Last week, the chairman at Uganda Land Commission (ULC), Baguma Isoke, appeared before the Justice Catherine Bamugemereire-led commission of inquiry into land matters to explain how government lost its land in Jinja to a private developer.
Isoke denied knowledge of a cabinet resolution ordering his commission to repossess this property that was fraudulently obtained by Simpson Birungi of Birus Property Services and Movit Cosmetics.
Isoke promised to immediately handle the cabinet directive, which he said he was seeing for the first time. Earlier, Birungi, the principal in this controversy, told the commission that he did not know of any government directives barring him from constructing a building at the contested piece of land.
Baguma Isoke before the land probe
Isoke maintained that ULC considered the no-objection letter by the permanent secretary of ministry of Trade to offer a lease to Birungi. ALI TWAHA and ZAHRAH ABIGABA captured the proceedings during a cross-examination led by Counsel Ebert Byenkya.
Byenkya: You appeared here last time; you are just reminded that you are still under oath. You provided us with a letter dated July 31, 2017 addressed to the chairperson of inquiry providing us with some information. I want us to just go through that document.
I see that, in paragraph three, you have searched the records of the registry of ULC and have come across some information. Maybe just explain the part regarding ownership of land and what your findings are.
Isoke: My lord, government owns the land known as plot 60 to 62 Alidina road in Jinja under freehold tenure. I have presented a copy of certificate of title which is in the custody of ULC.
I note that on the owner’s copy of the certificate, there is no indication of the user department as is the practice to indicate a user department on any registered or even unregistered government land. The title is clean as of today.
Byenkya: You indicate that there is a practice of recording the user department but, in this case, it is not recorded. Do you have any idea why this anomaly would occur?
Isoke: No idea, but the omission may be [because of] unseriousness on the side of those who are supposed to do it.
Byenkya: I also note that the title which is an X1 is said to be addressed under the Public Land Ordinance 1962. Is that correct?
Isoke: Yes, my lord.
Byenkya: …It seems initially this property had been given out under a lease from Jinja Municipal Council. Are you aware of how this transformation could have happened?
Isoke: My lord, I am not aware.
Byenkya: At least we have established that the land is owned by the ULC. Please go on to the second paragraph regarding ownership…
Isoke: My lord, ULC sitting on June 2, 2011 under minute no.2/2011(a) (24) approved the application for the grant of leasehold to Birus Property Services and I have presented a copy of the minute as annex two.
Byenkya: And the minute you are referring to would be the minute on page nine which talks about Jinja district?
Isoke: Yes, if I may read it, the commission considered and took note of the no-objection letter provided by the applicant, thereafter granted a five-year lease term extendable to 49 years on terms to be determined by the chief government valuer.
Byenkya: However, there is a remark you make there…
Isoke: However, my lord, the no-objection letter from the permanent secretary [PS] ministry of Tourism, Trade and Industry is missing on file.
Byenkya: Can you comment on that. Is it coincidental that this no-objection letter is now missing?
Isoke: When I searched the file, my lord, the provisional file, there is a small folder which was created at the time of application for extension. I found a report to the head of public service.
This report was made by secretary, ULC. It’s headed; ‘Controversy surrounding the eviction of tenants and demolition of a government building on plot 60 to 62 Alidina road in Jinja.’ Now, what is pertinent to the letter of the PS is the following: The PS said the original file was not available, instead, a back-up file was availed to me [that is to PS] by the registrar ULC.
This was on July 15, 2015. The head of public service required the secretary ULC to report on this controversy and in particular on the involvement of the principal land officer, Mr Paul Idude, in the controversy. The secretary, in answer, attached a report by Mr Idude, a report which was addressed to the secretary and, in this matter, it touches the no-objection letter.
Mr Idude wrote on June 22, 2015: “In the instant case, the applicant actually presented the no-objection letter from the ministry of Tourism, Trade and Industry at the time of application. This no-objection letter was not at the instance of the ULC as is the case normally. But still, ULC considered the request and granted allocation.”
Property files at Lands ministry
Byenkya: We don’t have both those letters as part of your report. But from what I understand in that second response, the normal practice would be that the ULC to seek the no-objection, and not the other way round.
Byenkya: So, that would suggest that was anomalous in this application process?
Isoke: It’s not our practice to seek the applicant to get the no-objection. It should be government-to-government.
Byenkya: If we may go on the paragraph of ownership, there is a paragraph which is headed “my lord…”
Isoke: My lord, I wish to report that the original file for Birus Property Services is missing from the registry of ULC.
This file is supposed to contain, among other documents, the application for the land, an inspection report before the grant, a survey report, valuation report, payment receipts for various taxes and fees; the lease agreement is missing, and pertinent correspondences for the transaction. The information I have written from this letter is from a temporary folder of that reference containing a few copies of what should be in a substantive land transaction file.
Byenkya: Do you have any comment on that now as chairman, where your files are missing?
Isoke: The comment is that the registry of ULC has been strengthened and is in the process of being further strengthened. The code of practice for the public service records is also being implemented. My lord, in May, I presented to you a copy of the procedure for the movement of files in ULC.
Byenkya: Alright, let’s proceed to the next item which concerns items for application of lease…
Isoke: My lord, last year on January 2, Birus applied through their lawyers, KMT Advocates, to have the lease extended to full term of 49 years. I have attached as annex four a copy of their application. In the ULC meeting of June 29-30, 2016, the commission deferred consideration of this application because the same matter, the commission was informed, was being handled by cabinet.
