LAND PROBE: How govt land is stolen | After a technical break, the seven-member Land Inquiry 2017 Commission headed by Lady Justice Catherine Bamugemereire handled two big cases from July 24 –28.
Kampala, Uganda | JULIUS BUSINGE | In the two cases, one main issue emerged: forceful evictions of the powerless off land by those with power, money, and connections. Top government officials; including the Inspector General of Government Irene Mulyagonja, Inspector General of Police Gen. Kale Kayihura, the Uganda Land Commission chairman Baguma Isoke have testified. Others include local administration officials and politicians of Jinja Municipal Council and top businessman Simpson Birungi, owner of the well-known personal care company, Movit Products Ltd.
Underlying key issues that emerged were similar: impunity and disrespect of the law governing land, influence peddling by government agents, abuse of office by top government officials, corruption, incompetence, forgery of important documents, and a disconnect between key government agencies in making decisions on land matters, intimidation, and loss of property and money by government.
The first case that the commission handled involved the illegal giveaway of government land and property with impunity in Jinja, the main town in eastern Uganda. Theft of the prime property on Plot 60-62 Alidina Road involved officials of Jinja Municipal Council and several government departments and ministries.
The property comprised several business premises operated by over 200 people under the Privatisation Unit of the Ministry of Finance but ended up in the hands of a businessman, one Simpson Birungi who officially paid a paltry Shs2.5 million for it but unofficially paid a Shs70 million bribe to a long chain of officials involved in the theft.
The traders offered to pay Shs80 million to the government if the premises were for sale. The commission heard that then-minister of Tourism, Trade and Industry, Kahinda Otafiire, who is the current minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, ordered the final dubious giveaway of the land to Birungi in a deal that sucked in President Yoweri Museveni’s step-brother, Michael Nuwagira alias Toyota. The Bamugereire Commission heard that Birungi, while brandishing an allocation letter from Otafiire’s ministry, and assisted by a squad of policemen, ignored an ongoing court process and an order by the Inspector General of Police, threw the traders out of the premises and razed the government building. The incident occurred on January 16, 2015. Birungi said he was to construct a 6-storey commercial building on the plot. Instead, he is currently operating over 60 shops in an unfinished three-story block that he occupied without a certificate of completion.
In the immediate fall-out from the case, IGP Kayihura on July 25 suspended from duty four top police commanders allegedly involved in the dubious sale and eviction.
The second case involves the dubious allocation of government land to Asian business people. The Commission heard that officials of the Jinja District Land Board allocated over seven hectares of land on Block 103 in Butembe County, Jinja district to the Asian owners of a private company called Favourite Enterprises. The land initially belonged to the Uganda Land Commission which purported to allocate it to the National Fisheries Research Institute (NAFIRI) in 2011. But When NAFIRI attempted to acquire land titles for the land, they were blocked. Instead officials of the Jinja District Land Board and Jinja Municipal Council allegedly struck a deal with the Asians.
Patrick Kasumba, the MP for Bujenje Constituency in western Uganda, is one of those closely following the Bamugemereire Commission’s work.
He told The Independent on Aug.01 that in all cases he has followed, it is clear that the rich and the powerful in the government are kicking the helpless and poor off the land. In his view, the Commission is doing exactly what it was set up to do; by rucking up the dirt in the land sectors of government departments.
“What I don’t know is whether the recommendations in the report are going to be implemented,” he said.
He said failure to implement the recommendations of the report would negatively impact on public funds. But he said, those seeking justice should use the recommendations and issues emerging from the commission of inquiry to advocate for action.
“We need to call for strong action and I wish we come up with one strong voice,” he said, “One voice from myself may not be enough.”
Kasumba said that what may fail collective action of the different groups and areas is having different problems which require different approach to achieve justice.
He said the Amendment Bill on compulsory land acquisition that is being pushed through parliament by the government is targeting land in specific regions such as Bunyoro where there is a key resource – oil and gas.
He said that Bunyoro Parliamentary Caucus is using all available space to educate the people in Bunyoro about their rights on land and what they should do when they are facing issues regarding land grabbing and evictions. He said they plan to meet President Museveni to bring to his attention key issues on matters land.