The Uganda Land Commission (ULC) has for the past weeks been in the media for both good and bad things depending on how one perceives the version of events. However, what merges out, is a picture of a GoU entity embroiled in almost each and every scandal—jobs wars, power struggles, shady dealings and soon we may hear of sex tapes [sic]. And the recent intervention by political supervisors (line Ministers) led by Lands Minister Judith Nabakooba was reportedly a culmination of mafia fights over deals at the Nakawa based GoU entity.
It has been established that ULC has been captured by an Octopus (organization) composed of the mafia whose interest is money and it will take time for ULC Chairperson Beatrice Byenkya to uproot it in case she survives being swallowed by the same. This octopus organization, according to insiders, has managed to create a patronage and a corrupt system that they exploit for their self-enrichment through constant manipulation of the Lands body systems, processes, policies and activities.
It is composed among others, individuals who have been at ULC for a long time and serving in senior positions, tea girls, cleaners, drivers, Askaris etal, all with a defined reporting structure. This newspaper understands that this Octopus organization is somehow a juggernaut of improprieties, whose members place themselves above scrutiny, transparency and accountability. This mafia is said to have allegedly accumulated staggering amounts of wealth in the form of expensive vehicles and properties worth billions of shillings spread all over Kampala and upcountry when their monthly pay slips reflect a modest salary.
The mafia is reported to have been using a lot of tricks to siphon billions and billions of money from the Lands body. These tricks reportedly shocked Byenkya (who came in just in 2019) and as well the new ministers. However insiders say she must tread carefully or else she may end up a martyr. Indeed, it was on the strength of her whistle blowing that a group of ULC officials were recently apprehended and herded to CID headquarters in Kibuli only to be released on bond at night after their godfathers intervened.
Insiders allege most transactions targeted by the mafia involve paying GoU money to ghost claimants/landlords, something that is said to have cost the country over Shs25bn in the last two years. Besides the Auditor General reports indicating that much of the Shs128bn the ULC had expended as of July 2020 had gone to fictitious claimants or beneficiaries, other reports show that in some cases GoU money gets paid (in billions) out without ULC effecting the resultant transfer of the acquired land into the names of GoU.
Basically this is how it happens: a landlord with land on which many Bibanja holders live gets constrained; can’t sell to anyone because investors fear the bad press that comes with evicting families. So, such land owners, mostly absentee landlords and old men or women needing money to look after themselves in old age, apply to ULC expressing interest to have GoU acquire the land on behalf of the Bibanja holders. And because there are many such applications from all over the country, ULC (which depends on the Lands Ministry/Government Chief Valuer’s valuation and surveying report) always gets constrained as not all applications can be promptly responded to because of limited resources available under the Land Fund. That is how those who are willing to part with 30-40% curiously get to be considered promptly ahead of those who could have applied earlier but are unwilling to share. In fact, this is one of the things Chairperson Byenkya has been hated for. She has always insisted on a first come first serve approach or equally sharing whatever finance ministry avails per quarter as opposed to one applicant taking as much as Shs6bn in one quarter (money comes once every three months). There was a time applicants on the list were given only Shs50m each, a thing that angered those used to getting kickbacks as there wasn’t much gratification that could be paid off mere Shs50m. That is how Byenkya’s problems began. In some cases, officials create mere reference numbers which Finance relies on to release the money for intended beneficiaries yet in actual sense such reference numbers belong to land owners previously compensated or who don’t exist at all. Sometimes the Finance Ministry will be duped to release money allegedly to facilitate land acquisition by GoU/ULC on behalf of Bibanja holders only for the land to end up not to be existing. Sometimes there are multiple payments for the same piece of land. It’s also true, that because ULC doesn’t have an inventory of all public land in the entire country, sometimes rogue-minded employees connive to issue private titles on land which is already government’s which is subsequently made to pay billions in compensation seeking to acquire that same land it already owns on behalf of poor Bibanja holders.
Sometimes money is released in favor of fictitious beneficiaries or land owners who turn out to be proxies of staff at ULC. Some of the titles based upon to make payments are manufactured from Nasser Road just like some of the letters of administration, valuation and surveying reports. Sometimes ULC staff insist on making payments, purported to be for land owners or beneficiaries, relating to claimants files that were long paid off and closed. All they do is to keep making use of a reference number relating to claims that were long extinguished.
