John Masaba

Uganda | Deleted — The government that robs its teachers

On the morning of October 30, 2019, Maxillary Owilli, 56, walked into the bank in the northern Uganda district of Abim, looking forward to his payday salary. But moments later the teacher of Murolem Primary School, in the same district, left the bank premises dejected. He was not going to be paid that month. ‘They told me it ‘hanged’ and went back to the ministry’, he says.

When complaining to his district office he was handed a form to fill and a promise that all would be well the following month. However, two years later his situation has not improved. ‘When salary comes one month’, he says, ‘it never comes the month after that.’ So far, the teacher has gone thirteen months this way, amassing ‘many debts from the community’ and ‘depending on a few people with kind hearts’.

No money for hospital

Eastern Uganda-based English Literature teacher Emmanuel, who has asked for his surname to be withheld, was not paid for twenty-three months. He has had to quit his job, since he could not afford to travel between home and school anymore. ‘One day while at work, I just wrote my resignation’, he says. During this time Emmanuel and his wife Rita almost lost their small daughter to meningitis ‘because we had no money for hospital bills’. Fortunately, the child survived but the couple are still saddled with debt.

Of two hundred teachers from primary and secondary levels sampled for this investigation, one hundred and seventy reported having missed salaries several times, or had a colleague or colleagues to whom this happened.

The cases are ‘many’

Though other civil servants – especially those at the bottom of the pay scale, like nurses – have been affected, for this investigation we focused on teachers. Through the Ugandan teacher’s union, UNATU, and also by visiting some schools randomly, we collected names and contact details of two hundred teachers from all four regions of the country, who had recently approached the union because of a work-related problem. More than three-quarters of the two hundred, one hundred and seventy in total, confirmed that over the past five-year period, they, or colleagues they knew, had experienced salary shortages. We also looked at documents, including pay slips, bank statements, email exchanges and payment schedules, and interviewed colleagues, friends and family members of the affected teachers to corroborate our findings.

How widespread the salary shortages problem is among the 185,000 on the Uganda’s state teachers’ payroll, Ugandan Teachers Union Unatu’s Secretary-General, Filbert Baguma, could not say. ‘We don’t have statistics but judging by the queues of teachers waiting at education department’s doors every month to raise their problems, the cases are many. There are also cases that go unreported (to the union) because teachers are heavily intimidated by the people who manage the system’.

Ghosts and machines

Theft of civil servants’ salaries from within the state is a long-standing problem in Uganda. In 2016, the country removed more than 5,500 ‘ghost’ workers from its civil service payroll. A similar audit in 2014 had already deleted 8,299 non-existent workers. A forensic audit by Ernst & Young, done in 2014 upon request from the Auditor General's office, showed that Uganda had been losing about US$ 5,4 million per year through ghost payments and other forms of graft.

Remarkably however, Owilli and Emmanuel, as well as the others found affected in our survey, might look back with nostalgia to the good old days when the problem was only one of ghosts. Because, even though money from the state was stolen by corrupt officials behind the ghosts, it did not usually affect the salaries of real teachers. That happened later: ironically, because of a solution that was implemented to get rid of the ghost problem.

FreeBalance, a Canadian firm, lists on its website more than twenty countries where its software is used ‘to manage a quarter trillion US$ annual budgets worldwide’. Among its African clients are Liberia, Sierra Leone and South Sudan, and, since 2009, Uganda. In that year the firm sold the East African country a payroll software system that would – or so it promised – solve its persistent salaries corruption problem. For US$ 4,4 million, FreeBalance would install software that would administer and pay Uganda’s public servants from two hundred sites, including ministries, departments, agencies and local government.

The Ugandan government announced the modernisation with great fanfare. It was said that the new online Integrated Personnel and Payroll System (IPPS) would reduce ‘human interaction’ in the public service and thereby completely end corruption: you could not bribe a machine, after all. The development was followed five years later with the decentralisation of the payroll, such that payments of salaries, gratuity and pensions could now be done through no less than 167 local governments, also online.

