The drama has come faster so late in the year for Dr. Monica Musenero who is accused of misappropriating about Shs 30 billion given to her line ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation to develop and manufacture Covid-19 vaccines.
The minister is facing a parliamentary investigation launched after Ntungamo Municipality MP Yona Musinguzi accused the minister on the floor of parliament of misappropriating the money.
Last week, she and her accuser appeared before the select probe committee to defend herself. She was accompanied by a team of scientists; Prof Pontiono Kaleebu, the executive director of the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI), Dr. Jennifer Sserwanga, Dr. Sheilla Balinda (UVRI), Dr. Cissy Kityo (Joint Clinical Research Council), Prof. Charles Ibingira (Makerere University) and Dr. Enock Matovu from Busitema University.
Read transcript by Joselyn Esiana.
Committee Chairperson Xavier Kyooma said the probe committee and Parliament had letters to the effect that the Presidential Scientific Initiative on Epidemics (PRESIDE) was at the urging of President Museveni given Shs 17bn to procure equipment for research and research operations but that the funds were abused through the purchase of idle equipment.
Tony Awany: I would like the minister to make some clarification. How was the project selected and did you advertise to enable competition? Did you do due diligence to ascertain the capabilities of the selected organization scientists for that matter?
And there is the presentation you made about the funds disbursed for the operation, that’s the equipment. Available reports do not indicate the absorption of the allocated resources. Where these funds actually spent? And they talked of allocating some money to Prof. [Pontiano] Kaleebu, the director of UVRI [Uganda Virus Research Institute].
The petitioner laid on the table documents with Prof. Kaleebu distancing himself from any study being carried out at UVRI. When asked to confirm, Prof. Kaleebu simply said, you should ask Dr. Musenero. I thought it would be okay for Prof. Kaleebu to be on record.
And Chair, the minister talked of mostly holding meetings to review concept details of the project for the policy statement to parliament stating PRESIDE’s achievements. The question is whether a copy of the proposals can be available to the committee because it would be important to understand the work plan and concepts discussed in the meeting.
Kyooma: Since the minister said PRESIDE didn’t receive any money, that question applies to each individual project. I need to make it clear.
Awany: The question I am raising is in respect to the copies of the proposals that you discussed in the meetings.
Aisha Kabanda: Chair, maybe this will be information to the minister because in her address there are issues she qualified to be incidental in her own interpretation and I think in our interpretation as a committee, that might not be incidental. As matters of accountability, they remain primary, not incidental. You said your husband is not involved in this in any way; would you like to tell us who your husband is?
Musenero: My husband is called Associate Prof. Michael Masanza. He has been a full-time professor. He was dean and also served as deputy vice-chancellor at Uganda Christian University until early this year when he was hired by Busitema University as an associate professor.
Kabanda: I just wanted to know his name so that we don’t mistake him for someone else. You spoke so passionately about your contribution to vaccine development. I have read your CV and I have not seen where you acquire proficiency in matters
of human medicine.
I have noticed you have a degree in Veterinary Medicine and a master’s degree in Human Medicine. I have not seen any serious training that could give you proficiency in human medicine. I also request that you give us details of the machines that were procured and sources of the specifications.
You said you recreated an organ gram of PRESIDE. I don’t know what you meant by recreating; was it not there? And you said you have never been paid by PRESIDE; are there any staff that are being paid by PRESIDE? Would you like to give us the CVs of the principal investigators that are into various projects?
And we have a memorandum of understanding (MOU). I imagine between the ministry and PRESIDE. Do you have any legal documents between us and the various scientists that are undertaking this research? You said you didn’t receive any money and PRESIDE did not. You are not an accounting officer but documents have been laid on the table from permanent secretaries (PSs) asking you to account for funds you had received. Would you like to speak to those various relevant communications from the PSs.
Awany: We are wondering why the projects stalled. Did you get approval for reallocating funds from the stalled to the new projects? What was the process for selecting the new projects?
Solomon Silwany: I have three questions. Hon Minister, when I looked at the auditor general’s report; the procurement laws were not followed. What was the problem? Where was the challenge? From the report, accountability was not done; why?
When you were agreeing to give them money, the accounting process was not clear. Why was it so, Hon minister? Did you have a clear monitoring and evaluation framework for those projects? It seems projects were done in a hurry. I want to know, did you have a clear framework? What could be the problem? And lastly, Hon minister, you have said they are fighting you. Would you like to tell us why you think they are fighting you? Why would they?
Kyooma: The issue of accountability for Covid-19 funding was squarely under the ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (Mosti), and not PRESIDE. This would mean we don’t demand accountability from you. The MOU between PRESIDE and the ministry says to account to Mosti all the money advanced by Mosti as by relevant laws...It implies that actually, you have some accountability to make and we are basing on this to request for accountability.
I hope you have noted that. So, it’s not true that accountability was squarely with Mosti. You also had accountability to make. PRESIDE was housed in State House with seven employees and State House hired the offices. Where exactly is PRESIDE housed? Your presentation is contrary to the previous MOU...
Musenero: Chair, I have not provided you with a copy of the MOU; so, I cannot say that one is authentic. I am not aware of that document. I promised to bring an authentic copy.
Kyooma: Okay...would that imply that we will have different sets of MOU? This one is well signed and even stamped.
