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Top Ugandan Officials Arrested in COVID-19 Purchasing Scandal

Members of Local Defense Unit (LDU) unload relief food to civilians who are affected by the lockdown to prevent the potential spread of coronavirus, in Kampala, Uganda, April 4, 2020.

Four top Ugandan government officials were arrested Thursday following reports they inflated COVID-19 relief food prices. Analysts say the government’s swift response shows the importance it has attached to the crisis.

The defendants worked in the office of Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda and ran a program to provide food relief for the most vulnerable amid the coronavirus pandemic. They were arrested for causing government losses in excess of $528,000.

On Thursday, the head of the anti-corruption unit in the State House, Lt.Col. Edith Nakalema, said she received a directive from President Yoweri Museveni to investigate the way the program was being run.

“We have some clear evidence of the well-known, able and credible suppliers who offered lower prices and the accounting officers in OPM rejected. And they instead took on the higher ones. Some of the people who were given offers to supply, are even not prequalified and that’s the president’s concern,” she said.

Government officials arrested include Permanent Secretary Christine Guwatudde Kintu, and accounting officer Joel Wanjala, assistant procurement commissioner Fred Lutimba and Martin Owor, head of COVID-19 relief management, were taken into custody.

Officials in the office of the prime minister are no strangers to corruption and embezzlement of both government and donor funds.

Economic Analyst Fred Muhumuza notes that while the bad record continues, the president’s swift move shows he has made addressing the situation a priority.

“We knew this scandal would come out later on in the year. For it to happen now, means there’s some experience in the president’s office in dealing with corruption. Gone are the days when you would just buy food and you think the price is not known by other people, which has been used as evidence. Because I imagine those days it would be a very secretive process,” he said.

Uganda, which has 53 confirmed cases of COVID-19, is currently on a two-week lockdown to help curb the further spread of the infection caused by the coronavirus. The officials are being held by the Criminal Investigations Department.

They will be charged with abuse of office through an arbitrary act prejudicial to the interest of their employer, causing financial loss and facilitating fraudulent accounting and conspiring to commit fraud. A conviction fetches at least five years in prison.