IN our weekly court verdict section this wee, we cover the trial of Kampala Mayor, Nasser Ntege Ssebaggala who was arrested in 1998 by US Federal authorities over possession of fake dollars and tried over the crime.
All we can do is imagine what happened that day at the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. What we know for a fact is that day, June 13, 1998, Kampalaâ€™s mayor of two months, Nasser Ssebagala, was pulled off a Sabena Airways flight enroute to Brussels and then to Entebbe. Initial reports indicated that he had been arrested in a case involving stolen travelerâ€™s cheques.
In court, the US authorities charged Ssebagala with six counts of fraud and two of making false declaration.
According to them, the man, fondly known by his supporters back home as Seya, had engineered a grand scam to defraud a bank in the United States â€“ Bank Boston. What followed was a court process that stirred up enough drama to dominate Uganda national news for the next six months.
Ssebagalaâ€™s bail application lasted three months, its twists and turns giving the papers here quite a serving of front page fodder.
Initially, he appeared before a New York federal court, which released him into the custody of then Ugandaâ€™s ambassador to the UN, Semakula Kiwanuka.
Ssebagalaâ€™s passport was, however, confiscated and under the terms of his release, he was not allowed to leave the ambassodorâ€™s residence. A later court hearing was scheduled to decide whether he would be kept in detention while awaiting trial or he would get his passport back and be allowed to return home until the trial. At that point, Sebagala was facing only two charges of lying to the US customs authorities.
On an earlier visit, Ssebagala had filled in a customs form that asked how much money he had on him. He checked the option of under $10,000 (about sh20m) yet he had $108,000 (about sh216m).
The charges for telling lies to the customs officials, however, turned out to be mere â€˜holding charges.â€™ Within a week of his arrest, even before his bail hearing could take place, the US authorities slapped six more charges on Ssebagala, this time for fraud. Two of them were for depositing altered and falsified travellerâ€™s cheques amounting to $200,000 (about sh400,000m now) on his Bank Boston account, two other counts were for attempting to deposit two other falsified cheques amounting to $138,000 (about sh276m) while the other two counts were for transporting the latter two cheques into the US.
Sebagala, according to the US authorities, had sent the cheques into the US through DHL, a courier company, and called a woman friend in Boston, asking her to pick and deposit them.
When the first bail hearing started 10 days after the Kampala mayor had been arrested, for reasons unclear at the time, both the US prosecutors and his lawyers agreed to postpone it for a week.
However, even the second hearing on July 1, 1998, was postponed for another week because this time, Ssebagala had failed to raise the $100,000 (about sh200m) bail cash demanded by the New York court. Upto that point, Seya had raised $70,000 (about sh140m) and told court that he expected the rest of it to come from his wellwishers back home.
It was then decided that the case be moved to Boston, where the offences had been committed. In addition to the the $100,000 (about sh200m) bail fee, Ssebagala had to deposit $50,000 (about 100m) as a bond, giving assurance that he would appear in the Boston court. Ssebagalaâ€™s lawyers deposited the bond money, which they said had been raised in Kampala and Ssebagalaâ€™s case was moved to Boston.
The next bail hearing in Boston was not a success for Ssebagala. Instead, he was put under house arrest.
The judge said Ssebagala and his wife, Naava Nabagesera, had appeared untrustworthy during the bail hearing and that since Ssebagala had ties with Ugandaâ€™s diplomatic community, there was a chance they could help him leave before the trial.
Marriane Bowler, the judge, said she was tempted to jail Ssebagala until trial, but instead opted for house arrest with some tough conditions.
In addition, he had to deposit another cash bond of $50,000 (abou sh100m)with the court and an unsecured bond of $950,000 (about sh1.9b) and his passport. He would also at all times wear an electronic bracelet around his ankle.
The bracelet was connected to an alarm system that would alert the Police in case Ssebagala left the house of his arrest. Ssebagala was moved into the house of one Edmund Narine, a US citizen, who had volunteered to house Ssebagala.
Only a few people were allowed to visit him while under house arrest and as a result, Ssebagala became very lonely, according to newspaper reports. He spent his time studying an online course on politics from renowned professor Ali Mazrui and Aloysius Rugira, a renowned university lecturer in the US.
While this happened in Boston, a petition by 500 voters, contesting the academic qualifications Ssebagala had used for his nomination, was being heard in the High Court in Kampala.
At the same time, a cheque of $11,000 (about sh22m) that he had earlier issued to Nile Bank bounced because he did not have enough money on his account and his son, Yusuf Ssebagala, was sued by Standard Chartered Bank for failing to pay $2,900 (about sh5.8m). Ssebagala had before his troubles tried to pay his sonâ€™s debt by issuing a cheque from his Bank Boston account, but it bounced.
