Pressure is mounting on Imperial Royale Hotel owner, Karim Hirji to pay Shs4 billion in taxpayers’ money which he received seven years ago or lose his property. This comes in the latest twist in a never-ending Chogm scandal involving some of Uganda’s most influential figures.
The lawmakers and members of the civil society who spoke to the Daily Monitor at the weekend also accused Mr Karim Hirji and the proprietors of J&M Hotel, another hotel on Entebbe Road of “preying on taxpayers’ money” which they received from government ahead of the Commonwealth summit in 2007.
While ministry of Finance officials told this newspaper that ministry of foreign affairs should account for the money given to Mr Hirji last year, Amb James Mugume, the accounting officer for the foreign affairs docket accused Mr Hirji of playing hide-and-seek over the money.
“Karim requested for negotiations but he keeps dodging the proceedings. We have now made a decision to go back to court because the arbitration in the Commercial Court is not working,” Amb Mugume said. He, however, adds that the situation has not changed.
Shadow finance minister Geoffrey Ekanyah said that the government is not interested in recovering taxpayers’ money to Mr Hirji because it is alleged that some government officials are shareholders and that “maybe the Shs4vbillion with interest was part of their contribution.”
However, ministry of finance spokesperson Jim Mugunga refuted the allegations that some government officials are shareholders in Mr Hirji Hotel, adding that the government position is that the money must be refunded as per the resolution of Parliament. He said the “relevant government agencies are already handling the refund process”.
“The Constitution is very clear; his property should be used to recover the taxpayers’ money with interest. He has been using taxpayers’ money with impunity. He must pay interest. He is not above the law, we want our money back,” Mr Ekanyah said.
Other legislators want to petition Speaker Rebecca Kadaga to demand for an investigation into the allegations that some big shots in government are shareholders in Mr Hirji’s Hotel and that this explains why the tycoon has not bothered to refund taxpayers’ money.
“There is no reason why the Attorney General does not use court action to recover the taxpayers money before the limitation period bars the action unless there is collusion between the two,” Mr Wilfred Niwagaba (NRM, Ndorwa East) said.
The MPs under Parliamentarians Network Against Corruption told Daily Monitor at the weekend that Mr Hirji received the money in respect of advance bookings for the “ghost” Chogm delegates. They have demanded that Imperial Royale Hotel be attached to recover the money and accused Ministry of Finance Officials of collusion.
“It really disturbs me to see some of these investors who have made money out of taxpayer’s money cannot have the curtsey of refunding what belongs to Ugandans not even taxes since there is no record of any corporate social responsibility they are involved in that can exonerate them from taxes! Karim must pay our money,” Mr Alex Ruhunda (NRM Fort Portal Municipality) said.
The Executive Director Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda, Ms Cissy Kagaba said if a local businessman can refuse to refund the taxpayers money how about ministers? He said Karim’s reluctance to refund public funds demonstrates a high level of lawlessness and impunity. “No wonder, Uganda’s Consumer Price Index (CPI), as per Transparency International, fell from position 130 last year to 140 this year,” she said.
The Anti-corruption activist adds, “It also demonstrates cronyism and god-father tendencies in the country. Karim can only do that [refuse to pay] if he has big people or mafias behind him.” She asked the lawmakers to do “everything under the sun” to ensure that the public money is recovered from Mr Karim.
While Mr Karim was not available for comment, when he appeared in Public Accounts Committee in March 2010, he said his hotel was ready for use and that he waited for delegates who never turned up. After this explanation, he was ordered to make a statement with the Criminal Investigations Department regarding all public funds he received from the government. The Committee chaired by Mr Nandala Mafabi also ordered him to refund the money.