Clicking the mouse

Taken together, this amounted to somewhat of a mistake. Firstly, the officials who had been in charge of corrupt human processes, now controlled the online process. It may be true that a machine cannot be bribed, but – as subsequent developments would show – it can certainly be interfered with. Secondly, thanks to the decentralisation, the number of officials now able to carry out changes on the payroll multiplied. They could fiddle with teachers’ names, delete them, change them, substitute their bank accounts for others, and still also invent destinations for bogus payments. By a mere click of the mouse on the computer, a local official could now determine a civil servants’ salary scale, or status from ‘working’ to ‘on unpaid leave’, from ‘suspended’ to ‘dead’.

The Auditor General and the IPPS system

A 2016 report by Uganda’s Auditor General shows that there have long been substantive money leakages and other faults in the Integrated Personnel and Payroll (IPPS) system. According to the Auditor General, seven years after its implementation, ‘only four out of the nine modules became operational’. The developers also ‘failed to integrate the system with the IFMS (Integrated Financial Management System)’ which manages the country’s budget and financial reporting. Despite these shortfalls, the Auditor General noted, ‘the supplier (FreeBalance) was fully paid…(which) point(s) to weaknesses in contract management by the ministry’.

He had been struck off the payroll for ‘absconding from duty’.

In the case of Baluku (surname withheld on request), a primary teacher in Bundibugyo in the west of the country, it happened when he took sick leave in June 2018. His salary was stopped and, upon inquiry, he was told he had been struck off the payroll for ‘absconding from duty’. ‘It was surprising because I had signed leave forms and medical forms. I was off legally’, he says. The intervention of a local NGO revealed that an accountant at the local government had diverted Baluku’s salary to the accountant’s private account. The local NGO, called the Rwenzori Anticorruption Coalition, also investigated the cases of nineteen other civil servants, and found that all of these had been robbed the same way. The accountant was subsequently arrested, but got bail and was transferred to a remote sub county.

Small fish

As former Anti Corruption Court Judge Bosco Katutsi used to say, Uganda’s corruption cases tend to involve only ‘small fish’ while the ‘crocodiles’ are left free. When, between 2012 and 2013, Patrick Bagoole, a teacher in at Namilyango Boys Junior School in Mukono, central Uganda, was deleted from the payroll, he first called for help at his local government in Mukono. After being ‘bounced for nine months’, he visited the head office of the Ministry of Public Service on Nakasero Hill Road in the capital Kampala and managed to find out that his salary was being diverted to another, invented ‘Bagoole’ in another district. ‘They even printed the pay slip which had my name, but the school was from a different district’.

Instead of correcting the duplication, officials deleted the real Bagoole.

Ironically, the deletion of the real Bagoole’s salary was the result of an anti-corruption intervention: an audit by the Auditor General had detected the duplication. But instead of correcting the misdeed, the guilty officials deleted the real Bagoole. Even after Patrick Bagoole managed to speak to the officer in charge of teacher’s salaries ‘in room 12, Block A, Ground Floor,’ in the Ministry, the officer still ‘insisted that the pay slip belonged to me’. When he went to the police, the officer demanded a ‘little transport facilitation’, ‘which I could not afford because I had not earned a salary for months’.

It was only through Betty Nambooze, an MP of Mukono Municipality whom Bagoole approached in despair, that the matter was somewhat resolved. He was reinstated on the payroll after the politician ‘threatened to expose the officials’. He got his salary back then, but the government still owes him the salary that was not paid since 2012. Neither have the guilty officials been arrested or disciplined.

The politician threatened to expose the officials.