Musenero: I am not aware of that one.
Kabanda: It was laid on the table.
Kyooma: Yes, it is even stamped.
Musenero: Chair, I would request that I am availed that document to study it but I will also bring an authentic copy of the MOU, which was approved.
Kyooma: OK. Can I keep these ones for now?
Musenero: Yeah, but I would appreciate if you give me that copy because I don’t have it.
Kyooma: I think we shall go with the one you will provide.
Kabanda: Chair, does it presuppose that what you are saying is foreign to the minister? The issues in the MOU that the chairman is holding; are they foreign when you hear them?
Musenero: Chair, I have requested that I will avail a copy, which is authentic, and I will own it, then we can discuss based on that.
Kyooma: OK...But I can raise other issues. You are mentioning 23 projects, then the four, which you are advancing but you are not giving us all these projects. We would be interested in knowing all the 23 projects. We appreciate the four you mentioned and the level they have reached but what about the 19, and what are they? What level are they at? Who is responsible for those projects?
Kabanda: Chair, we had the same understanding; which file are you talking about?
Kyooma: Minister’s presentation page 11.
Kabanda: I thought she was simply talking about the titles of vaccines.
Kyooma: Page 11(d), for the financial year 2020/21, PRESIDE has worked on 23 projects in the same area of vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics, and support facilities. Out of these 23, four projects are working on the development of a local Covid-19 vaccine and they are stated Covid-19 subunit vaccine, inactivated Covid-19 vaccine development, self-amplifying RNA, and Novel Adenovector Covid-19 vaccine.
So, the question is what are the other 19 and maybe the level they have reached? We appreciate the urgent need for funds to set up a mini vaccine plant. What is this mini plant? From our analysis, some scientists are working on several projects yet the development of these vaccines was an emergency... Some allocation was made for four quarters but the money was used in one quarter. What happened to the work plan and what changed? Have you spent the money for FY2021/22 already?
Musenero: No. I have not received it.
Awany: What will happen to the procured equipment when the projects are completed?
Kyooma: Can we have a look at them and are they also organized like the mini plant? And since some equipment are in kaveera, that’s why we want to look at them.
Kabanda: What would be the rationale for asking for a supplementary budget while you have not actually utilized your resources?
Kyooma: Hon Minister, over to you.
Musenero: Thank you, Hon. members. I would request that I respond to some questions and others, we need to go back and write. I never handled funds. Shs 31.032b was released to the ministry. Those funds were spent by the ministry
on the procurement of equipment.
I participated as a scientist. They called us in meetings when they were reviewing bids but the funds were directly utilized by the ministry. The funds for operational costs for the scientists were directly dispatched by the ministry to the institutions hosting the scientists.
I was never in receipt. However, as per MOU, I had to work with the scientists to come up with the budget. I had to be satisfied that the scientists had come up with a work plan, budget and that the science was going to lead us where we want to go and when that was done I had to write to the permanent secretaries to say the project has reached the level where it has to receive funds and the PSs dispatched the funds directly through EFT on the system of ministry of finance.
Kabanda: Do you think you have the expertise to make that assessment...?
Musenero: Yes, I do.
Kabanda: Would you want to speak to the expertise that you hold?
Kyooma: Hon Aisha, make it clear to the minister because she responded in the affirmative. Is it the minister or PRESIDE which has the expertise?
Kabanda: I asked her and she said yes, I have. Mr. Chairman, you are helping the minister to answer questions. I heard her say I have. That was the answer. Don’t you think by assessing the projects you were doing the work of the National Drug Authority (NDA)?
Musenero: NDA has mandated these projects. And Chair between the pre-clinical trials and clinical trials is where we need the vaccine unit. That is what is stuck in between us. And Hon Aisha asked if we haven’t used the money, why do we ask for a supplementary, all those funds which we are waiting for once released they are going to do the work...These people have borrowed things. Because research is very difficult. I will explain in writing some of these things.
Kyooma: Her question is, you haven’t utilized the funds appropriated to you for this financial year, if you haven’t utilized those funds, why would you want more funds to be appropriated in the supplementary?
Musenero: Chair we will respond in writing. But as we mentioned, one of the vaccines is at stage 7. You cannot stop some steps because some of the things we use are very delicate. We have small mice we buy; one mouse costs Shs 8 million because they are very special.
Now once you start an experiment on them you can’t pause because you don’t have funds. I don’t know how Prof. Matovu has worked but he has kept the work going. Soon we will need to enter clinical trials for that particular vaccine and in between now and the time when it’s going to be ready we need to have those funds and set up that unit, which takes a bit of time and it has to go through the approvals by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Silwanyi: When you look at the laws and rules of procedure of parliament, for you to ask for supplementary it must be something unforeseen and unanticipated at the time of budgeting. Do you want to tell us that you didn’t anticipate the mice that you buy...didn’t you foresee this?
Musenero: We asked for this money but it was cut. We were given only Shs 25 billion.
Kabanda: I think the minister should comment about the matter of the suspended staff. It is important. It has come to our attention that one employee at the ministry who was known to have cooperated with the whistleblower in this case has been suspended.
Musenero: As a minister who understands my duties, I don’t suspend, hire or fire staff. To the best of my knowledge, I am not aware but if it has happened, I will go and ask.