The Minister of Science, Technology, and Innovation, Dr. Monica Musenero has refuted claims that funds were released directly to the Presidential Scientific Initiative on Epidemics (PRESIDE) for Covid-19 vaccine research purposes.
PRESIDE, is a brainchild of President Yoweri Museveni, supervised by Dr. Monica Musenero, who was a Presidential Advisor on Epidemics at the time it was unveiled.
Covid-19 vaccine research grants were released directly to the grantees and the processes was managed by the Ministry of Science and Technology, Musenero told Parliament while responding to a report by the Select Committee that was established to investigate the utilization of funds meant to facilitate the COVID-19 vaccine development.
The report tabled before parliament on Wednesday last week by Xavier Kyooma, the Chairperson of the Select Committee on Science, Technology, and Innovation said that the process of developing a vaccine was marred with irregularities despite observations that some progress has been made.
Musenero was a Presidential Advisor on Epidemics at the time funds were availed to scientists under PRESIDE for Covid-19 vaccine development.
Investigations by parliament into the utilization of funds were sparked off by a complaint by Ntungamo Municipality MP Yona Musinguzi on mismanagement of money.
The committee report established that President Museveni on May 6 directed that PRESIDE be established and UGX 2 billion or USD $545,412 be released to the State House Comptroller to facilitate the operations of the initiative.
The committee also notes that UGX 5.3 billion was provided in the financial year 2019/2020 budget and UGX 31.03 billion provided in 2020/2021 for scientists under PRESIDE for procurement of equipment and project operational costs.
An additional UGX 25 billion was released for project operations, a supplementary request of 50.4 billion for a manufacturing plant, and 27 billion for additional operational funds for PRESIDE projects in the financial year 2021/2022.
The committee also observed that poor financial management resulted in at least UGX 2.06 billion not being accounted for under operational funds. Committee Chairperson Kyooma also cited another UGX 491 million not accounted for and queried UGX 1.4 billion for PRESIDE staff. This was also observed by the Auditor General, John Muwanga is his latest audit report.
MP Kyooma also reported that the lack of guidelines on reporting resulted in discrepancies and that the failure to harmonize allowance rates for scientists also led to wastage.
The Minister however apologized for any wrongs that she might have done during the process of developing a Covid-19 vaccine, saying that never before has her integrity and commitment to duty ever been questioned or have reason to be questioned until now.
“If there is any way in my work and in the way I handled things, if I offended anybody, I regret those issues and I will work to build a reputation and work to build the science. It is very disheartening to have to read these accusations in the media, hear comments on TV and Radio, and to have to explain to my family and friends how unfair and untrue all these statements are,” she said.
Musenero assured MPs that the scientists shall not be derailed or distracted in the pursuit to develop vaccine research and development capacity. She also appealed for more funding for Covid-19 research saying that financial support for the cause is still low compared to other countries.
The Minister also commended the committee report for documenting the status of Covid-19 research and showing that Ugandan scientists had made progress.
“The committee has throughout the report been consistent in recommending that the preclinical and clinical studies for the vaccine should be expeditiously concluded. This is important because it confirms the progress made by the scientists in the research through the vital exploratory stage and clears them to proceed to the next steps in the vaccine development stages journey,” Musenero noted.
MP Kyooma disagreed with an earlier statement by Dr. Musenero saying that PRESIDE had already been disbanded and was no more. He insisted that the Initiative is still in existence according to the evidence before his committee.
Kyooma revealed that PRESIDE has also been allocated UGX 25 billion Shillings according to a report by Parliament’s Presidential Affairs Committee on the policy statements for the next financial year 2022/2023. Kyooma also reported the lack of guidelines on reporting resulting in discrepancies and that the failure to harmonize allowance rates paid to scientists also led to wastage.
Among said that parliament has no capacity to ascertain money lost, saying that the appropriate government organs will be tasked to investigate the matter further and directed that the IG’s investigation should take into consideration the Parliament report by the Select Committee on Science, Technology, and Innovation and actions regarding the matter reported to the House within three months.
Kyooma observed that despite the commitment by PRESIDE in the Memorandum of Understanding –MOU with the Ministry of Science to account for the money advanced to scientists, the initiative did not. The Committee Chairperson also said that at the inception of PRESIDE, government failed to define its legality, analyze and optimize the structures that were already in place, and build on these as a way of driving the pathogen economy forward.
He recommended the disbanding of PRESIDE and further investigation by the Auditor General and Inspector General of Government –IGG. Reacting to the committee findings, Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, the Kira Municipality wondered why an entity- PRESIDE without a legal status was chosen to handle public funds in the process of developing a Ugandan Covid-19 vaccine.
Sarah Opendi, the Tororo Woman MP said that the report findings regarding anomalies were unfortunate. She said that Musenero fails to conduct herself well as per the Leadership Code Act.
Loy Katali, the Jinja Woman MP also demanded that the IGG investigates the matter further saying that Musenero should have resigned immediately as supervisor of PRESIDE when she was appointed Minister.
“The misuse of funds, diversion of funds, reallocation without approval is becoming a trend in this nation,” said Katali. “Whenever there is a project, people get excited because they want to eat that money. They have talked about the legal status of the entity…no wonder, it was a bonanza for some people.”
Mathias Mpuuga, the Leader of Opposition-LOP said that if the findings of the committee are watered down, they will have empowered a culture of impunity and that everyone will be culpable.
“We desire to see the country progress on a clear path where innovators and scientists guide our daily thinking and the path to development,” said Mpuuga. “Science must not only be motivated by availability of money but also availability of skills and commitment to invest skills in a particular output.”
LOP said that there is no way Minister Musenero can be exonerated on failing to account for funds. Geoffrey Ekanya, the Tororo North MP said that Minister Musenero, former Minister of Science, Elioda Tuwesigye and the former Permanent Secretary of the Ministry David Ebong need to be held accountable for any funds lost.
Asuman Basalirwa, the Bugiri Municipality MP said that the report is clear on misappropriation of funds. He said that this is a matter that requires further information to ascertain the individuals who were responsible for the money lost.
Basalirwa argued that the auditor general has already had an opinion in regard to the utilization of the funds and that the further investigations should now be carried out by the IGG.
Dan Kimosho, the Kazo County MP said that the parliament rules of procedure allow amendment of observations and recommendation of a House report. ‘Isn’t it procedurally right that instead of spending more money into investigating this matter, as parliament we make precise recommendations to the effect that whoever we will find culpable according to the observations, is held personally liable?” Kimosho asked.
Speaker Among said that it was good practice that observations made in the report speak to recommendations. She however said that a decision on the matter would be made after the debate is concluded.
Kimosho then moved a motion that the Minister of Science, Musenero is held responsible for any loss of fund and that parliament urges the President to have her step aside as further investigations are carried out.
Parliament adopted the amendment by Kimosho but Among said that parliament cannot direct the President and that it only urges him.