Inside turmoil at Uganda Land Commission

Ms Beatrice Byenkya Nyakaisiki, ULC chairperson and Ms Beti Kamya, the IGG. Photos | File

What you need to know:

  • Junior Lands minister describes what is going on at the Land Commission as a crisis, which he blames on the personalities of the chairperson and the secretary of the commission, Isaac Mufumba writes.

The chairperson of the Uganda Land Commission (ULC), Ms Beatrice Byenkya Nyakaisiki, was on January 11 arraigned before the Anti-Corruption Court where she was charged with abuse of office and obstruction of an investigation into alleged corruption at ULC.

It appeared like a tale of a hunter turned hunted as Ms Byenkya was the first to blow a whistle on irregularities at ULC, demanding investigations into several transactions. It, therefore, had not been expected that she would be the one in the dock, but that was always coming.

The Inspectorate of Government (IG), which is prosecuting the case, issued a statement the week before she appeared in court indicating that “efforts to arraign” her were “still ongoing”.

Ms Byenkya’s co-accused, three Counter Terrorism Unit police officers attached to ULC, constables Richard Anywar, Titus Wamono and Edward Turyatunga, had earlier appeared in charges of obstructing and hindering officials from the Inspector General of Government’s (IGG) office from searching the ULC premises, acts which the IGG said amounted to “abuse of authority of their offices”.

Volcano erupts
It is, however, important to note that ULC has been a volcano waiting to erupt.
The February 10, 2021, clash between Ms Byenkya and then Lands minister Beti Kamya and her junior minister Persis Namuganza over the ministry’s request for a Shs12.1b supplementary budget to compensate six people should have been a signal that an eruption was nigh.

Ms Byenkya told members of the Budget Committee of Parliament that the commission had not asked for the money.

“Much as the commission needs the money, we never requested for this supplementary budget. I want it to be on record. So when I hear this, I just think the minister is trying to access the money using our institution. That is irregular. How can this be?” Ms Byenkya said.

Ms Byenkya told Parliament that names of people who had earlier been paid had returned to the list of claimants while other claims were inflated.

She also cited unfairness in the manner in which claimants were being handled. Those that should have been paid last were being paid first while those who should have been paid first were being lined up to be paid last.

“I am shocked to learn that such amount of money was going to be given to only six beneficiaries. As the commission, we have been trying to spread the money so that all victims can get something… The disadvantaged ones do not have the economic revenue from their money, many of them have become old and they need assistance and medication. Giving Shs12.1b to only six people out of the thousands is irregular and inhuman,” Ms Byenkya said.

That prompted Parliament to institute an ad hoc committee to investigate planned compensations for lands in Bunyoro and Buganda.

In May last year, the committee headed by Ms Veronica Eragu Bichetero issued a 56-page report that cleared the payment for the six people for whom the supplementary budget had been sought.

The committee approved payment of Shs1.2 billion to Stephen Peter Nagenda for land in Namachumu in Bugangazi; Shs6.2 billion to Kosia Rwabukurukuru for land in Sheema District; Shs1.4 billion to Geoffrey Mugisha for his land in Buyaga East, Kibaale and; Shs1.5 billion to Namuli Nantalia for land in Kibaale.

It also approved payment of Shs3.8 billion to Dodovico Mwanje’s Ephraim Enterprises, which had earlier razed St Peter’s Church in Ndeeba and Shs3.8 billion to Medard Kiconco for 3.89 hectares of land in Lusanja.

The complaints in Parliament were, however, followed by other warning signs in the form of pronouncements by the minister for Lands and Urban Development, Ms Judith Nabakooba, and utterances by ULC commissioners. The warning signs were, however, not well understood.

The events at the commission might as well be looked at as the destructive volcanic eruption that was always coming. The question though is how we got to this.

Divided commission
The State minister for Lands, Mr Sam Mayanja, describes what is going on at ULC as a crisis, which he blames on the personalities of Ms Byenkya and the secretary of the commission, Ms Barbarah Imaryo. He describes both as strong willed.

“The secretary wants things done her way. She is the head of the secretariat, sets the agenda and as accounting officer, she is in charge of the Land Fund, which leaves very little power to the chairperson who has her own idea about how the Land Fund should be run,” Mr Mayanja says.

Mr Mayanja says the power struggle has sucked in the rest of the commissioners who seem to be aligned to Ms Imaryo. Ms Byenkya knows all too well that it is her against the rest, but seems undeterred.
“They might be the majority, but are they correct? Are they legal? Are they working for the common good? Those are some of the questions,” she says.

A commissioner who talked to Sunday Monitor on condition that his identity is not revealed, confirmed that all commissioners are up against Ms Byenkya.

He pointed that the commissioners, Prof Nyeko Pen Mogi, Tom Fisher Kasenge, Charles Muhoozi, Stella Achan, Rukiika Bujara, Asuman Kyafu and Madina Nsereko, appended signatures to an October 7, 2021, motion of vote of no confidence in the chairperson.

The point of contention, the commissioner noted, was her decision to write to the ministry of Finance and Bank of Uganda to investigate the circumstances under which the Land Fund arrived at a decision to expedite compensation for both Mr Kiconco and Mr Mwanje.

Government announced a decision to pay Mr Kiconco and Mr Mwanje after High Court ruled in favour of the former and Mr Museveni intervened in the matter of Ndeeba Church in the case of the latter.

