What you need to know:
- Investigators and Cabinet sources said the arrests, which mirror a similar crackdown over procurement-related corruption during Uganda’s hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) in 2007, has spread fear and panic among ministers.
Ministers are increasingly skipping Parliament sessions and sirens on their lead cars have gone silent in the wake of inquiries into and arrests over alleged theft of iron sheets, our survey shows.
State House detectives in February uncovered a scheme they said involved ministers and other notables illegally sharing metal sheets procured for reformed youthful warriors and the poor in Karamoja.
Three of the 22 ministers implicated in the mischief – Goretti Kitutu (Karamoja Affairs), her junior Agness Nandutu and her Planning counterpart Amos Lugoloobi – have been charged in court on various counts.
The indictments have ranged from conspiracy to commit felony, causing loss of government property to dealing in suspect property.
Each of the accused has separately spent nights in incarceration at Luzira Prisons, where Ms Nandutu remains until at least May 3 when her bail application comes up for hearing.
Investigators and Cabinet sources said the arrests, which mirror a similar crackdown over procurement-related corruption during Uganda’s hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) in 2007, has spread fear and panic among ministers.
One of the ministers had reportedly hidden at the residence of a senior colleague before eventually turning themselves over to detectives for questioning, which ended in their detention.
Evidence of the mounting pressure has manifested in a rush by recipients returning the iron sheets to the stores of the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), home of Karamoja Affairs ministry in the eye of the storm.
A junior minister turned up at the headquarters of Police’s Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) in Kibuli, a Kampala suburb, last Thursday to tell investigators that they were ready to cooperate and should not be disgraced with an arrest.
Sources close to the investigations who asked not to be named because they were not authorised to speak on the matter, said the arrests aim to tame impunity, act as deterrence and restore political discipline.
One source noted that indicting ministers will likely make them more careful while taking decisions, dealing with government resources and refine the way they conduct themselves in public affairs.
Many already are being more absent than present in public, which points to dilemmas officials adversely named in the iron sheet saga face.
On April 5, Deputy Speaker of Parliament Thomas Tayebwa blew hot and threatened to refer absconding executives to House Committee on Rules after the Government Chief Whip Hamson Obua, whose portfolio is Cabinet-level, and junior Health minister Margaret Muhanga were the only ministers present for the day’s plenary.
“The Speaker does not come in to [the chambers of Parliament to] wait for the members, especially to you, the Government Chief Whip…the ministers,” he said, “Honourable Government Chief Whip, please, register my displeasure, which I believe is the displeasure of this House; that bad manners have resumed whereby ministers are not taking this House seriously and yet they are also members of Parliament.”
As a result, questions on matters of national importance raised by legislators remain unanswered and presentation of ministerial policy statements have delayed, impinging on the pace of budget consideration.
But where are the ministers? They are around and not in hiding, especially those being investigated by police, State National Guidance minister Godfrey Kabbyanga said.
Following reports that many were skipping Cabinet sittings at State House Entebbe, we, on April 17, deployed our journalists at Nkumba traffic light junction, a short distance from where traffic on the expressway and old Entebbe airport merge, to count the number of official ministerial cars headed to Entebbe.
Vehicles assigned to ministers are easily identifiable on the road because they are affixed with “CM” or “MS” signs, representing “Cabinet Minister” or “Minister of State” respectively.
Cabinet meetings are held on Mondays and President Museveni, in his absence the vice president, chair the meetings unless delegated otherwise.
Monday, April 17, was a drenched and dreary morning. By 10.30am, our journalists had counted 40 vehicles carrying ministers towards Entebbe town where State House, and past it the international airport, are located.
Uganda has 82 ministers – 32 of them Cabinet ministers and 50 state ministers – suggesting half of them headed the side of Entebbe that morning.
These included the vice president, the prime minister, the First and Second deputy prime ministers, the Works minister and his Justice and Constitutional Affairs, as well as Information counterparts Norbert Mao and Dr Chris Baryomunsi, respectively.
A number of ministers wanted by police on allegations of diverting iron sheets either for personal use or donations to constituents did not attend, according to multiple sources, although Cabinet never discussed the matter.
