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Uganda: Probe Into AIDS Fund Spending

Apparent misuse of millions of dollars intended to fight AIDS and other diseases is attracting international attention.
By Charles Odongtho
Luxury vehicles, charted airplanes, lavish workshops and foreign trips are among the expenditures uncovered by Ugandan probe into scores of millions of US dollars intended to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

The quasi-judicial independent commission investigating the money recently enlisted the help of British police, according to sources close to the investigation.

The British Serious Fraud Office reportedly will work with investigators from the Ugandan Criminal Investigations Department, and their evidence will be handed to prosecutors.

The move is the latest twist of a nearly five-month investigation into the spending of 201 million dollars that was given to the Ugandan government by the Geneva-based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis.

The probe was launched last year after grants were suspended and the management taken away from a specially created agency of the health ministry.

Among the alleged abuses uncovered include a lack of accurate accounting procedures, spending for unrelated or unnecessary activities, money exchanged at below-market rates, hiring of unqualified workers, and distribution of funds to unqualified agencies and organisations.

Commission secretary Andrew Kasirye said the commission is nearly finished with its wide-ranging probe and will deliver the findings to President Yoweri Museveni. More than 115 witnesses have been interviewed.

The fund money was given to Uganda in a series of grants over the past two years, the first delivered in March 2003 and the last in April 2005.

According to testimony, from 52 to nearly 96 per cent of each grant was intended for the purchase of disease fighting drugs, mosquito nets, bug sprays and chemicals.

It is unclear, however, how all the money was spent. The money was given to an agency called the Project Management Unit set up in the Uganda Ministry of Health.

So far, two men with the health ministry have been arrested, but were later released.

One of the men revealed that he approved the equivalent of 20,000 dollars for high-ranking officials to conduct fund projects in their home areas during last year’s Christmas season.

In another case, expenses allegedly were paid to fuel a road grader to transport officials to monitor fund projects in southern districts. The man claimed he bought 500 litres of petrol for the vehicle, which according to documents uses diesel fuel. He also claimed to have spent a total of more than 60,000 dollars to transport project monitors.

A health ministry official said she obtained 10,000 dollars to complete doctoral studies at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. The woman said she spent one month there to finish research on an anti-malarial drug.

She was also grilled about 15,000 dollars paid to participants in two workshops who received nearly 200 dollars per day for expenses, figures which vastly exceed normal hotel and meal expenses in Uganda.

The woman’s testimony followed that of the Project Management Unit’s financial controller, Moses Opondo, who claimed that the lack of controls was due to the climate of abuse that was created by ministry officials.

“The intended controls were limited because of the way the project was designed,” he testified.

Opondo said he was blocked from finding banks that offered better exchange rates for the millions of dollars that were being converted into Ugandan shillings that were later disbursed for payments.

Opondo said he was told to accept the rate offered by the dfcu bank, which was consistently below market rates and cost the fund an estimated 285,000 dollars.

He said he did not challenge his bosses because he feared for his life, and also claimed the ministry charted private planes to take top officials around the country at the rate of about 4,000 dollars per day. He alleged that he was forced to hire a cabinet minister’s son though the man lacked basic qualifications for the job.

The fund auditors, Price Waterhouse Coopers, found that the recruitment procedures used by the Project Management Unit were riddled with inconsistencies and errors. Opondo claimed that many of these errors were due to external pressure.

In other testimony, the commission heard that one high-ranking health ministry official “borrowed” the equivalent of 16,000 dollars without explaining what the money would be used for.

The commission inquiry is expected to peak in the next few days with the testimony of three cabinet ministers who were involved with the distribution of funds: Health Minister Jim Muhwezi; State Minister for Health Mike Mukula and Primary Health Care Minister Dr Alex Kamugisha.

Muhwezi is expected to explain why he drives vehicles belonging to the fund project and yet was never part of the fund’s management structure, as well as his role in the recruitment of project directors.

Mukula and Kamugisha have been asked to account for nearly 20,000 dollars they received from the fund that was budgeted for the supervision of programmes over which they had no control.

Commission chairman Judge James Ogoola said the uncontrolled spending of money by officials in the ministry of health meant that intended fund beneficiaries went without.

“This was wrong,” said Ogoola to the financial controller, Opondo. “I hope you agree with me.”

Charles Odongtho is a reporter with Uganda Radio Network in Kampala. Rosbell Kagumire, also of URN, contributed to this report.