Malaria control experts held

Charles Ariko, Edward Anyoli & Justus Akampa | 10 Mar 2010
New Vision
Three top officials in the Ministry of Health who were in charge of the malaria control programme were yesterday remanded to Luzira Prison after they were charged with corruption.

The officials were Dr. Richard Ndyomugyenyi, the programme officer, Dr. Myers Lugemwa, a senior medical officer, and Martin Shibeki, a programme assistant.

The three are accused of ordering and distributing anti-malaria drugs between 2008 and 2009 in order to 'illicitly' obtain benefits for themselves or a third party.

The three were brought to the Buganda Road Court aboard a Police patrol truck, escorted by Police officers from the nearby Central Police Station where they had spent the night after their arrest on Tuesday.

The magistrate, John Wekesa, said he would rule on Friday whether to grant them bail or not. The accused took turns to share the only chair that was in dock. At one point, Dr. Ndyomugyenyi had to be given fruit juice during the court session, that lasted over two hours.

The magistrate rejected the arguments by the defence lawyers that the charge sheet was defective as it did not give details of the offence committed. Wekesa said such technicalities could be argued out during the trial.

Earlier, the lawyers argued that magistrates have the right to grant bail to suspects accused of corruption. They disputed a directive that requires suspects accused of corruption to seek bail from the High Court, saying it was not legally binding.

Among the people who came to stand surety for the suspects were three professors from Makerere Medical School, senior medical doctors and the chairman of the Health Service Commission, Prof George Kirya. Others were Prof. Patrick Nsubuga Mutanda and Prof. Gabriel Kinene.

While applying for bail, one of the lawyers informed the court that Ndyomugyenyi was diabetic and had hypertension.

"Sending him to Luzira Prison would be like condemning him to fatal conditions," Nester Byamugisha told the magistrate.

The lawyer who represented Lugemwa informed the court that his client had diligently worked for the Government for over 30 years in different capacities and had headed the Government medical team that defended the controversial proposal to use DDT to eradicate mosquitoes in the country.

At the mention of his long Government service, Lugemwa, who was initially composed, removed his spectacles and wiped his eyes.

The three are the most senior health ministry officials to be arrested and charged since President Museveni launched his monitoring unit five months ago to check on theft of drugs and service delivery.

At least 50 health workers have so far been arrested and charged across the country.

During a press briefing at the Media Centre yesterday, the monitoring unit reported that about sh5b worth of Government drugs had been recovered in the ongoing crackdown.

The team said they had discovered various forms of corruption in the different districts, which included embezzlement, the creation of ghost health workers, absenteeism and theft of drugs.

The officials, led by assistant directors for central and eastern regions, Ponsiano Jumba and Mpaata Owagage, said the drugs most commonly stolen were Coartem, Arco and Duocortexin anti-malaria medicines.

They cited Rakai, Gulu, Soroti, Manafwa, Sironko and Mityana as the districts where drugs had been recovered.

Jumba said there were also cases where health officials stole medical equipment.

The team cited a case where the person in charge of a health centre in Sironko took an X-Ray, a vehicle, gas canisters and other equipment.

The team suspects that some of the stolen Ugandan drugs are being exchanged with those from neighbouring countries.

The unit is monitoring the borders in conjunction with the Internal Security Organisation (ISO) and other investigative agencies.