Byenkya: Have you since seen the cabinet decision on this matter?
Isoke: I have just seen it three minutes ago.
Byenkya: This cabinet minute was provided to this commission during the course of this investigation; are you suggesting that the ULC has not had communication regarding the cabinet minute?
Isoke: No, my lord.
Byenkya: Let’s look at the cabinet minute now that we have it. I will take you to the third page which has approved the way forward. And I want to take you to immediate actions…
Isoke: “That government should take immediate repossession of the property comprising plot 60 to 62 Alidina road from Mr Simpson Birungi who continues trespassing on the government property.”
Byenkya: If you look at that minute, it seems there has been a decision of the executive of this country that this property should be repossessed. Is it still tenable that ULC would still consider this application or extension of the lease? Because you said it was deferred pending a cabinet decision?
Isoke: My lord, this is a direct directive to ULC to withdraw the offer that it had given to Mr Birungi in the first instance, but also not to allow the extension. In this case, it would be a renewal of lease, the initial lease having expired.
Byenkya: But at the moment you have a directive not to do that. Would this directive apply to you to take back possession?
Isoke: Government has possession…
Bamugemereire: Government does not have possession. The building was demolished and somebody else has possession.
Isoke: My lord, the freehold title held by government is still on.
Byenkya: Despite the absence of title, certificate of occupation, Birus Property Services has the possession…We have this incredible situation where the highest organs in the land have made a decision but, somehow, it seems this company is able to defer everything and retain possession.
Isoke: My lord, I wish to clarify that this directive of cabinet [agreed in 2015] has not yet been communicated to ULC.
Byenkya: Where would the problem be and how are these directives communicated?
Isoke: My lord, that same letter says that it is not the practice of cabinet to communicate its deliberations to non-cabinet members. I think that’s the reason why we are not privy.
Byenkya: We want to find out where the problem is…Who would be responsible for communicating if you know; you are a department of government?
Isoke: The minister who supervises ULC communicates matters of this nature to the commission.
Byenkya: So, your position is that this hasn’t been done and the ULC has been ignorant of this directive until now?
Isoke: In this instance, yes my lord.
Byenkya: Maybe you could also read IV; it might be relevant to your body.
Isoke: “Immediate actions; Investigate and punish some government officials whose omissions and commissions directly or indirectly aided the fraudulent acquisition of a lease by Mr Birungi, eviction of bona fide tenants on plot 60 to 62 Alidina road and the demolition of a building thereon.”
Byenkya: So, that would have been relevant to some of your officers. What is puzzling me is that the heading of this cabinet extract is: “Immediate actions.” So, what would be your comment on this?
Isoke: My lord, when I scanned through the extract, I saw somewhere where the head of public service was being given a time frame to report on this matter within six weeks.
Bamugemereire: Could you just go back to number five?
Isoke: “Immediate action number five; Government should verify and recognize the bona fide tenants on its property plot 60 to 62 Alidina road and should also provide legal aid to those bona fide tenants to pursue compensation from Mr Birungi for the losses they suffered during their eviction and demolition of the property…
Cabinet agreed that the following officers should be investigated further to establish their role in the eviction of tenants and demolition of government building: Mr Paul Idude (principal land officer, ULC), Mr Emmanuel Olauna (undersecretary, ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development), [the late] Andrew Felix Kaweesi (assistant inspector general of police), ACP Julius Twinomujuni (commander Land Protection Unit), SP Edgar Nyabongo (RPC Kiira region), SP Apollo Kateeba (DPC Jinja), ASP Felix Mugizi (OC Jinja police station).”
Byenkya: But what would come to our attention now is that these officers just appeared before this commission yet cabinet had considered immediate actions against them. But it took this commission for them to be questioned regarding their activities.
So, we seem to have a situation where cabinet decisions are either subverted or ignored. I don’t know whether you have any comment on that.
Isoke: Cabinet, besides naming the head of public service, has not indicated any other investigating body [that] should probe the matter and these individuals.
But my lord, I wish to report that this morning when I gave a last glance to the provisional file, I saw a letter from the head of CIID [Criminal Intelligence and Investigation Directorate] of police requiring ULC to supply the information I have referred to you in this report.
Byenkya: I’m not satisfied with your very limited definition of repossession in this matter. The cabinet directive is saying take back the property. And that means also physical possession of the property. I’m concerned about your limited interpretation of the directive.
Isoke: When it is communicated to ULC, we shall implement what is communicated.
Bamugemereire: You are the owner of the land. Because of the manner in which communication is handled in your department, you would probably say you have never seen cancellation of title. And under so many circumstances, the commissioner registration cancelled the title of Birus twice…
Isoke: My lord, all that information is missing at ULC.
Bamugemereire: Who is keeping that information from being available?
Byenkya: We have a situation where nothing can touch this property; the owner himself says “I am waiting for lawful directives”. There is a cabinet directive which has been brought to your attention now, which you can follow up and verify. Why this reluctance?
Isoke: My lord, I am not aware of the cancellation. That’s why I was talking about repossession and cancellation as a matter that has come now.
I promise this commission that upon receipt of the cabinet directive, I will convene the commission within two weeks to effect the directives of cabinet on this matter.
And as I make that pledge, I request to be made privy to other decisions from other bodies that have taken decisions on this matter so that ULC implements our part. I make this statement under oath.