These are some of the things Byenkya has been raising the red flag about. She has also always been very outspoken against some officials being stampeded into voting for money in favor of landlords whose land or locus they haven’t visited or inspected. But she has always been circumvented on this by some officials starving her and other officials of fuel and other logistics required to visit locus and carry out inspection. She has also been starved of staff to support her basic office operations as Chairperson following the exit of her surveyor/PA Eriab Mayengo whose contract top management refused to renew recently when it expired. He was fired with 7 others mostly Registry staff who were perceived to be loyal and obedient to Byenkya as Chairperson. Byenkya has since written a strong letter lambasting ULC Secretary Barbra Imaryo for declining to renew contracts of staff after the President had directed non-laying off of staff in this constrained Covid19 period. The Byenkya protest letter was also posted by her office on the notice board, a move that was seen as aimed at demonizing deeply connected and heavily guarded Imaryo. Shs40m was subsequently allocated through a one Jackie Akankwatsa (Office Assistant) to de-escalate things but it’s not clear whether the intended beneficiaries are already smiling. Byenkya has furiously registered her resentment towards all these exclusionist top management decisions and more.
On Friday 8th October, Lands Minister Judith Nabakooba led other Ministry officials and fellow Ministers to a meeting where the ULC crisis was to be exhaustively discussed. Besides Nabakooba and the Ministry officials she came with, ULC Chairperson Byenkya led fellow Commissioners and a few senior employees of the Nakawa-based Commission.
At the beginning of the meeting, things seemed tense and Nabakooba, who naturally chaired the session, signaled Byenkya to make some opening remarks. The former Hoima Woman MP, who has been ULC Chairperson since August 2019, politely declined saying “Hon Minister I was called here as an accused person and mine can only be responding to specific complaints fellow Commissioners have levelled against me.”
At that point, Prof Pen Mogi (one of the Commissioners) cleared his throat and indicated to Nabakooba he was ready to read out a list of grievances held against Byenkya on behalf of his other colleagues. He indicated this dossier he was going to read was representative of the grievances held by fellow Commissioners and staff at the Commission. Besides Mogi and Byenkya, the other Commissioners are Augustine Bujara, Charles Muhoozi, ex-Iganga LC5 Chairman frail Asuman Kyafu (recently got stroke), John Fischer Kasenge and one other Muslim lady. Three of them will have their 5 year contract expire next month and will have to ease out unless they are reappointed. Prof Peni Mogi did much of the talking on behalf of fellow Commissioners who turned their back on Byenkya after Col Edith Nakalema-backed ULC Secretary Barbara Imaryo became Accounting Officer sometime in 2020 and assumed much of the powers (throwing Byenkya under the bus).
WHAT MOGI SAID
Ironically, Prof Mogi, whose resentment towards Byenkya shocked many, was for long a close family friend to the ULC Chairperson. The two even closely worked together at Gulu University where he for long served as Vice Chancellor as Byenkya served as a member of the governing council. In his presentation, Prof Mogi summarized as follows: “we members of this Commission are adults who have been insulted enough by the Chairperson as if we are nursery kids and we are here to inform you as our line Minister that we can’t afford being insulted anymore and that is why we have lost confidence in her.” Nabakooba keenly listened as the ULC Commission members cheered and ululated as Prof Mogi eloquently spoke on their behalf. Prof Mogi also stated that the Commissioners and staff were not prepared to accept Byenkya as their boss anymore. That especially staff are sick and tired of such a very polarizing chairperson.
Byenkya accusers (staff and Commissioners) demanded that Nabakooba compel her to withdraw her complaints regarding many of these things and emphasis was put on the formal complaint she officially lodged with Kibuli-based CID headquarters accusing staff of fraudulent activities. An argument was made that backing off from being the complaint in the Kibuli investigations would deescalate tensions and return normalcy at ULC. It was stated that once she backs off the CID investigations, Byenkya would benefit in a multiplicity of ways including becoming entitled to more courteous treatment by ULC staff as their Chairperson (these days whenever she enters office at Nakawa, some senior employees walk out for home as an act of protest and this has been on for now two weeks).
It was also stated that withdrawing from the Kibuli complaint would get the Commissioners withdraw from moves to write a formal complaint against her to the President. One of the Commissioners told the meeting about a huge complaints file they had collectively prepared for the exclusive consumption of Gen Salim Saleh highlighting the ways in which Byenkya’s son has been involving himself in the conduct of ULC business. She was assured the contents of the file are dire and once given to Gen Saleh, Byenkya and her son could end up rotting in jail because there would be plenty of culpability.
Thick-skinned as always, Byenkya, whose security has since been beefed up, refused to back off, vowing to go down fighting. “Honorable Minister I have my facts and can corroborate each and everything because it’s all based on my consistent and careful observation since 2019 when I joined ULC,” she said. This Friday meeting was preceded by five other meetings during which members plotted her downfall. One of the ministers who has been at war with Byenkya since disagreeing over Sango Bay and Naguru land, was in the house too and used the Friday meeting to announce that the former Hoima Woman MP is clearly living on borrowed time and she (Minister) can’t wait to dance on her proverbial grave. “You have always considered yourself to be very powerful but I one time told you are not a minister as you like taking yourself to be. Now you are finished,” this minister mockingly told Byenkya as Nabakooba pleaded for calm.
