Questions linger over Parliament spending

Questions linger over Parliament spending
Questions linger over Parliament spending

Africa-Press – Uganda. Parliament at the weekend said claims that Speaker Anita Among spent Shs3 billion in foreign travels inside six months were “exaggerations”.

The House was moved to comment days after Agather Atuhaire, a journalist with the activism group Agora Discourse, posted documents on the X (formerly Twitter) social media platform which she claimed showed per diems approved for 10 trips allegedly made by the Speaker between July 2023 and January 2024.

The unsigned document appeared to show that Parliament paid out money for four trips to Kenya, as well as trips to South Africa, Rwanda, Italy, Turkey and Russia. We have not been able to independently verify the documents.

Parliament’s Director of Communication and Public Affairs Chris Obore acknowledged trips to Russia and South Sudan but said the rest of the alleged trips on the document shared on social media were “forgeries” by people who want to undermine the Speaker’s public standing.

“Remember how one time the same group claimed that the First Lady had travelled to Israel many times when she hadn’t taken any such trip,” Mr Obore told in an interview on Saturday.

He was referring to a wide-ranging scandal in the Office of the Prime Minister in 2012 in which officials inflated work plans and travel schedules and diverted the money. The First Lady was not accused or found guilty of any wrongdoing.

“Speaker Among is not a fan of travel abroad and has largely remained in-land to maximise resources for other public needs in line with the freeze of travel abroad announced by the President,” Mr Obore said.

“Whereas the leaders of the various arms of government have been exempted from the freeze, the decision of Parliament is to minimise travel abroad to the most crucial international undertakings, drawing parallels with the 10th Parliament which was known for incessant travels out of the country, resulting sometimes to both presiding officers being out of the country simultaneously, paralysing House business.”

The Clerk to Parliament, Mr Adolf Mwesige, said he had not seen the controversial document.

“It can’t be authentic, but I haven’t seen it and I can’t comment on the document which I have not seen because I would be speculating,” he said. Ms Atuhaire later shared a separate document alleging various foreign trips by Mr Mwesige. That document has not been independently verified either.

The document posted by Ms Atuhaire shows that Ms Among was reportedly allocated Shs159.6 million on July 21, 2023, as facilitation to attend the second Russia-Africa Economic Summit for eight days. Of this, Shs124.8m was per diem, Shs19.5m for entertainment and Shs19.5m for out-of-pocket allowance. This is one of the two trips Mr Obore confirmed the Speaker having taken. The summit, which President Museveni attended, took place in St Petersburg between July 27 and 28.

An analysis of the Hansard, which is the official record of parliamentary business, shows some information gaps that would require additional reviews to get an accurate account. The Hansard shows that Speaker Among chaired the House around the time of the Russia-Africa summit, including on July 27.

Travel bug

The documents posted online claim that Shs483.6m was allocated on July 28, 2023, for a 30-day trip to Turkey. The Hansard shows that Deputy Speaker Thomas Tayebwa chaired the first five of the eight parliamentary sittings that month, with the Speaker chairing on August 29, 30 and 31.

The documents claim that Ms Among was allocated Shs97.5m on August 18, 2023, for a trip to the Vatican in Italy. On August 25, Ms Among posted on her official X-platform that she had met Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church. “I was delighted to hold a private audience with His Holiness @Pontifex in the Vatican earlier today. I briefed him on our country and our people’s efforts to uphold Christian values and norms in line with our motto and the scriptures,” she posted.

Asked about the trip to Italy which wasn’t among the official trips he mentioned but was confirmed by the Speaker on her social media handle, Mr Obore said the activists who had published the document were not interested in the facts.

“The actual trips the Speaker took are not of interest to them but the aim is to alarm the public to hate the Speaker on the basis of distortions, falsehoods and forgeries,” he said. “We do not intend to compete with them in talking. The discerning members of the public will question their motives if they continue relying on messages [sent] to their inboxes to malign and taint others.”

The Speaker chaired the House on September 5, 6 and 7, then sent Parliament on recess until September 28. The document posted on social media claims that Shs487m was approved on September 6 for a 30-day trip to Nairobi, Kenya, although it does not indicate the purpose.

Posts on the Speaker’s X handle show that Ms Among met youth from Fort Portal under their umbrella body of Kacwamba Abamu on September 8 at her office in Parliament. Two days later, she met the board members of Salaam Bank, also in Kampala.

Some of the travel events referred to in the alleged travel dossier do not appear to have happened. For instance, the document claims that Shs318.7m was allocated for the Speaker to participate in the Pan-African Parliament (PAP) president’s meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa. We could not find evidence of this event taking place around the time of the alleged allocation. Uganda was not represented in the second ordinary PAP session between May and June 2023, according to the body’s signed official report.

It is not clear from the document whether the allocated sums were received by the intended beneficiaries, and whether the money was always paid on time, in advance, or in arrears.

“Funding MPs and Speakers on these trips depends on the current situation,” Clerk to Parliament Mwesige said. “Sometimes when there is money, we instantly give them and they go but when the money is not there, they either defer the trips and go another day or use their own money for must-attend conferences, and we refund them later.”

In response to a query about what appear to be simultaneous foreign trips to different countries, Mr Mwesige said: “There are times when we don’t have money but when the member or Speaker is supposed to attend an official function abroad and they use their money and Parliament refunds later. So sometimes they get other trips, and we approve their funds at once including the one they used their money and this is where people get it wrong thinking that we have given a member money for two trips at once.”

The official did not provide a breakdown of when money for different trips might have been paid at the same time.

The document posted on social media did not also explain how money came to be allegedly allocated for working trips when the Speaker was on maternity leave.

One such trip claimed in the document was Shs653m allocated to attend the National Assembly of Kenya in preparation for hosting the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA). Deputy Speaker Tayebwa chaired the House in October and Ms Among returned to work in November after she and her husband Moses Magogo announced the birth of twins.

Neither the document posted on social media nor Ms Atuhaire explained what happens when money is allocated for a trip that either aborts, or to which another official is sent. For instance, the document claimed that Shs106.4m was allocated for the Speaker for a seven-day trip to attend the East African parliamentary games in Kigali, Rwanda, between December 8 and 18, 2023.

Mr Tayebwa represented the Speaker at the games according to the Parliament website, and it wasn’t immediately clear whether the same funds would have been diverted to the deputy speaker or refunded.

In an op-ed sent to this publication last week, Mr Obore also described as “utter falsehoods” claims that the Speaker’s per diem had been increased to $4,000 per day. “The Rt Hon Among’s official per diem is $990, and she has not and does not intend to travel for holiday out of the country as has been maliciously indicated in various social media platforms.” Parliament has also been in the news over service awards that the Parliamentary Commission awarded to its members, including former Leader of the Opposition Mathias Mpuuga of the NUP party. Mr Mpuuga says he was entitled to the Shs500m he received and has rejected calls to resign from the commission.

Mr Obore said allegations of mismanagement at Parliament are from political schemers, “who try to use every opportunity to posture but don’t conceptually appreciate leadership challenges.”

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