It was a somewhat tense atmosphere at Emin Pasha Hotel. Journalists had to be frisked by private bodyguards and asked which media house they represented before making their way to the hotel in the upscale Kololo neighbourhood of Kampala.
By 10am the press conference organised by city tycoon Mike Ezra that was meant to start at 8am had not yet kicked off. He was nowhere to be seen.
In he comes
Then 30 minutes later, he appeared dressed in a blue dotted shirt, black trousers, brown shoes and spotting his trademark dark glasses. “So here I am,” he said as he sat down smiling. “So fire away with your questions,” were his opening remarks.
It is not like the theme of the gathering was strange. The flamboyant businessman had wanted to “set the record straight” about claims that he owed the Uganda Revenue Authority money in taxes—and was failing to make good on payment.
The media had also reported that the URA boss, Ms Allen Kagina, had asked the Ministry of Internal Affairs to bar Ezra from travelling abroad until he paid the Shs1.1 billion he owes the government.
Ezra, legs crossed, admitted to owing URA Shs1,130,753,269 in taxes incurred between 2003 and 2005 although he did not state under what business arrangement the debt accrued.
“I have been in touch with the URA officials over the years both through lawyers and auditors, discussing this tax issue. There has been some back and forth but I never said I will not pay the tax,” he said.
He also dismissed claims that he was under a travel black-out, saying, if there existed one, he was ignorant.
“Whereas the travel ban might exist, I am not aware of it. I knew about it from the press,” he said, his tone pompous but a contrast of his calm body language.
So, is it a case of smoke with no fire? Ezra told the journalists the recent stories about him in the media were engineered by his “enemies” whom he refused to name.
He then sounded a tad prophetic when he warned, “But the conclusion to all this is soon. And it will be big.”
But what about talk that he had borrowed Shs400 million from the National Bank of Commerce and he had failed to keep his side of the bargain?
Ezra confirmed borrowing the money but like the travel ban, said he was ignorant of court summons in relation to the bank loan. Last Thursday, the Commercial Court ordered Ezra to pay over Shs400 million he borrowed from the National Bank of Commerce.
The money carries an interest of 31 per cent per annum until payment in full. The bank said in 2009, Ezra borrowed Shs400m that carried a 25 per cent interest. The money was supposed to be paid back in two installments within four months.
Yesterday, Ezra wondered why this financial dealing had made newspaper headlines. “The bank knows why I took the money. I am not the only one who borrows money. I did not say that I won’t pay. Yes, there were misunderstandings between me and the bank. But which businessperson doesn’t have misunderstandings with a bank? Is that newsworthy?” he asked.
At this point, one journalist asked, “Are you broke?”
“Am I broke?” Ezra shot back sarcastically. He then turned to an old man, clad in brown trousers, shoes and jacket, apparently his aide, and murmured something to him in Kiswahili.
Minutes later, the man re-emerged hauling a big, black bag. The journalists waited with bated breath for its contents. Working the zipper methodically, the old man opened the bag. “Ohh!” was the reaction of most journalists as they took stock of its contents.
There, on the smoothly varnished table lay crisp American Dollar notes. The aide piled them on the table—the final word was to come from Ezra.
“That is three million dollars. So, am I broke?” His tone was firm, greasing it with a sarcastic laugh. The press conference had come to an end.