Uganda: Iron sheet theft lands cabinet minister in jail

By Edward Nyembo

Posted on April 7, 2023 12:30

In an unprecedented move, Uganda minister for Karamoja affairs Mary Goretti Kitutu was remanded on Thursday over stealing corrugated iron sheets meant for the poverty-stricken Karamojongs in the northern part of the country.

Kitutu, who has been a minister since 2016, becomes the first senior minister in the 37 years of President Yoweri Museveni’s regime to be jailed while holding a cabinet portfolio. She is the second minister in the Museveni era to be jailed while in office. In 2017, a junior minister was arrested for soliciting a bribe of $1,385 from an investor.

Charged with her brother, Kitutu will spend Easter in jail and return to court for a bail hearing on Wednesday, 12 April. The minister was arrested on Tuesday afternoon after turning hostile by refusing to respond to questions from members of a parliamentary committee investigating the issue. She was detained until yesterday’s presentation in court.

Iron sheet scandal

The iron sheet scandal has dominated local news in Uganda since February, following a revelation by an anti-corruption agency in the president’s office that iron sheets meant for the people of Karamoja had been diverted and shared among several high-ranking government officials.

Vice President Jesica Alupo, Speaker of Parliament Anita Among, who ranks third after the president and vice president, Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja, Finance Minister Matia Kasaija, and First Deputy Prime Minister and former speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga were recipients, among others. They are under investigation.

The iron sheets and some goats meant to be distributed to the poor in the cattle-rustling Karamoja region were funded under a USh30bn ($8m) supplementary budget last year. The government initiative was instituted in an effort to alleviate hardship in the region known for its abject poverty and cattle rustling.

The charge in the case of iron sheet theft is just the beginning, said Jacquelyn Okui, the spokesperson of the office of the director of public prosecutions, who spoke after the minister was sent to jail. She said more cases against officials involved in the scandal will be sanctioned. “This is not selective prosecution,” she said.

“This is just the first case file. There is a case file for each of the suspects which will be submitted by police to the office of the director of public prosecutions as and when they complete investigations,” she added.

However, there is scepticism that the government is now just waking up to fight corruption.

Cissy Kagaba, an anti-corruption crusader and former executive director of Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda tells The Africa Report that given the history of corruption in Uganda and the impunity that reigns, the minister’s prosecution should not be a source of optimism.

“Don’t be surprised when the minister is released on bail and the matter fizzles out,” she says, questioning where the other senior government officials involved in the scandal are.

Kagaba says lack of political will has derailed the anti-corruption fight in Uganda.

“Now that the minister has been remanded, will she be dropped from her position? Real political will is taking action against anyone implicated.”

View from Karamoja

Karamoja ranks at the bottom when weighed on any development indicator whether in comparison with other areas in Uganda or globally. Less than four in 10 people in the region aged 10 and above can be classified as literate, a household survey by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) reveals. The survey indicates that six out of 10 people of its 1.2 million population are living in absolute poverty.

At 17%, Karamoja region also has the lowest percentage of houses roofed with corrugated iron sheets, according to the UBOS survey.

Leper Margaret Achilla, district member of parliament for Kotido, one of the districts in Karamoja, tells The Africa Report that there is a feeling that justice is being delivered.

“The people of Karamoja are seeing that justice is beginning to be served because, from the time the minister appeared before the presidential affairs committee of parliament up to yesterday when she was produced in court and remanded, they did not believe a minister can be questioned and can appear in court,” she says.

Now that the people have seen the minister being prosecuted, they are encouraged that it will serve as an example to other government officials who mismanage resources meant for the poor.

Achilla said other government officials involved in the scandal should be produced in court and be held accountable.

In previous cases, high-ranking government officials were arrested only after being dropped from the cabinet.

In 2011, former vice president Gilbert Bukenya was charged with fraud in the procurement of government cars a month after being dropped from the second highest position in the country. And in 2007, three former ministers of health were charged with gross mismanagement and abuse of more than $80m GAVI fund meant for the country’s polio vaccination programme.

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