Gross payroll irregularities

In 2017, the Ugandan Parliament’s Public Service and Local Government committee recommended punitive action against a number of officials after an investigation it did uncovered ‘gross payroll irregularities’, including deliberate deletion of staff, overpayments and underpayments. The ‘Investigation into Salary and Payroll Anomalies in the Uganda Public Service’ report did not name names, but hinted at the responsibility of the Permanent Secretary of the Public Service Ministry as well as a number of local government officials for the finding that no less than 169 employees were found to have been overpaid, ‘in some cases three times’ their monthly salary.

How rich is filthy rich?

It is not uncommon to see top bureaucrats flaunt enormous wealth within a few years of accessing office. When he was arrested in 2012 over embezzlement, forgery and abuse of office, Geoffrey Kazinda, an accountant in the prime minister’s office, had amassed properties worth three million US$, and ‘diverted’ US$ 5,4 million. He is now serving fifteen years in prison. 

Likewise, in 2016, the wealth of three officials from the ministry of public service shocked the country after they were arrested over stealing money meant to pay pensioners.  The Criminal Investigations Department valued the officials’ wealth (held in land and other properties like buildings) at US$ 220 million. The officials in question, now serving a seventeen-year prison term, were also ordered to pay back US$ 13,9 million. (The sum, little in comparison to the amassed wealth, was arrived at because the prosecution could not prove that more than that was actually stolen).

While some are arrested and convicted, many public servants at the top echelons of the state may live their lives in the lap of luxury without ever having to fear arrest. The use of fronts is thought to be widespread. In 2011, investigative journalism students at Uganda’s Makerere University, found it was impossible to determine who owned several big properties in the capital city centre. The names mentioned were unknown at any other government registry.

With regard to the victims of salaries’ theft, the report found that in some cases, deletions were processed to ‘spite some workers’ and ‘as a tool of sabotage’ of complaining teachers. The committee also found ‘bizzare cases of sexual harrassment commonly affecting female teachers’. According to UNATU, the teachers who were found victimised by that parliamentary investigation were reinstated on the payroll. A spokesperson said that most are yet to be paid their arrears.

Decreasing literacy

For the rest, the report has gathered dust, while the practices continue. The office of UNATU’s Filbert Baguma has just received updates from its upcountry centers about last month’s salary. Several teachers in six districts have not been paid yet. ‘If you go to those local governments, you will find the long queues of teachers trying to have their issues fixed, moreover during classroom hours! Who is attending to their classes during that?’ Baguma wonders. A 2019 report by the local education NGO Twaweza1 shows that the levels of literacy and numeracy among Uganda’s school children have been decreasing.

Suddenly, seven local government officials are arrested

As we knock on doors and ask questions during these first few months of 2021, some apparent anti-corruption activity starts to rear its head in the state’s human resource departments. Suddenly, seven local government officials are arrested by the Inspectorate of Government, a state anticorruption agency, for stealing civil servants’ salaries and the country is awaiting a series of court battles emanating from these arrests.

Meanwhile, little has changed in the lives of affected teachers. Maxillary Owilli, now deep in debt, has had to hand over rights to his land to neighbours in the village who loaned money to him. ‘And this is the only garden where I get my food from’. He is not optimistic that his efforts to get his salary back will be successful any time soon. ‘I have spoken to the education officer, the human resource and chief administrative officer; and they all tell me, “Maxillary, be patient”, but that is all they do’.

When we approach Luke Jackson Abwangamoi, the official who is supposed to deal with Owilli’s case in the local government office, he promises to comment after ‘establishing the facts about the matter’. But he doesn’t come back to us and further attempts to contact him prove futile. Efforts to contact Franco Olabola, the Bundibugyo local government chief administrative officer, and the Mukono local government chief administrative officer, George Ntulume, remain unsuccessful as well.