“Everything had been done in accordance with the procedural rules. The chairperson actually participated in the allocation process. So we felt that it was wrong of her to run all over making allegations of fraud and abuse of authority,” the commissioner says.

The commissioner, however, believes that there might be more to the fight than the fact that Ms Byenkya questions some of the decisions taken.

“I have heard some grumbling. There is a feeling in certain circles that she does not allow others to ‘do deals’. She does everything. So people are fighting back,” he says.

That there in might be the real issue in a commission that has previously been known to re-enter leases or give out public land. 

It is believed that out of that six percent of government land has been lost on account of acts of omission by the commission.

Abuse of Land Fund
Whereas the commissioners might have a point, ULC, a semi-autonomous body that was established by Article 236 of the 1995 Constitution and is charged with, among others, managing the Land Fund, has not been doing an entirely decent job.

The Land Fund was established in 2002 as a multipurpose resource envelope meant to serve targeted beneficiaries, including tenants seeking to buy or own land, government seeking to buy land for redistribution to bona fide occupants or resettlement of the landless and to provide loans to persons wanting to acquire titles or even survey their land.

Previous fights
Whereas it has previously been used to compensate absentee landlords in Bugangaizi and Buyaga counties in Kibaale and also to acquire land for the resettlement of refugees in Isingiro District, it has been a source of earlier clashes at Cabinet level.

In January 2017, Ms Namuganza wrote to Ms Amongi, who was her senior minister in the ministry of Lands, accusing her of usurping her powers in the implementation of government’s plans to compensate land owners.

She accused Ms Amongi of making several decisions in ULC and the Land Fund without involving her even when she was the docket minister.

“Hon Minister, you awarded yourself unfettered discretion in management of the Land Fund, which is contrary to good ethos as in regard to teamwork and contrary to good principles of public administration,” she wrote in a January 6, 2017, letter to Ms Amongi.

The precursor to the communication were instructions that Ms Amongi issued to ULC, among which was the “urgent payment of Shs621m to eight people and Shs20m to Ms Kitayimbwa Houdah Namulunga of Kooki in Rakai District to go for treatment.

Also in contention was a directive to ULC not to effect any further payments without presenting certain paper work for her scrutiny.

Uganda Land Commission chairperson Ms Beatrice Nyakaisiki Byenkya with her co-accused in the court dock at the Anti-Corruption Court in Kampala on January 11, 2022. Photo | Abubaker Lubowa

In April last year, Ms Namuganza, who was appearing before the ad hoc committee that was investigating the claims, attributed the mess in land compensations to both Ms Amongi and Ms Byenkya.

During the two year lifespan of the commission of inquiry into land matters, it was discovered that dubious claims such as one of Shs100m for a rock around where Isimba Hydropower Project is located and others amounting to Shs132b had been approved by Land Fund officials.

Ms Byenkya is repeating claims of fraud. She is alleging, among others, inflation and inclusion of persons whose claims had been cleared.

“It is overwhelming fraud. Some members might not want to hear that one, but that is the truth,” she says.

No records
She argues that there is no transparency in the manner in which decisions on who to pay are arrived it. She also says proper records are not kept, which makes it hard to subject the operations of the fund to scrutiny.

“In August 2020, we just landed on a list somewhere and we found that more than 677 people had been fully paid, but then it is not complete and as I told you, it is a challenge to get the list and know (who has been paid and what that person has been paid) because some claimants are recycled,” she says.

Minister Mayanja says his and minister Nabakooba’s requests for records have been exercises in futility.
“We have been demanding for the record right from the first day in office. Who have you paid? They will not say. There is no record!” he says.
One can feel a sense of frustration here as he adds that, “there is no legal way of making them comply”.

Lacuna in the law
On October 12, 2021, Lands minister Nabakooba wrote to the IGG requesting for an investigation into ULC. Responding to the said letter, directed on October 18, 2021, that Ms Byenkya be interdicted until the investigation that the minister had requested was complete.

Ms Nabakooba instructed Ms Byenkya in a letter dated October 28, 2021, to step aside and hand over office to Mr Mayanja, but the Attorney General, Mr Kiryowa Kiwanuka, was quick to point out that the minister’s decision to suspend Ms Byenkya, the commissioners and Ms Imaryo was illegal.

Mr Kiryowa Kiwanuka’s reading was that the chairperson and commissioners are appointed by the President and can only be removed by the President under conditions spelt out in Article 238 of the Constitution.

The Article says a commissioner may be ejected “only for” inability to perform the office due to, among others, infirmity; misbehaviour or misconduct and; incompetence.

Mr Mayanja says the biggest challenge is around the law as it is. He says whereas the Land Act allows for the minister to intervene in matters around especially the Land Fund, that intervention is limited to the area of government policy on land use.

“Unless the commission is working contrary to the policy of government as far as land use is concerned, the ministry cannot intervene,” Mr Mayanja says.

That means that the ministers’ hands are tied. It would appear that those of President Museveni too are tied. Is there a way around or out of the conundrum?

“We need to put in place an enabling law that prescribes the roles and functions of each of the officials of the Land Commission. The law should spell out that there shall be a chairperson who shall do this. The Constitution and Land Act simply talk of chairing meetings, but there is much more to the commission than chairing meetings. There will still be a big clash between Ms Byenkya and Imaryo for as along there is no enabling law,” Mr Mayanja says.

Minister Mayanja has since indicated that he is going to capitalise on the crisis to fine tune a draft for presentation to Parliament, a process that might not take a short time. That would suggest that the crisis at ULC will be raging on for quite some time.