By Nasser Kasozi Akandwanaho
The Director of Public Prosecutions has written to the Anti -Corruption Court in Kololo informing them of a decision to drop charges against four Office of the Prime Minister officials accused of taking part in the Covid-19 relief food scandal.
Officials in the OPM including former Permanent Secretary, Christine Guwatudde Kintu, Accountant Joel Wanjala, Assistant Commissioner for Procurement Fred Lutimba, and Commissioner for Disaster Management Martin Owor were accused of false accounting during the purchase of relief food including posho and beans.
They are have been battling charges before the Anti- Corruption Court after being arrested by the State House Anti-Corruption Unit headed by Col Edith Nakalema.
However, according to a Nolle Prosequi by the DPP Jane Frances Abodo, the government intends to drop charges against the four officials.
“Take notice that the government of Uganda intends that the proceedings against the four officials shall not continue,” Abodo said in the document presented before the court on Friday.
The development means the charges against the four OPM officials have been dropped by the DPP.
The group was accused of doing acts prejudicial to their employer when they prepared and issued false entries between March 31 and April 8, 2020, in award letters to several companies to supply Covid-19 relief items such as maize and milk worth more than Shs32 billion in total disregard of the procurement procedures.
They were also being accused of using their offices to defraud the government after making false entries of the award letters to the companies to supply relief items purporting that the money had been allocated by the OPM contracts committee which was false.
Former Prime Minister, Dr.Ruhakana Rugunda last year wrote to President Museveni asking him to forgive the interdicted OPM officials named in the Covid-19 relief food scandal, it has emerged.
During the first lockdown, four OPM officials including the then Permanent Secretary , Christine Guwatudde Kintu, Accountant Joel Wanjala, Assistant Commissioner for Procurement Fred Lutimba and Commissioner for Disaster Management Martin Owor were accused of false accounting during the purchase of relief food including posho and beans.
They were subsequently arraigned in court and charged with causing financial loss to government.
However, in an October, 5, 2020 letter to President Museveni, Rugunda pleaded that the four officials be pardoned saying there was no wrongdoing in their activities.
“Your excellency, the time frame within which these officers had to implement our directive which was procurement in nature normally with strict guidelines and regulations was very limited. Time constraints notwithstanding, food was delivered and the distribution program was launched on the stipulated date as directed,” Rugunda wrote in an October, 5, 2020 letter to President Museveni.
“The national task force on Covid required officers to be ready with food supplies in a period of only four days in order to commence with relief food distribution programME on April,4, 2020 as directed by your excellency in your letter dated March, 04, 2020. The PS and accounting officer followed this guidance to directly place orders with suppliers to meet the tight deadline,” Rugunda said in the letter.
“During this process, I together with the national task force were kept informed of the plans and preparations by the PS and her team.”
According to Rugunda, whereas the national Covid-19 task force required that the food had to be packaged in smaller quantities to be distributed out to the vulnerable Ugandans, this could only be done by a few people to ensure social distancing to avoid the spread of the virus.
In Rugunda’s view, Guwatudde and her team delivered the job in a short time to enable government launch the distribution exercise.
“Your excellency, the time frame within which these officers had to implement our directive which was procurement in nature normally with strict guidelines and regulations was very limited. Time constraints notwithstanding, food was delivered and the distribution program was launched on the stipulated date as directed,” Rugunda wrote.
He said in the letter to Museveni, the move built confidence and trust in government from the public.
Among the charges against the four OPM officials is inflating prices for the Covid-19 relief food items.
However, in defence of the team, Rugunda told the president that the increase in prices of the food items was caused by the hiking of prices by suppliers, adding that there was no wrongdoing on the side of the four OPM officials.
“I was informed that the lockdown triggered hasty price fluctuation of many essential commodities including maize and beans. At the same time, reputable suppliers like Mandela Millers had to be identified to ensure quality. Such suppliers with high-quality maize flour offered shs3000, thus the prices quoted were not out of the price range during that period,” Rugunda wrote.
The then prime minister told the president that a forensic audit done by the Auditor General in September 2020 cleared the officials of any wrongdoing after it confirmed there was no financial loss to the government.
In the letter, Rugunda insists that the procurement process was supposed to be done in an urgent manner since everything during the pandemic was being done in an abnormal way.
“I propose that their actions are also treated in the same way considering that the Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented and that action was primarily focused on saving lives,” Rugunda wrote.
Making a case for Guwatudde Rugunda described her as “one of the exemplary civil servants” who has served the country well in different capacities and departments.
“The decisions she took in my view, were well-meaning and intended to ensure that the government program of relief distribution succeeds.”
The four OPM officials who are out on bail are still battling the charges before the Anti-Corruption Court.
Guwatudde is among the seven permanent secretaries that President Museveni retired in “public interest.”
The exoneration of the four OPM officials comes on the background of an earlier request by former Prime Minister, Dr.Ruhakana Rugunda to the president seeking his intervention in ensuring the charges are dropped.
In Rugunda’s view, Guwatudde and her team delivered the job in a short time to enable the government launch the distribution exercise.