Uganda Red Cross Society (URCS) secretary general Michael Richard Nataka is under probe over suspected smuggled goods that were seized at his mansion in Munyonyo, a city suburb.
Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) and the Police raided the mansion on Monday night, seizing suspected contraband goods worth over sh800m. “A team of URA offi cials and the Police found a big group of people off-loading the items. The team called for reinforcement from Kabalagala Police to secure the place.
One URCS staff identifi ed as Ssimbwa, who was found at the scene, was questioned and released,” sources said. URA and the Police believe the goods, mainly construction materials, were disguised as property for the URCS to evade taxes. URCS is by law exempted from paying taxes on its items for humanitarian operations.
The organisation is mandated to carry out humanitarian activities. The goods include 20 giant plasma television screens, 10 computers, four refrigerators, disjointed beds, sofa sets, chairs, tables, umbrellas, wall and table glasses/mirrors among other interior decoration items.
Acting on a tip-off, URA anti-smuggling officers monitored a Maersk container with the goods from Mombasa up to Industrial Area where they were offl oaded onto two Fuso trucks.
“We expected the goods to go to a URCS bond but we were shocked to see them being loaded
onto trucks and heading to Munyonyo,” a source told New Vision.
“The goods were transported on two trucks, registration numbers UAH 136M and UAA 096U, to Munyonyo on Monday evening. “Workers we found at the house said their boss was Nataka,” the source said.
The Fuso trucks that were carrying the goods were being followed by people who switched off electricity in the area ostensibly to facilitate discreet offloading of the items.
The trucks with goods were taken to the URA headquarters in Nakawa where they are still being held. Investigators suspect some of the items could have already been transported to Mbale to a construction site for a hotel.
URA is investigating whether the hotel belongs to Nataka. Investigators also found at the house a recently imported Toyota Tundra pick-up UAT 416K. URA is also investigating circumstances under which it was imported and registered.
“The goods were not for any personal use. They belonged to the Uganda Red Cross Society. Every consignment which comes, we write to the URA. That was done and the exemption was granted by URA commissioner,” Nataka told New Vision.
NATAKA SPEAKS OUT
“The goods were in the customs bonded warehouse. Yesterday (Monday), the goods were released out of the bond. Unfortunately, our trucks were not available. I requested the clearing agent to fi nd the trucks to load the items. By the time we got out of the warehouse, it was already 7:00pm.”
“I advised them to take them to the residence of the secretary general in Munyonyo. I was not at home. But in the process of offloading, I got information that armed people were at my home . There was misinformation that goods had dodged taxes and were for personal use. That is not true,” he argued.
Nataka also said the URCS board was aware of the consignment and the materials were destined for the Africa Youth Leadership Training Centre in Mukono owned by URCS. He said the consignment included an ambulance and materials for equipping the centre such as chairs, beds, umbrellas and coffee tables.
“URCS does a lot of humanitarian work and we have been focusing on self-sustainability.
We have a lot of land given by the local governments and we have been buying some. We have been investing in real estate,” he said, adding that they have been building the centre in Mukono in hases.
Nataka admitted there was a vehicle found in his compound, a Toyota Tundra, but said it belonged to a businessman although the Bill of Lading had the Red Cross as the importer.
URA’s assistant commissioner for public and corporate affairs Sarah Banage said it was common for the tax authority to impound goods for non-payment of taxes.
“Such people have to pay up with a fine and life continues. For us it is a normal occurrence in tax administration for people to disguise themselves so as to dodge taxes. That is work we wake up to do,” she said.
This comes at a time when other URCS top managers are facing accusations for operating a business company linked to the organisation under unclear circumstances. Musalaba Mwekundu, a limited company, is reportedly involved in dealings with URCS and it is feared the society could have lost money in the transactions.
A whistle-blower had complained to the Inspectorate of Government over the operations of the company involving URCS top managers. Musalaba Mwekundu (Red Cross’ in Kiswahili) was formed in 2003 and it provides financial services and items to URCS without competitive bidding.
Nataka, national chairman Tom Buruku, vice-chairman and honorary treasurer Stephen Mutenyo, as well as legal advisor Francis Buwule are among the eight directors of Musalaba Mwekundu. Buwule is also the registered Musalaba Mwekundu company secretary.
The other directors are Ben Sekamatte, Moona Lukyamuzi, Mid Muhereza and an Asian called Patel Ramanalal. URCS is the registered majority shareholder in Musalaba Mwekundu Limited (MML) with 997 shares out of the total 1,000.
The firm had the initial share capital of sh10m on January 29, 2003. Housed by URCS at its premises on Lumumba Avenue in Kampala, Musalaba Mwekundu supplies several items to the humanitarian agency.
According to the Musalaba Mwekundu website; www.musalabamwekundu.com, the company was formed to carry out business operations and mobilise resources for URCS. Its general manager is Khalid Ssimbwa.
It is alleged the prices at which Musalaba Mwekundu supplies items and services to URCS are infl ated, which was reportedly costing the society billions.
It is also alleged that URCS had debts amounting to over sh5b as of December 31, 2012. It is alleged that the old URCS vehicles are normally sold to Musalaba Mwekundu, which maintains the original number plates, in breach of the regulations.
The same vehicles are then allegedly hired by URCS as ambulances or emergency service vehicles.