By Deo Walusimbi
President Museveni last week denied claims that he pushed government officials to circumvent the proper “procurement process” for the standard gauge railway (SGR) project.
Sources in Parliament said that while meeting MPs investigating the controversial procurement of a contractor for the SGR, Museveni also admitted that some officials accepted bribes to influence the eventual outcome.
Last year, China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) won the $8.6m contract to upgrade and expand Uganda’s railway system to standard gauge. This came after the minister of state for Works, John Byabagambi, cancelled an earlier memorandum of understanding (MOU) between government and another firm, China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation [CCECC].
Appearing before the inquiry, several witnesses had accused Museveni of personally influencing the procurement of the contractor. Minister Byabagambi, while defending his cancellation of the MOU with CCECC, said the “president had changed his [Byabagambi’s] mind.” This propelled the committee to invite Museveni to tell his side of the story.
“… Your Excellency, during our interface with a number of witnesses, we were reliably informed of your involvement in the process referred to in… above” read the committee’s December 29 invitation letter, signed by its chairman, Nakifuma MP Kafeero Ssekitoleko.
According to a parliamentary source, when Museveni was asked, during Thursday’s meeting at State House, to explain the circumstances under which he ordered the termination of the CCECC MOU in favour of CHEC without following the PPDA Act, he said:
“No, I cannot tell anybody [to do that] and it’s not necessary to circumvent procurement regulations because the procurement regulations are very well laid out. There is a way you can procure something expeditiously using the law, there is a way you can take long. So, I can never say ignore the procurement process because they are broad enough to cover all legitimate work.”
Museveni, however, admitted directing the cancellation of the MOU with CCECC. According to an insider source, Museveni said he got intelligence information that some government officials had taken bribes to ensure that the contract went to CCECC.
“I said that no corrupt Chinese company would be awarded the contract [to construct the railway],” Museveni reportedly said. “So… I ordered for the termination of the contract, but I have never directed any concerned officials to circumvent the PPDA.”
He refused to name the group of corrupt government officials who had reportedly been bribed to favour CCECC. He said they would be produced in court after the Inspectorate of Government completes its investigations.
“We shall not tolerate any corrupt group in our [railway] project,” the president reportedly said, but declined to divulge details because he said, “some of this information is confidential.”
Asked to elaborate on this corrupt group, Museveni reportedly remained adamant: “When they are arrested and brought to court, then you will see them; otherwise, it would be speculation and even defamation because you cannot talk about somebody if he is not in court.”
No turning back:
The president said that no amount of pressure would force him to abandon the project.
“We need to move fast on the issue of the railway [because] procrastination is the thief of time,” Museveni told waiting journalists after he emerged from the closed meeting with MPs.
“We need a railway from Kenya through Uganda to South Sudan. I don’t want the railway to by-pass Uganda because if we delay, South Sudan can make an agreement with Kenya, then a railway goes through another country [yet] we want the railway to pass through Uganda.”
“The same thing with Rwanda; it can reach an agreement with Tanzania… So, there is that strategic linkange which we should not miss by endless debates by people who are hiding behind those procedural points when they are completely oblivious to our strategic interest.”
In apparent response to complaints that the cost of the railway was heavily inflated, Museveni said: “For us, who are always doing all this work, we can’t be mesmerized by prices.”