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Museveni not bothered as Ugandan taxpayer loses US$ 5.5 million is LOST in locust scam

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President Yoweri Museveni.

By Charles Kamya Ssentamu

Of all recent swindles of the Ugandan taxpayer, the recent locust scam still has people shaking their heads throughout the country. Yet as usual President Museveni – perhaps because he is used to swindling millions of dollars – appears indifferent to the loss of shillings 20 billion ($4.495 million at current exchange rates) that has disappeared in this month’s shoddy response to a locust invasion.

Now taxpayers are staring at double expenditure on stemming the invasion, since the budget has been expended with nothing to show for it – yet the real invasion is on the way, according to experts.

Comic scenes of soldiers barking up trees and setting bushfires in an effort to kill the insects have dominated social media for the past week undermining an official narrative of a massive invasion and a well-choreographed response that the government had initially promised.

Before the locusts arrived, agriculture minister Vincent Sempijja and Aggrey Bagiire his sidekick, had dominated the airwaves, claiming contracts for the lease of eight aircraft to support aerial spraying had been concluded with lessors in Kenya. But as the Ministry put on a show of mounting a response from Kololo Airstrip in Kampala, Ugandans were shocked to see a handful of UPDF helicopters airlifting an assortment of supplies to Karamoja.

On the ground however, journalists who rushed to the sub-region to capture the first images of the invasion spent days running around without any sightings. As it turned out the invasion had been imaginary, with everybody repeating lies he had heard elsewhere.

Instead journalists and other curious individuals were told that the ‘swarms’ had moved deeper into the country even though only officials based in Kampala appeared to be seeing them. The fake sightings were however enough to trigger the desired response for officials who had been angling for the money. A radio commentator even suggested that officials who had made a pilot visit to Turkana in north-western Kenya had come back with a bag full of the insects, to force government’s hand.

After maintaining a tight fist over the money that had been kept aside for the much-anticipated invasion, treasury secretary Keith Muhakanizi was finally stampeded into releasing the money a fortnight ago on the basis of the fake sightings.

In the inkling of an eye, half the money had been spent on procurements that lined the pockets of officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Defense. Some 2000 soldiers who spent the first days in the field on a wild-goose chase since there were no swarms to warrant such a response were deployed to the Karamoja region with knapsack sprayers whose value only Sempijja and Aggrey Bagiire know.

In addition, some 3 tons of rice and maize flour were purchased. That is when the circus reached the penultimate stage. After all the foolery, some locusts did indeed arrive but not in the numbers that had been hyped up.

The shame for the entire operation was when the aircraft failed to arrive. To begin with, the knapsack sprayers were too weak to send pesticides up the trees where the insects perch to feed on the leaves. A volunteer who was testing his drone technology offered some face-saving measure for the thieving officials, but his drone could only carry 7 litres of pesticide at a time.

Immediately, the narrative shifted with Bagiire claiming that the procured aircraft could not come because there was a shortage of the special pesticides used in aerial spraying. Whatever Bagiire and his cohorts were thinking when they ‘hired’ aircraft minus the chemicals, is anybody’s guess.

Days into the invasion there was no evidence of the carnage that the insects were supposed to inflict on the vegetation. Experts have since weighed on to say that the swarms that caused much excitement were near the end of life as adults that were simply laying eggs, and that the current response was unwarranted.

The experts further advise that if at all the swarms ever reach Uganda, that invasion is still weeks away.

As it turns out, in typical Museveni fashion, the officials had indications from the Food and Agriculture Organisation which clearly stated that there was minimal risk of huge swarms ever reaching Uganda. When a shift in wind patterns diverted the swarms to Tanzania, the excited officials thought they could “eat” the money and get away with it.

The danger for Uganda now is that if perchance a massive invasion materializes, there will be no money for a response. The worst-case scenario is that the taxpayer will be charged even larger sums of money to mount yet another shoddy response.

As usual, the public is the loser as Museveni and his henchmen emerge winners in the latest mega scam to be perpetrated on the long-suffering public.