Still trying to get bail
In September 1998, Ssebagalaâ€™s lawyers did not succeed in securing bail for him. As a condition for hearing this plea, the judge asked Ssebagala to submit a list of all his assets and accounts. Ssebagala, however, dropped the plea and instead instructed his lawyers to push for a speedy trial.
The trial started on November 2. An African-American judge, Regnald Lindsay, was assigned the case. A total of 30 witnesses were lined up to testify for and against Ssebagala and 12 jurors were selected to hear the case.
The trial, too, had its glitches. A day after the selection of jurors, two of them reportedly fell sick and the case was adjourned for two days. Then, two days into the trial, there was a short disruption of the process, following a false fire alarm.
On November 4, when the trial finally kicked off, prosecution called on the jury to convict Ssebagala on all the counts. Led by assistant US attorney, Theodore Chuang, prosecution told court that Ssebagala had a grand scheme to defraud Bank Boston, a bank under fedral protection.
Ssebagalaâ€™s laywers, led by Paul Kelly, however argued that Ssebagala was innocent. Kelly said Ssebagala had only made a genuine mistake on the US customs form because he had problems with the English language.
Relating to the fraudulent bank transactions, Kelly argued that his client was a victim of another conman. â€œThere are always two sides to a story and there are clearly two sides to this case. Let me tell you the other side to this story,â€ Kelly opened his defence of Ssebagala.
He told court that the person behind the scam was not Ssebagala but one Ssesanga, a former manager of Kisasi Forex Bureau, which was owned by Ssebagala. He argued that over the past two years, Ssebagala had been fully involved in politics and had not closely supervised the running of his bureau. As a result, Ssesanga, the manager, had either bought or accepted fraudulent travelerâ€™s cheques, some of which Ssebagala himself had unknowingly used. â€œFrankly, Mr Ssebagala feels betrayed. Perhaps he trusted these employees too much, perhaps he should have paid closer attention to the forex bureau â€“ but he did not, he could not,â€ Kelly told the jurors.
During the trial, there was a lot of controversy surrounding two prosecution witnesses, Santo Apire, then a director in the Bank of Uganda, who testified about the dealings of Ssebagalaâ€™s Kisasi Forex Bureau and Annette Bowens, a Ugandan living and married in Boston who had helped Ssebagala with some of the transactions.
Kelly discredited Apire, saying he had been sent by the Uganda Government to sink Ssebagala, a political threat who had defeated the Government-backed Christopher Yiga in the Kampala mayoral race. He alleged that Apire had been requested by Ugandaâ€™s criminal investigation chief to testify and his expenses in the US were partly being paid by the Uganda government, through Bank of Uganda (BoU). It turned out that the said expense payments were allowances payable to him as a BoU staff member traveling on official trip. Kelly also alleged that the US government had forced Bowens to testify against her friend, Ssebagala.
The main trial arguments rotated around whether or not Ssebagala knew that the cheques were forged and whether or not he intended to defraud Bank Boston.
The prosecution argued its cases by calling the people from whom the cheques were stolen to testify. All of them said they had no business transactions with Ssebagala.
The defence witnesses on the other hand testified to the effect that Ssebagala had been too busy to supervise his business, which gave his Forex Bureau manager the chance to engage in fraudulent acts. Ssebagalaâ€™s campaign assistant testified that while on the campaign trail, Ssesanga had often showed up with papers for his boss to sign and he often had signed them without reading because he was busy. That, according to the defence team, explained Ssebagalaâ€™s signatures on some of the documents relating to the fake cheques.
In his closing argument, Chuang refuted these claims, saying even if Ssebagala had not known that the cheques were bad, receiving such large sums of money from people and organisations he had no dealings with should have told him that something was wrong.
Prosecution also pointed out that Ssebagala had drawn money from his account that was over and above the earning he should have expected from his businesses.
Ssebagalaâ€™s English also became an issue in the case. The defence argued that his English was inadequate and he had not understood the question on the customs declaration form, hence the false declaration. To prove this, Kelly tendered in evidence of clippings of newspaper articles, scorning Ssebagalaâ€™s command of the language and a video footage showing his campaign rallies in Luganda.
Prosecution showed a 20-minute video of Ssebagala speaking English at his inauguration and made it a point to ask all witnesses who knew Ssebagala about his language abilities. Most business contacts in the US said they had no problem communicating with Ssebagala in English.
At the end of the day, the jurors believed the prosecution over the defence. Ssebagala was found guilty on all the eight counts of making false customs declaration, bank fraud and transporting forged documents into the US.
