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URA Probe: Many Corrupt Employees ‘Left Out’

AS THE judicial commission of inquiry into corruption in the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) wound up its public hearing of testimonies last week,
accusations of “unfairness” were being voiced by some of the staff investigated by the commission over their wealth.
Sources said that although there were some people in the URA who at one time were suspended for helping importers evade taxes, they were not called to the commission and their wealth was not investigated.
“Unless they tell us the basis on which some of us were picked, we shall continue thinking that they were targeting a certain group within URA,” said an employee, adding that the probe left out many colleagues whom he had thought would be called for investigation.
In its investigations, the commission found that four companies – Mukwano, Kakira, Grand Imperial and Genesis – owed the authority more than Ush30 billion ($16.7 million) in unpaid taxes. Past revenue shortfalls have always been in the range of Ush30-40 billion ($$16.7-22.3 million).
“We have been hearing about a list of the 100 most corrupt people in the authority, but this was not given to the commission and we would want to know
why,” said a member of staff. Other employees of the authority, which has for several years failed to meet revenue collection targets, echoed the same message.
A source at the commission of inquiry, which is headed by high court judge Julia Sebutinde, said he had heard the allegations that some employees of URA who were supposed to appear before the commission had been left out.
However, Geoffrey Kiryabwire, one of the counsels appearing for the commission, said they only followed up on complaints brought to them by the public.
“We put in adverts in the papers calling on the general public to provide us with information about those they thought were corrupt,” said Mr Kiryabwire, adding that he himself appeared on TV programmes encouraging people to come forward with information.
He said the commission could not know all the people suspected of being corrupt unless the public came out with information.
Assistant Commissioner in charge of Tax Education and Public Relations Christopher Kiwanuka Kaweesa, when contacted, declined to comment, saying the
information could only be cross-checked with the office of the Commissioner General. The judicial commission of inquiry into alleged corruption in URA ended its public hearings last week. Mr Kiryabwire said that the commission was now concentrating on writing its report, which is expected to make far-reaching recommendations.
“We have already started writing the report. So, we may not be holding any more public hearings unless something really serious comes up,” he said.
Set up in May, the commission was supposed to finish its work within four months.
During its sittings at the International Conference Centre, the commission heard testimonies from taxpayers who were forced to bribe officials in order to have their merchandise cleared. Testimony was also given by importers whose merchandise has been held by the tax body for several months.
The commission also heard testimony of how some business people rushed to State House whenever there was a tax dispute.
Some informers also said they were not paid their 10 per cent of the tax recovered, while in some cases it was shared out.
However, the commission has established that the rumors about corruption in URA were true, and this was denying the government billions of shillings in tax revenue.
“It is hard to believe how some of these people acquired their wealth within such a short time,” a source said, adding that it was not surprising that the authority had for the past four financial years failed to achieve its revenue targets.
Informed sources said that infighting among URA officials had also increased the panic within the authority. Employees of the authority who thought that a few of their colleagues were living in luxury and behaving as though they were above the law reported them to the commission.
Among other issues, the commission of inquiry looked at the declaration forms of URA employees, which they have to fill every year detailing their wealth, as well as the conduct of taxpayers and how the authority could be helped to improve tax collection. Many of the staff investigated, it was found, had not declared all their wealth. Most of those investigated were junior officers, but their wealth left
the public wondering how such junior members of staff could have acquired so much wealth within a few years of employment.
The report, like the one on the Sebutinde enquiry into corruption in the police force, is expected to result in changes in the authority. The public has great expectations that the commission will end corruption in the authority and improve tax collection.
URA is considered by financial analysts to be among the most corrupt government departments. For a long time now, both the public and the government have been accusing URA officials of abetting corruption and smuggling, making it impossible for revenue targets to be achieved.
Donors support Uganda’s annual budget by up to 52 per cent, meaning that improved revenue collection is crucial to the country achieving a balanced
budget in the near future. Economists say that this massive level of budget support is unsustainable given donor fatigue in the funding of budgets of Third World countries.