An ugly public quarrel over control of the financially distressed Uganda Telecom Limited [UTL] between ministers continues to intensify and captivate the public.
The public battle for control of UTL is pitting Evelyn Anite, the minister for finance in charge of Privatization and government spokesperson/Uganda Media Centre executive director Ofwono Opondo on the one side against Attorney General William Byaruhanga, his deputy Mwesigwa Rukutana and Gabriel Ajedra, the state minister of finance for general duties.
Anite and Opondo continue to loudly question the motives of their colleagues who strongly oppose an audit into UTL and the removal of UTL administrator Twebaze Bemanya.
But Byaruhanga, his deputy Mwesigwa Rukutana and Gabriel Ajedra say those calling for an audit and the sacking of UTL administrator don’t understand the law.
Last week it emerged that Anite had written to the Attorney General requesting him to lodge an application in court for the sacking of Twebaze Bemanya who is also the Registrar General of the Uganda Registrations Service Bureau [URSB] as the administrator of UTL.
Rukutana flatly rejected the directive, describing it as not anchored on any law regarding a company under administration. William Byaruhanga on July 1 also reiterated his deputy’s position adding that as the Attorney General, the law protects him from taking directives from any person. Speaking to this newspaper yesterday, Anite said she wasn’t surprised with Byaruhanga’s position.
“I didn’t write to him a directive but I was communicating a presidential directive, which he declined. I have written to the President and I’m waiting for his response. He’s the appointing authority for all of us. I did not expect justice from that office,” Anite said.
She added that she is aware of plans to liquidate UTL in order to sell off its assets.
“In the first place there was a plan to liquidate that company and I went to court to save it and I brought it back. After bringing it back they are again planning to liquidate it and the plans are in advanced stages. They can’t explain to me why they can’t do an audit; they can’t tell me where it’s written in the law that we can’t audit the company. I went to court asking for administration but they are intent on liquidation. It really beats my understanding. But I’m serving a delegated responsibility, I have escalated the issue to the president so it’s him to handle,” Anite said.
Her arguments are buttressed by Ofwono Opondo who says history has taught him not to take professional opinions from government officials at face value.
“We have many incidents where government officials have connived to fleece the state; Kasese Cobalt, African Textile Mills, Uganda Airlines, which was asset stripped and many more by people who are responsible for policy formulation, guidance and implementation. When they are given dockets to manage, they come and say this thing cannot be salvaged; the only option is to sell it off because government can’t do business,” Opondo said.
He said when in 1993 government made a decision to divest some of its parastatals, it decided to remain with some it thought were of strategic value although they were not making profits.
“UTL happens to be one of them but it appears our clever public officials have studied that people of their kind have got away with hoodwinking the government that a company like UTL can’t make money so the best way is to liquidate it or put it in receivership,” Opondo said.
He added that when the Libyan majority shareholders pulled out of UTL in April 2017, government hired Price House Water Coopers to carry out a study into UTL, which concluded that it was a profitable company that needed a few reforms to function again. These reforms included changing both the management and board of directors.
“UTL could be turned around to be profitable again afterall Airtel, MTN and Africell that came much later and don’t have as much infrastructure are successful companies. It becomes difficult to understand why an administrator refuses to be audited. Many of us who are keen followers of Uganda’s policy formulation and implementation conclude that somebody or some cartel of people have studied that UTL has idle assets that they can’t have their hands on if we revamp the company,” he said.
Bemanya’s term extension
Opondo also questioned the manner in which the state minister for finance in charge of General Duties, Gabriel Ajedra renewed the contract of Bemanya to one year despite the same having been rejected by his boss Matia Kasaija and Anite, the minister directly responsible for UTL.
“Why did he wait for Kasaija to travel outside for him to renew his contract? How again did he move from six months that he [Bemanya] had been asking for to one year? These are important matters that we must interrogate,” Opondo said.
Anite also wondered how Ajedra could commit himself in a matter he knew was being handled by other people before seeking information. “We sit in the same office why didn’t he ask us; that is the simplest thing to do. Secondly why didn’t he read the file before signing off,” Anite said.
Speaking to this newspaper in a telephone interview, Ajedra said there was no reason for him not to extend Bemanya’s tenure.
“Why didn’t somebody notify me at that time that his appointment had been deferred? When you are holding a portfolio for somebody, you get instructions. As, has been the case, he [Kasaija] says, on matters of taxation wait until I come back. Why didn’t he state it in writing that on Bemanya’s case I should wait until he comes back? Bemanya had done a presentation to the top management [ministry of Finance] where everybody praised him for having turned around the company so what reason would I have not to extend his tenure if it was expiring,” Ajedra said.
He also added that as the ministry of finance, they have no power to call for the sacking of Bemanya because they ceded that authority the moment they applied to court to put the company under receivership.
However, he couldn’t ably explain how a company that was under administration would again get its administrator appointed by the ministry of finance.
“If you want to remove Bemanya it can only be done by the creditors not the ministry of finance. We only appointed him because we want to protect our interests. This cry that he has refused an audit can’t also hold; the Auditor General said he can’t audit UTL; it can only be done by the High Court. You should stop jumping up and down; read the opinion of the Attorney general confirming the position of his deputy,” Ajedra said.
But Opondo said even the Attorney General’s opinion must be subjected to public scrutiny.
“There are no two lawyers who have the same view on the same matter. Who says that an Attorney General cannot have vested interest; people who have cheated this country most are lawyers... So should we take their professional views on the surface; no, I think we have been cheated enough as a country…People have exploited the law to cheat government because they know that once the Attorney General has given a position however, flimsy and tainted that’s what is binding, but must we continue that way?” Opondo said.
But for Ajedra, the statusquo might continue for a long time.
“Unfortunately at the end of the day it’s the same Attorney General that is going to defend government whether you like his opinion or not, you have to go by it; that’s how government operates.”