As the verdict was read to him on December 4, 1998, Ssebagala sat expressionless in the courtroom. Close friend John Ken Lukyamuzi and other Ugandans in the courtroom held their heads down in shock, while the prosecutor, Chuang, shot up to ask court to detain him. The Kampala mayor of eight months, six of which he had spent in the US facing the charges, was whisked to jail to await his sentence.
On hearing the news, his father back home fainted while new wife Naava wept on air during a Radio One talkshow she had called into to defend her husband. On Febraury 29, Judge Lindsay sentenced Ssebagala to 11 months in jail.
No money, No Appeal
Lawyer, Kelly, who had vowed to appeal the case later ditched his client on realising that Ssebagala would not be able to pay his legal fees to the tune of $100,000 (about sh200m). Ssebagala served all the 11 months, a time he used to study and obtain about seven certificates in a wide range of subjects, including English and computer mathematics.
The rise of bicupuli trade
By Lydia Namubiru
Bicuupuli trade is believed to have been born in the Idi Amin era, the days when black market trade in coffee made overnight millionaires out of ordinary Ugandans. At the time, these millionaires could only legally access foreign currency from the Bank of Uganda, a rigourous and bureaucratic process.
Needless to say, the policy of the central bank being the sole provider of foreign exchange left very many people who wanted to buy money unserved. That is why a network of young Kampala men, who came to be known as Kibanda boys, found a way of closing the service gap.
How it worked
In ordinary circumstances, cheque leafs once submitted and the money drawn from the bank account indicated, the bank that receives the cheque burns the leaf. However, bichupuli dealers collude with banking officials and steal the used cheques.
The name of the payee and amount are then deleted using a special chemical or painstakingly scrapped off using a surgical blade. A new payee and amount (usually colossal) is filled in and the cheque is ready for re-banking. More cautious dealers will either open up an account using fake names or issue the altered cheque to an unsuspecting goods supplier, usually one who is overseas.
In Ssebagalaâ€™s, case for instance, one of the cheques had initially been a $400 (about sh800,000) cheque issued by the United Nations to an airline company. When it was altered, it was filled in to be payable to Ssebagalaâ€™s Bank Boston account with the amount of $40,000 (about sh80m).
This particular cheque was described by experts in court as a perfect deception whose alteration could not have been seen by a naked eye. The bank indeed credited Ssebagalaâ€™s account with the money and debited the United Nations to the same effect. The fraud was not detected until many months later.
Bicuupuli dealers were often able to get away with banking fraudulent cheques because of the time difference between when a bank cashed a cheque and when the person whose account is debited sees and reacts to their bank statement.
Although not as pervasive as it used to be in the 1990s, the trade in fake cheques still exists on the streets of downtown Kampala.
Who is Nasser Ssebagala?
As a boy, Nasser Ssebagala was vending vegetables alongside his father in Nakasero Market. He went on to become one of the richest young men in Kampala in the 1970s. His flashy new cars and lavish lifestyle got him into trouble with the Idi Amin government which arrested him ostensibly for being a showoff.
He is believed to have been the first Ugandan to own a supermarket in Kampala, Ugantico Supermarket on Kampala Road. The others were owned by Indians.
Sebagala joined politics in the early 1980s when he joined DP. He campaigned for DP presidential candidate Paul Semwogerere in the 1996 presidential elections before he himself run for Kampala mayor in 1998.
In the race, the Kampala elite poured scorn at him. He was, however, a popular figure among the ordinary man on the streets of Kampala. He thus beat NRMâ€™s Christopher Yiga in the mayoral race in 1998. Unfortunately, he was arrested for fraud in the US, and lost the seat after he was convicted.
After serving 11 months in jail, he returned to a heroâ€™s welcome at Entebbe Airport, announced his intentions to stand for president and went ahead to pick nomination papers during the election season of 2001. The Electral Commission, however, turned down his nomination on the grounds that his academic papers were not sufficient as required by the constitution. Ssebagalaâ€™s furious supporters protested and sold many copies of his academic documents.
However, most of the said documents turned out to be informal certificates like those received in prison and certificates of attendance to conferences.
In 2002, Ssebagala went back to school, opting for the prestigious Oxford College in the UK. Curiously, his studies there were partly sponsored by the state. Today, he has a post graduate diploma in management and planning, as well as an assortment of other certificates.
He run for Kampala mayor in 2006 and, once again, won on the strength of his non-elite electorate. He is set to stand for DP presidency in next yearâ€™s primaries and still has ambitions of running for the countryâ€™s presidency come 2011.
Ssebagala jailed in US over fake money