Minister Otafiire named in Jinja land grabbing saga

Minister Otafiire named in Jinja land grabbing saga
Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister Gen. Kahinda Otafiire. Courtesy Photo.

Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister Gen Kahinda Otafiire has been named in the irregular transfer of a government building to a suspected land grabber.

Otafiire while serving as minister of Trade, Tourism and Industry allegedly initiated the idea of granting a letter of no objection to Birus Properties, a company owned by Simpson Birungi, the Proprietor of Movit Products Ltd.

Birungi used the letter to apply for a lease on plot 60/62 Alidina road in Jinja municipality and to process titles for the same land. The alleged clearance and directive by Otafiire is said to have facilitated the land grabbing and later demolition of buildings despite interventions by the Privatization Unit and the Inspectorate of Government (IG).

The building was one of the 27 properties under direct control of the Privatization Unit then mandated with the management or divestiture of properties formerly under the African Trade Development Fund (ATDF).

The Education Service Commission under secretary, Emmanuel Orum, who served in the trade ministry during the time of the transaction, told the on-going Lands Probe Commission that; Otafiire first communicated the decision to Ambassador Julius Onen, the then permanent secretary in the ministry of Trade.

Orum told the Commission that Ambassador Onen asked him to carry out due diligence on the request by Birus Properties for a certificate of no objection for takeover of plot 60/62 Alidina Road in Jinja.

He added that he was driven by an agent of Birus Properties to Jinja to carry out the purported due diligence on May 12, 2011. But he declined to name the agent who drove him to and back from Jinja for the due diligence as directed by Ambassador Onen and instead asked to reveal the person in camera for fear of persecution.

Orum said that a meeting held by Beswale Kezaala, the former mayor of Jinja municipality, RDC Richard Gulume, the Town Clerk and two councilors reportedly gave no objection to the application by Birus Properties to take over the property.

But the lead counsel of the Land Probe Commission, Ebert Byenkya faulted Orum for failing to carry out due diligence as directed by Ambassador Onen. He noted that although Orum traveled to Jinja, he failed to consult the sitting tenants mainly, traders and returned from Jinja without ascertaining whether the sitting tenants had consented to the eviction and eventual demolition of the building.

But Orum said that a decision had already been taken by the minister and permanent secretary to have Birus cleared to take over the building. He said the two, who were his seniors in the ministry, made Orum to sign and grant a letter of no objection to Birus Properties in the afternoon of January 13, 2011.

“He (minister) had made up his mind that the property belongs to his political stewardship, therefore it was a directive to us,” Orum said.

The Commission established that Orum did not only stop at writing the first letter of no objection to Birus Properties, but was also asked by the agent of Birus properties to write another letter to clear the minister.

“When I wrote the first one, three weeks after; the same person comes and says am not happy with the language you have used here. Why don’t you remove the name ‘minister’ and the word ‘Otafiire’? Then, I asked him that has he complained, and he said; ‘no but I don’t think you should write it like that. Just say that we’ve granted’. Then I told him that; ‘you know these things of lands, they keep on reoccurring, supposing in future something happens?

I want somebody who will read this letter in future to know that I was acting on the pressure from somewhere and I did not have any peculiar interest in it’. And that is how I wrote that letter and now it has come to exonerate me. If I had written as ‘we have given him land’, no body would know that there was pressure on me to write or to write that no objection in the way I wrote. So the letter itself gives a point of reference,” Orum submitted.

The Commission heard that the Inspectorate of Government investigated the matter and found that the ministry of Trade had no authority over the property. The Commissioner for Land Registration, Sarah Kulata cancelled the title in December 2014 but the Commission established that, Birungi assisted by a senior police officer, proceeded to evict the tenants and demolished the building in January 2015.

Birus Properties managing director, Simpson Birungi who has since constructed a storied building on the disputed land is yet to testify on the matter. Minister Otafiire is yet to be summoned to the commission to give his side of the story. This is the second complaint against the minister in relation to suspicious land transactions during his tenure as minister of Tourism, Trade, and Industry.

He was in 2010 accused of authorizing the irregular sale of ministry of Local Government stores to an investor claiming that it posed a security threat. The accusations were made by the then ministry of Local Government permanent secretary, Muhanguzi Kashaka during the Public Accounts Committee hearing.

The Auditor General’s report of June 2008 had questioned the sale of Plot No. 133 Sixth Street, Industrial Area to a private investor.