Kampala. The suspension of the land probe last week was a culmination of failed attempts by Justice Catherine Bamugemereire, the head of the tribunal and her team, to persuade Treasury to release the required funds.
Sources told Sunday Monitor that Finance Minister Matia Kasaija and Secretary to the Treasury Keith Muhakanizi, in one of the meetings, queried the Shs17 billion requested for the Commission activities. They cited competing government priorities in the 2017/18 financial year and proposed that the inquiry be financed through a supplementary.
The technocrats in the Ministry of Finance, according to sources, complained that the money requested for six months was “too much” and for that reason, requested for more time to study the planned activities. They wanted the commission to submit a detailed plan for the six months before releasing the money.
This, however, infuriated Lands minister Betty Amongi, the brain behind the probe and some members of the commission, who reportedly accused Ministry of Finance officials of disrupting government activities and insisted that the probe into land matters be facilitated to do its work on account of its urgency. She indicated that more than 1,000 cases of land disputes were registered before the Commission in a space of two weeks.
When Sunday Monitor contacted Mr Muhakanizi at the weekend, he confirmed the misgivings about the Shs17b request, insisting that “it’s on a higher side” and also indicated that their expenditure plan for six months will be discussed with the authorities at the Treasury before releasing all the money.
“We released about Shs2b to the commission in May and we are going to release more funds in the new financial year, but we shall discuss their budget because it seems to be on a higher side…. Their budget must be discussed because it comes at a time when government has other priorities,” Mr Muhakanizi said.
Without making reference to the supplementary request, Mr Muhakanizi explained that the funds cannot be provided in a go and reminded those accusing the Finance ministry of withholding funds to the commission that “we entered a new financial year and before money is released, the law requires an audit warrant.”
Although Justice Bamugemereire declined to disclose the commission budget during the announcement of a “technical break”, she told journalists on July 6 that her team shall need sufficient funds to carry on its activities. She also defended the expenditures but without any reference to the simmering row.
“For the commission to run, we pay witnesses’ transport, we look after them, we feed them, and there are a lot of activities happening behind the scenes. We, therefore, cannot continue the hearings when we can’t send out the summons. We go to each of these villages and personally serve each of the individuals...” Justice Bamugemereire said.
Ms Amongi reminded Mr Kasaija and his team that the President’s decision to institute a commission of inquiry into land matters was informed by the rampant land evictions, complaints relating to land grabbing, corruption in the Lands office, delayed transactions in land issues, unfair treatment of genuine land owners, tenants and other problems related to land acquisition, administration and management and titling.
Sources told Sunday Monitor that in one of the Cabinet meetings at State House Entebbe, Ms Amongi complained that five months after the tribunal was installed, it had not started work due to lack of funds. This, according to sources, embarrassed Mr Kasaija and his team, who later asked the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Lands, Ms Dorcas W. Okalany, to cut the ministry budget by Shs2.5b to finance the probe.
Less money released
Although the Lands ministry accepted to cut their budget and accordingly asked the Ministry of Finance to release Shs2.5b to Justice Bamugemereire team, the Treasury released only Shs1.3b in May and withheld Shs1.2b through unclear circumstances. After Ministry of Finance officials failed to release the money, Justice Bamugemereire suspended the probe in protest.
Justice Bamugemereire’s team was expected to produce an interim report in three months and a final report within six months from the date of their first hearing. However, two months after it started the work in May, the commission called off its proceedings due to lack of funds. The commission chairperson announced on July 6 that the inquiry will remain suspended until resources are found to enable them resume work. The complaints desk remained operational.
The commission was expected to make recommendations for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the land law, policies and process of land acquisition, land administration, management and land registration in Uganda and proposing necessary reforms.
It will also make “administrative and criminal sanctions against persons found culpable of wrongdoing in all the process”.
Asked why Ministry of Finance withheld funds to the commission, the ministry spokesperson, Mr Jim Mugunga, said he was not privy to the amounts released to the commission of inquiry and denied accusations that unidentified land grabbers were working with some people at the Treasury to frustrate the probe.
Mr Mugunga, however, called for calm and advised the probe team to wait for the supplementary funding. He also reminded the panel that the financial year has just started and, therefore, the Finance ministry needs time to process the money. However, it’s unusual for Ministry of Finance to raise a supplementary request at the begging of a financial year. This can only be done in the middle or towards the end of a given financial year.
“The facts I have indicate that last financial year, funds were allocated for the commission’s work,” Mr Mugunga said, adding: “This financial year, the probe committee submitted a request for supplementary. The financial year has just started and hence we have to allow systems that enable the supplementary to be authorised to function. A request has since been submitted and the ministry is fast-tracking its considerations.”
Commission birth. In December last year, President Museveni appointed Court of Appeal judge Catherine Bamugemereire to head the seven-man committee to probe into land matters that have become highly controversial in the land. But the commission had been held up for several months due to lack of funds.
The members. Other commissioners are former Mengo minister Robert Ssebunnya, Ms Mary Oduka Ochan, Ms Joyce Gunze Habaasa, Dr Rose Nakayi, former Attorney General Fredrick Ruhindi and Mr George Bagonza Tinkamanyire. The support team include, Ms Olive Kazaarwe Mukwaya (commission secretary), Dr Douglas Singiza (Assistant Secretary-Research), leading Kampala advocate Ebert Byenkya (lead counsel) and Mr John Bosco Rujagaata Suuza (assistant lead counsel.
Terms of reference
1. Investigate and inquire into the law, process and procedure by which land is administered and registered in Uganda
2. Inquire into the role of the Uganda Land Commission in the management and administration of public land.
3. Review the effectiveness of the relevant bodies in the preservation of wetlands, forests and game reserves.
4. Inquire and solicit views on the role of traditional, cultural and religious institutions who own large tracts of land.
5. To assess the legal and policy framework on government land acquisition.
6. To identify, investigate and inquire into the effectiveness of the dispute resolution mechanism available to persons involved in land disputes.
7. To inquire into any other matter connected with or incidental to the matters aforesaid.