There was also a moment of bitter exchanges between Byenkya and ULC Secretary Barbra Imaryo who has never had kind words for her. Byenkya fermented this feuding by objecting to Imaryo from the word go. Coming immediately after Under Secretary Benon Kigenyi, who Byenkya had worked with well, Imaryo suffered the Byenkya wrath in the very first meeting after joining ULC.
Using the tyranny of numbers, Commissioners voted to make Imaryo accounting officer and the one in charge of the Land Fund, something Byenkya furiously protested and demanded to go on record for. Her argument was that, well-intentioned as she could have been, Imaryo didn’t have the necessary financial management experience to afford being in charge of the billions (an average of Shs25bn per quarter) that keep coming to ULC under the Land Fund.
Byenkya’s view was that Imaryo can be the Secretary ULC without doing any finance work. Her view was she can do technical work and coordinating Commission meetings without indulging herself with financial matters. Byenkya recently referred to her original objections when ULC expended close to Shs1bn buying vehicles from May Back Motors Ltd but, because of absence of robust systems and procurement capabilities, the purchase was done through NITA-Uganda where Imaryo previously worked earning Shgs16m per month before curiously accepting to come to work for ULC’s mere Shs6.8m monthly salary. Byenkya has also been branded lazy because of her reluctance to sign off lists of proposed Land Fund beneficiaries claiming the same is full of fictitious land owners. She also claims alterations which are done to delete and add some names after Commission meetings. This has frustrated work and led to back logs, something Imaryo has since bypassed by operating through internal memos as opposed to begging for the Chairperson’s signature each time there is need to send lists of land owners to the Finance Ministry.
Here is how the deeply connected Imaryo has managed to effectively deflate and bypass Byenkya’s resistance and refusal to append her signature to important Land Fund payments-related documentation as ULC Chairperson: she originates an internal memo which the Senior Accountant processes by attaching lists which go to the Finance Ministry and payment is subsequently effected in favor of the disclosed beneficiaries. This has only fermented more strife between the office of Chairperson Byenkya and that of Secretary Imaryo (barely in her mid-30s). The Commissioners have made things more complicated by siding with Imaryo while actively working towards the detrimental isolation of Byenkya.
So all this was brought up for discussion during the Nabakooba Friday meeting and Byenkya was portrayed to the Minister as a trouble causer who is extremely unnecessary. The Minister was also told about the previous bitter exchange during another ULC meeting where Imaryo went as far as sarcastically telling off Byenkya that “by the way there is nothing you can do to me because for your own information I own this Commission meaning you will go and leave me here because I’m still have a lot of future ahead of myself.”
With Byenkya remaining unrepentant and her accusers refusing to back down, Nabakooba ended that Friday meeting without making any progress and that is how she came up with her latest intervention resulting in the Minister taking over the management of ULC. As the Friday meeting dispersed, Byenkya assured Nabakooba she wasn’t afraid of anything and welcomed the forensic audit which the Minister has since directed the Auditor General to conduct while loudly stating “I have not been involved in any financial scams at this Commission and my truth is going to be corroborated through that forensic inquiry.” Having concluded that the fights at the ULC are mostly revolving around the control of the billions that come under the Land Fund, Nabakooba will be seeking authorization from Gen Museveni so that the Fund is reallocated to be directly under the Lands Ministry.
The ULC is a semi-autonomous body established by the 1995 Constitution Art. 238. The mandate of ULC is to hold and manage any land in Uganda vested in or acquired by the government in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.
The commission is also responsible for holding and managing land owned by Uganda, outside of the country. They issue leases on public land and manage the Land Fund.
The ULC is responsible for the allocation of public land to the private sector for investment purposes and maintains records of leases on state land. The top management consists of the chairperson and eight (8) commissioners who are responsible for the execution of the mandate of the Commission.
Chairperson of the commission is full time while the rest of other Commission members are part time.
The Secretariat is headed by the secretary who is the accounting officer responsible for overall coordination, direction and management of all functions of the Secretariat. The Secretary is assisted by an Undersecretary who heads three distinct functional units namely; Finance and Administration, Technical Support and Land Fund.
Sec 41(2) of the Land Act places management of the Land Fund (LF) to the Uganda Land Commission. The Fund is used by the government to acquire land for development projects, redistribution to the bona fide occupants facing eviction, resettle the landless or pay off absentee landlords, among others.