No pay slip

In many cases of salary theft – more so if you don’t have extra muscle from an NGO, or money for transport, or for bribes to get another government official to help – the victimised teachers hit a wall. Basiwa (surname withheld upon request), a secondary school teacher from Kaliro, approached her bank after missing her salary for two months, but was that told the state’s human resource personnel officer did not submit the money. In turn, the personnel officer kept insisting the problem was with the bank. Basiwa could not prove her case because, as happens often to teachers, she had not received a pay slip. ‘There is nothing you can do because they control your account’, says Rogers (surname withheld), another teacher from Kaliro, who was not paid for three months. ‘It is too expensive to go and find out what happened’.

It is too expensive to go and find out what happened.

The Ministry of Public Service, when asked to comment, lays the blame for corruption entirely with those ‘who try to find the loophole within the system … who manipulate it to achieve their selfish aims’, says spokesperson Joseph Ngobi. Later on in the conversation, Ngobi seems to be hopeful that ‘training and reorientation’ will help. ‘The (local governments) were not used to handling almost all the roles we gave them. But the ministry is trying to help them. (…) We are training and also making reorientation to ensure that the system works because it is a very good system’, he says. How ‘training and reorientation’ will convince officials with access to the payroll to stop stealing from it, he did not say.

Patrick Muinda, a spokesman for the Ministry of Education and Sports, says he feels disturbed by the practices. ‘I feel a certain rage within me. We must fight this thing. The problem is we are not getting names. What I am asking for is that you help us to catch those people … If there is a way, please share information with us. There has to be some kind of action’. Muinda’s boss, however, deputy Minister of Primary Education Rosemary Seninde Nansubuga, says she is not aware of the problem and refers back to the level below. ‘You know that teachers are paid by the local government’. She undertakes, however, to ‘raise issues in meetings’, if we will ‘pass by her office and take her through our findings’.

Patrick Muinda, a spokesman for the Ministry of Education and Sports, says he feels disturbed by the practices. ‘I feel a certain rage within me. We must fight this thing. The problem is we are not getting names. What I am asking for is that you help us to catch those people … If there is a way, please share information with us. There has to be some kind of action’. Muinda’s boss, however, deputy Minister of Primary Education Rosemary Seninde Nansubuga, says she is not aware of the problem and refers back to the level below. ‘You know that teachers are paid by the local government’. She undertakes, however, to ‘raise issues in meetings’, if we will ‘pass by her office and take her through our findings’.

With now at least three reports and inquiries either under way or left on shelves, Muruli’s Ministry sees further digitalisation as a solution to the corruption in the state. There is now ‘a database of all our workers in the country’, the Minister says, which, together with a new Financial Management bill requiring that each department presents all its staff during the yearly presentation of policy statements, will make it possible to ‘track the payroll for ghosts’. Victor Bua, the principal human resource officer in Public Service, agrees with the Minister that digital improvement will solve the problems. ‘We will introduce a new system without any human intervention that talks to the payment system, the banks, the accountability frameworks and the controls’.

A new system

But wasn’t that exactly how the IPPS was advertised? No, Bua insists: this time it will be different. He announces that the system is going to be rolled out in the ‘next two months’ in sixty government departments ‘as a pilot system’. It is not clear which company has been awarded this contract or whether the process to procure the same has commenced.

Development money down the drain 

Uganda’s development partners pour millions of dollars into the education sector. Are they not concerned that it is money down the drain? Tony Kujawa, the spokesperson for the United States embassy in Uganda explains that the monies sent by the US to support education projects in the country are safe. ‘While we do work with government of Uganda counterparts on education policy issues, money is not provided to any ministries’.

In contrast, UNICEF, which runs a program to provide sanitation in Uganda’s schools, declines to comment. ‘We are of the view that you (should) liaise with the police and other anti-corruption agencies’, said Catherine Ntabadde, UNICEF’s media relations officer in Kampala, in an email response.

  1. A 2019 report by the East African NGO Twaweza found that the percentage of children between 8-12 years who could read dropped from 52 percent in 2015 to 32 percent in 2018. Those that could do numeracy well dropped from 52 percent to 45.