Clarity Emerges in 39 Billion Ugandan Shillings Tea Nursery Bed Operators Controversy

By Wilfred ARINDA

Renowned lawyer Patrick Katabazi Kiconco recently found himself in the spotlight as he appeared before the Committee on Commissions, Statutory Authorities, and State Enterprises (COSASE) to address the contentious issue of a 39 billion Ugandan Shillings payment made by the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) to his law firm. Following his appearance, allegations of embezzlement arose, sparking a media frenzy.

Our investigation reveals that this legal saga began in July 2019 when tea seedling suppliers, represented by the regional Chairperson of the Nursery Bed Operators Association, Mr. Frank Byaruhanga, sought legal counsel from Patrick Katabazi of Pathways Advocates. They were advocating for 711 tea suppliers with claims related to unpaid supplies and compensation for economic losses totaling 143 billion Ugandan Shillings. After numerous court appearances and mediation meetings, a judgment was reached in January 2021, securing a consolidated win valued at 132 billion Ugandan Shillings.

The disbursement of funds by NAADS commenced in June 2021, with 18 billion Ugandan Shillings disbursed for the initial phase of the settlement. Remarkably, the law firm received and disbursed 39 billion Ugandan Shillings, leaving 75 billion Ugandan Shillings still outstanding.

However, allegations of embezzlement involving the 39 billion Ugandan Shillings came to light, prompting regional and district-level leadership of nursery bed operators to deny any knowledge of such issues.

To address misinformation and bring clarity to the situation, tea farmer engagement meetings were organized in various districts in southwestern Uganda, where tea seedling suppliers are based.

These meetings, held in Rukungiri, Ntungamo, Kabale, Rukiga, Rubanda, Kisoro, and Kanungu, unanimously concluded that the 39 billion Ugandan Shillings disbursement was justifiable, dispelling public misconceptions.

Politics emerged as a key factor causing confusion in the tea matter. Lawyer Katabazi expressed interest in the Rukiga area MP seat on the NRM ticket, currently held by Independent and former FDC NEC member Roland Ndyomugyenyi Bish. Allegations surfaced that MP Bish and other politicians aimed to tarnish Katabazi’s image and disrupt the disbursement to hinder his political aspirations.

Speaking to journalists, Katabazi refuted the allegations, emphasizing that all tea nursery operators had received their payments. He questioned the timing of the accusations and suggested that politicians were manipulating the situation for their benefit in the upcoming elections.

He explained, “The trouble began on 18th July this year when we received a court ruling granting the nursery tea operators Shs 70 billion. Politicians, including MP Rowland Ndyomugyengyi Bish, are apprehensive about individuals like me who have expressed interest in contesting for the Rukiga county Member of Parliament seat. They are attempting to obstruct the transaction of Shs 75 billion, which would otherwise bolster my political standing.”

Katabaazi suggested that the politicians’ intentions were to manipulate the situation to their advantage in the upcoming elections. He added, “The assertion that nursery tea operators were not compensated is baseless and is being fueled by politicians with political interests.”

Katabazi called on MP Bish to provide a list of nursery tea operators who were unpaid instead of resorting to guesswork and political maneuvering. He warned that efforts to harass him and others would only strengthen their resolve.

The lawyer also questioned why MP Bish had not publicly acknowledged receiving funds himself as a tea farmer. Katabazi revealed that he paid Hon Bish Shs 200 million as a tea farmer, which he had not disclosed to the public.

Last month, COSASE summoned Patrick Kiconco Katabaazi to address allegations of misappropriation. This came after a query raised in the 2021/2022 Auditor General’s report revealed discrepancies in the disbursement of the Shs 39 billion intended for tea nursery operators who had sued the government for failing to procure their seedlings.