lawyer and political commentator, Allan Sserulika outlines the likely areas that police will be looking into; “The crimes they are investigating are usually Abuse of office, conspiracy to defraud, diversion of public resources, which are all in the anti- corruption Act and they are visible from the facts available so far in as far as the iron sheets scandal goes.”

Sserulika explains that the President is letting every individual involved to fight their own battles; “However President Museveni’s directive is a deliberate effort to divert the crisis from an Executive (Cabinet) level to a personal level, because criminal law is personal. He is simply saying let everyone deal with it personally with police,” the lawyer explains. 

He expresses doubt that the President will reign tough on his own Cabinet members. “Politically a crisis like that calls for the resignation of whoever is involved if not they be censured. However the censure of [Persis] Namuganza [State minister for Lands] demonstrates that censures in this Parliament, unless backed by YKM [President Museveni], are a waste of resources and time. On the other hand if the police investigation is to find any wrong doers, it might find them at the OPM, and that would help the rest of the Cabinet to escape,” Sserulika states in a phone chat with www.theoutlookafrica.com.  

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