Access to information held by public bodies is still a challenge for ordinary Ugandans

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The inhabitants of Bushenyi District in Uganda have seen their right to access information blatantly violated by public bodies; reflecting the plight of thousands of ordinary citizens who wish to hold their leaders accountable.

Unusual and suspicious delays in the execution of a contract to build a new stadium in the District of Bushenyi amid rumours that the District had issued certificates against which payments were made when work had not been done prompted this community led by Civil Society Forum, a local NGO, on December 8, 2009 to demonstrate and file a series of requests for access to documents related to the contract.

The first request was made to District Local Governments with copies to the Resident District Commissioner, the President’s representative at district level whose duty is, amongst others, to monitor government programmes on the President’s behalf.

With a mute response from local authorities, the residents again led by Civil Society Forum brought the matter to the attention of the Monitoring and Evaluation Unit of the Office of the Prime Minister as well as the Department of Ethics and Integrity, Office of the President in December 2010. Still these efforts did not help citizens get the documents or the contract executed as required.

The contract entailed improving and constructing a stadium at the district at the cost of 906 million Ugandan Shillings (about $ 377 500) was awarded in 2005 to HABA Construction Company, an entity owned by Mr. Hassan Bassajabalaba, a member of the NRM Central Executive Committee, the ruling party’s top policy organ.

Facing these huge obstacles to enjoying their constitutional right to information, this community had to seek external help. The Human Rights Network of Uganda (HURINET) stepped in and joined the CSO Forum to take the matter to court in the beginning of 2011. On the scheduled date of the hearing, HURINET lawyers were ready and attended court but hearing did not take place because the Chief Magistrate was reportedly sick.

In a letter dated 10th May 2011 (but received in July 2011) the District finally yielded to pressure and responded by providing among others the architectural plan of the stadium, the four certificates of completion, contract agreement with bills of quantities and evidence of payments made. According to these documents, the contractor did not only receive the contracted sum but also took the Local Government to Court and won an additional 40 million Ugandan Shillings (about $16 667) for breach of contract yet very little work had been done. Following the filing of the case in court by CSOs the District Local Government contracted another company Rose ST to complete the works.

These developments may be a victory for access to information, but they also confirm how far mindsets in public institutions need to change from secrecy to openness to ensure effective enforcement of Uganda’s access to information legislation.

Concerns similar to that of Bushenyi were the basis for information request made by Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) to the Uganda Land Commission, Ministry of Education and Sports as well as the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development. All the three public bodies have refused access and have never reported to Parliament on information requests received in compliance with Section 43 of the Access to Information Act.

It is not clear why the Auditor General has never raised questions. There is also no information as to why the Resident District Commissioner, the Office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Ethics and Integrity did not act on the reports by the Western Civil Society Forum. It remains to be seen if the Inspector General of Government will take interest in the matter now that records have been made available and clearly something went wrong somewhere.

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