Saturday March 30 2013

Government faces court for closing Lands office

By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi


Land dealers have served the Attorney General with a letter of intention to sue the government over the losses they say they have suffered because of the closure of the registry at the Ministry of Lands late last year.

Tax payers could lose billions of shillings if the government is compelled to pay compensation to the land dealers as a consequence of the legal action. Uganda Property Developers Association is being represented by Alfred Okello-Oryem and Kituma Magala Advocates in the matter which Mr Anatoli Kamugisha, the chairperson of the association, says was caused by a “reckless” decision.

“When you close off the Land Office you have closed my office,” Mr Kamugisha says. He says the concerned ministry should have learnt from how other institutions like banks and Uganda Revenue Authority, which have computerised before, went about it.

The “practical” option, he observes, should have been to let the manual system continue running while the computerisation process is underway. From December 15, 2012, the Land Registry was closed for an initial period of one month to allow for the installation of computerised record-keeping system. But the highly awaited reopening of the registry on January 15 did not happen, leaving land dealers and their agents unable to transact business.

For three months, industry sources said, one could not conduct a search on a plot of land, acquire a title or transfer land ownership. Planned construction works stalled, dealers lost land deals, lawyers and other property consultants lost revenue while land buyers failed to secure bank loans to settle their commitments.

Ministry of Lands and Urban Development spokesperson Dennis Obbo tells the Saturday Monitor that the ministry was aware that “business for individuals, companies and even government” has been affected by the closure of the land office. “But this is something that we have to do to sort out this problem,” Mr Obbo says.

Reason for closure
The closure was to enable the ministry to “carry out the crucial operations under the computerisation exercise of the registry,” ministry Permanent Secretary Gabindadde Musoke said when announcing the closure last December. The affected offices were the Department of Land Administration at the Ministry and the Registries at the Land Offices in Masaka, Mukono and Mbarara.

Mr George William Alenyo, a lawyer in Kampala, says he was contacted by people at the end of last year and the beginning of this year who wanted services for different land transactions but he could not move. Mr Alenyo says the government chose the worst possible time to close the registry. “Some people spend the whole year saving and others send money from abroad to buy plots in town but this process was hampered by the closure (of the registry at the end of the year),” Mr Alenyo says.

Effects of closure
Another lawyer, Mr Ambose Tibyasa, says he is currently handling a “protracted” misunderstanding arising from the closure of the land office. Shortly before the closure, Mr Tibyasa says, one of his clients sold a piece of land in Kampala and received part payment, with the buyer promising to complete payment after securing a bank loan using the piece of land as security.

This transaction stalled since the land office was closed shortly afterwards. The seller agreed to wait for the one month the office was to be closed, but he became impatient when it was not opened thereafter.
Another developer who had secured funds to start a construction project on Kampala Road was delayed by a discovery that someone else had put a caveat on the land.

The developer’s project could not proceed,” his consultant, former Chua MP Livingstone Okello-Okello says, because the caveat could not be removed since the land office was closed. Streamlining of operations at the land registry has been a long and winding process.

The manual filing system which the ministry has been using has been blamed for much of the mess where people have complained about missing titles while some other titles are duplicated and others allegedly change ownership without the owners’ knowledge. But in as much as the current process is aimed at cleaning up the mess, Mr Okello-Okello still has doubts whether the rot will be eliminated from the office.

Kampala factor
Mr Obbo now says the five zonal offices have re-opened, but with only the ones at Kampala Capital City Authority and the headquarters still closed. Sources say the opening of the zonal office at KCCA has been delayed in partly because of a misunderstanding between the Authority and the Ministry of Lands over staffing.

KCCA has hired seven registrars and was only prepared to accommodate two from Lands, a move that threatens to render some the support staff at the Land Office redundant. Mr Obbo says “the benefits of the smooth service the public will enjoy after the computerisation outweigh the costs of waiting for those months.”