A source familiar with the meetings said President Museveni has addressed the scandal in Cabinet only once, roughly a month ago, and has said nothing on ongoing arrests and arraignment in court of implicated ministers.
“Ministers attended [the April 17 sitting], but there [were] those who gave apologies [that they] had different commitments. There is nothing like the mabaati issue (iron sheet saga) given as an excuse for them not to attend,” state minister Kabbyanga told this newspaper.
On that day, the political executives, among others, reviewed the proposed Tax Amendment Bill and discussed the principle for amendment of the national drug laws, as well as energy conservation and policy.
The sitting ended comparably early and the mood was not tense in the words of one minister because “those who were involved (in mabaati-gate) knew what was coming” for them after President Museveni had asked police to investigate them.
One pattern observed with ministers on Monday, April 17, was that their convoys raced without sirens, a departure from previous practice where the lead cars would shove other motorists off the streets and on occasion drive the wrong way in clearing the way for the principal.
This, it turns out, is something the public has noted. As part of information crowd-sourcing, we, on April 20, at 9:14am, asked out twitter followers the question:
“Might you know or neighbour a minister? If safe to do so, share noticeable change(s) in routine of the minister since the start of arrests of their colleagues over the iron sheet saga”.
By 9:09am yesterday, the question had been retweeted 28 times, bookmarked once, liked 259 times and quoted nine times. It is the responses which were as revealing as entertaining.
“They now move with their passports and luggage — just in case,” tweeter Jayms K claimed on the handle @jaymskiya, without providing evidence.
Tinga Tundra tweeted that “Casia Lodge road [in Kampala’s Buziga outskirt] … two of them (ministers) no longer come back home…”
Gideon Anika Ppepe quipped: “hahaha the convoy is on leave … we no longer hear the siren in the morning and in the evening as it used to be.”
A one Julius Samson, using the handle @julius_samwan, considered our question “too much encroaching in a private life of someone”.
“They”, he wrote of the ministers, “are answerable to the public for office misuse, but this is a little beyond the line.”
“The land cruisers (ministers’ official cars) are parked,” noted Bart Baba, “They now drive [private vehicles].”
According to Fred Kisembo, “apprehension is now at its [highest]. They (ministers) are so calm at the moment”.
The sirens have gone silent, noted Prossy Akello, tweeting as @akprossy.
Musah Tamale concurred: “No more sirens in town”. Another tweep, who goes by the pseudonym kdouG, noted “reduced sirens on the roads”.
Our journalists observed siren blaring on mainly ambulances and law enforcement agencies and security cars. By law, only a handful vehicles have a right of way, among them, the President’s convoy, ambulances and police/army responding to emergencies.
The reported reduced siren noise and discipline of ministers on the roads come at a time police are awaiting directions from the public prosecutor on whether to arrest the ministers and other notable politicians implicated in the iron sheet saga.
The scandal took a dramatic turn after President Museveni, who had previously ordered police and the Directorate of Public Prosecution (DPP) to join State House detectives to conduct criminal investigations, in an April 13 letter dubbed “ministers who benefitted from the Karamoja iron sheets thieves and subversive.”
The water-distressed northeastern sub-region has convulsed with perennial famine, but rising gun violence and cattle rustling, as well as random ambushes and killings – exacerbated by the warriors invading neighbouring districts – have added to the suffering and security nightmare there.
Following a briefing about the precarious situation, President Museveni, who is the commander-in-chief, endorsed a Shs39b supplementary budget prepared by OPM to stock food, goats and iron sheets as sweeteners to get the gun holders home.
Among the relief items bought with the emergency financing were 100,000 metal sheets and Mr Museveni launched their distribution to beneficiaries at a June 2022 function in Moroto District, during which 1,000 pieces were handed out.
That was the last the Karimojong saw of the iron sheets and investigators reported that on the strength of an October 2022 and February 2023 memos authored by Karamoja Affairs minister Kitutu, up to 14,500 pieces of iron sheets were released from the OPM stores in Namanve, Mukono District, which the political elite shared in an allocation done on WhatsApp.