As the curtains close down on the first calendar year of the 10th Parliament, a marking guide on the formative stages of the House would give good grades to the Committee on Commissions, Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises (Cosase) over its crackdown on thieving agencies.
As one of the four accountability committees of the House, and bearing in mind the biting scourge of corruption that has sent Uganda to the brink, Cosase began the 10th Parliament with a full plate of exhaustive audits into several government agencies where technocrats have mastered the art of stealing taxpayers’ money.
Cosase has spent the better part of its first session dealing with the corruption at Uganda National Roads Authority (Unra), the body charged with turning around the roads sector in the country, and in return awarded an enviable war chest running into trillions to pull this off.
But as MPs have been discovering, multi-billion shillings contracts were signed with ghost companies, budgets running into billions irregularly spent while billions were casually given out to Chinese companies, some without contracts.
An interim committee report expected to be tabled before Parliament breaks off for the Christmas recess will shed more light on the mess in the roads sector and Unra in particular.
For years, Unra was one of those semi-autonomous government agencies known to be a bottomless pit, pegged back by continuous internal-fights and playing host to technocrats skilled at dodging the arm of the law to run off with agency money.
But save for the off-record talk, little of the fraud then was as well-documented as the irregular dealings going on at Unra currently.
Then came the Justice Catherine Bamugemereire report that warned that Shs4 trillion could have been stolen by scams ranging from collusion between Unra staff and contractors, flaws in the procurement system to high construction costs.
That report offered cue that MPs on Cosase quietly followed to expose more danger at Unra.
From paying Shs21.9 billion to a Chinese company – China Railway No 3 Engineering Group Uganda Limited – that did not have a contract to construct a road, to inflating the cost of the 51km Entebbe Expressway by $16m (about Shs55 billion), MPs have discovered that every passing day seems to throw the roads authority into a new cycle of scandal.
And the story of Unra, as MPs have learnt, is the case of the failing to learn from past mistakes.
Just as the taxpayers were conned of Shs18 billion in transactions with a dodgy firm operating under the names of Eutaw in 2014,Unra similarly paid the Shs21.9 billion to what officials are calling the Uganda ‘affiliate’ of the Chinese company. Unra is now scampering to recover the money.
But just as Unra is yet to recover the Shs18 billion that was paid to a representative of Eutaw for the construction of Mukono-Katosi Road, it will be an uphill task to recover the money [Shs21.9 billion] from the Chinese company.
And more worrying is that Ms Allen Kagina, the Unra executive director, who arrived in 2015 amid a surge of optimism that she would restore sanity at the tainted body, was named as one of five Unra officials who approved the payment of Shs21.9 billion to a dubious Chinese company.
For the committee’s inquiries into Unra to even earn the plaudits of President Museveni, a known critic of Parliament work, indicates how biting the probe has been.
Parliament defers debate
But when two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers. In this case, as the ‘elephants’ at Unra are pocketing, Ugandans who are supposed to benefit from the roads are now paying the price for the mess in the roads sector.
This week, Parliament deferred debate on a $91.0 million proposal to borrow from the African Development Bank and another $60.0 million from the African Development Fund to support the multinational Uganda/Rwanda Busega-Mpigi and Kagitumba- Kayonza-Rusamo roads project.
Another proposal to borrow $11.5 million from the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa and $11.5 million from the OPEC Fund for International Development to finance the upgrading of the Luweero-Butalangu Road Project was also deferred.
Bugweri County MP Abdu Katuntu, who chairs the Committee that has been investigating Unra, tabled correspondences between Works minister Monica Ntege Azuba and Unra executive director Allen Kagina detailing a disagreement over a $229m contract for Kibuye-Busega road.
Katuntu summarised what is going on in the roads sector with one word – rot.
In the correspondences, Ms Azuba was directing that an addendum be added to the contract for the Entebbe Express Highway to include the construction of the Kibuye-Busega Road, a directive Unra rejected insisting it would offend procurement laws.
The correspondences brought in new context to the troubles at Unra; an external hand in the award of contracts.
“Plot 1 Uganda is being pleaded in every procurement deal. Contractors saying we agreed with the President [on contracts].That they agreed with the President, “Mr Katuntu said.
After a rancorous debate that forced the government to eat humble pie and accept that debate on the proposal to file loan requests for roads be put on hold, technocrats at Unra will wait with bated breath when Parliament convenes to discuss the Unra report.
Bugweri MP Abdu Katuntu: “There is a lot of rot in the roads sector. The roads sector takes more than Shs1 trillion of our Budget. Even the money that we have so far recovered [which] is about Shs46 billion, it is not the only money that had been mismanaged. This particular road [Kibuye-Busega] that the ED [Kagina] is talking about will cost Shs25m per Km. what is it that we are constructing?”
Kira Municipality MP Ssemujju Nganda: “This Parliament cannot keep quite as people steal billions of shillings. Just imagine a rock costing Shs39 billion. Let the loan requests wait for a report into this [Unra and roads] sector before we approve them.”
Credit: All Africa