Minister, officials admit to corruption in Lands office

Simbamanyo building on Lumumba Avenue in Kampala, which Equity Bank auctioned to a city businessman last year. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Junior Lands minister Sam Mayanja on Monday met and warned the ministry staff to end double-titling and making several entries on the same land title.

In a sign of mounting pressure from the Simbamanyo House sale saga, the minister of State for Lands on Monday warned his officials to stop forthwith reported rampant corruption and fraud in the Lands office or be sacked.

Mr Sam Mayanja, who summoned the staff to the ministry boardroom at 10.30am, warned them to end double-titling and making several entries on the same land title. He also ordered them to stop quick transfers of land titles without giving the affected parties the chance to be heard. 

The minister’s stern warnings come in the wake of two separate letters that President Museveni wrote to Bank of Uganda (BoU) governor Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, and Attorney General Kiryowa Kiwanuka. Multiple sources within Cabinet also indicated the President had addressed the issue to his ministers.

Mr Museveni’s letter tasked the BoU governor and the Attorney General to look into how Simbamanyo House, and Afrique Suites were sold off at very low prices, and revert to him within one week from the date of issuance of his letter. 

Last year, Equity Bank seized Simbamanyo House in Kampala, and Afrique Suites Hotel on the outskirts of the city after Mr Peter Kamya and his Simbamanyo Estates failed to pay outstanding loans to the tune of $10.8m (about Shs40b).

In a letter dated September 3, to Tumusiime-Mutebile, President Museveni wrote: “Mr Peter Kamya and Dr Margaret Muganwa have appealed for my intervention in matters regarding the sale of Simbamanyo House and Afrique Suites by Equity Bank. They state that whereas the Bank of Uganda directed that there should be no foreclosure of mortgaged properties by banks during the Covid-19 pandemic, Equity Bank went ahead and sold their properties at very low prices. That they had even offered to get their own buyers, but all their attempts were frustrated. 

But BoU, through its director of communications, Ms Charity Mugumya, this week said their investigations into the matter are ongoing.

In his letter to Mr Kiwanuka, Mr Museveni said legally, the gist of the couple’s complaint is that their properties were sold when there were cases pending in court, and without a court order. 

“This is to direct that you urgently investigate the matter and render a legal opinion within a week,” Museveni ordered Mr Kiwanuka.

When asked whether his tough words were forced by Mr Museveni’s letters, Mr Mayanja said the Sibamanyo stand-off has been an eye-opener. 

“A lot has been happening at the Ministry [of Lands, Housing and Urban Development], but the fact that the President has got interested in Simbamanyo sale made me meet the staff and tell them in a frank manner to change their ways or drastic measures shall be taken,” Mr Mayanja warned.

“I’m a lawyer and I know a lot about land matters and when I was appointed to this ministry, I knew I was coming to the most corrupt ministry and now I have seen it with my own eyes. The corruption here is for everybody to see,” he said.

Mr Mayanja, who assumed office only three months ago, said he has already been faced with endless complaints of land fraud.

He said he had called the meeting to have “honest and frank conversation” with his staff on why corruption continues to be rampant at the ministry. 

Mr Mayanja warned that he had made up his mind to sack officers at the ministry’s head offices in Kampala, but changed his mind last-minute after “wide consultations” to give his staff a fair hearing.

The meeting was attended by acting commissioner of land registration John Karuhanga, undersecretary Richard Juuko, commissioner for surveys and mapping Wilson Ogaro, spokesperson Denis Obbo, and other junior land registrars.

The minister warned: “People come here on weekends to do transactions while others are away. Do you people want to have good careers; because I wanted to fire people, but I also thought about people’s reputations and families.  But why can’t you do the right thing?”   

“With the computerised system; how can there be double-titling?” Mr Mayanja asked, referring to Uganda’s Land Information System (LIS). 

“The other day, a lady came to me complaining how entries had been done on her title.” 

In response, a staff member told Mr Mayanja that the computerised system has only stopped new cases of double-titling. 
“The cases of double-titling we are dealing with are the old ones and the system (LIS) is not complete, we need to use it fully if the issues of double-titling is to stop,” he said.

Mr Mayanja also wondered how certain land transfers for the privileged are made within split seconds, while other transfers for ordinary people take years.

“There is the Kakungulu Estate case where the land was sub-divided into 1,000 plots and land titles issued within space of no time. Can you guys imagine that and all of these things are done by people in this meeting?” he said as the ministry’s staff went quiet.  

Mr Mayanja also criticised what he called the haste applied when Simbamanyo House, formerly owned by tycoon Kamya, was transferred into the name of a Kampala businessman.

“Maybe you don’t know it, but behind the scenes was a legal advisor of Mr Kamya,” Mr Mayanja, one of the founding partners of Kampala Associated Advocates (KAA), said.

Junior Lands minister, Sam Mayanja. PHOTO/FILE

He said the moment the first court ruled, within hours, Simbamanyo was owned by someone else. 
“Why don’t you first give people the chance to appeal?  The man almost committed suicide. I had to counsel him. Why do such things happen quickly while others are slow?”  

“If you aren’t sure about certain things, why can’t you consult? Why are you rushing? You might cause death,” Mr Mayanja warned.

When he finally invited the staff to air out their views, Mr Karuhanga admitted to corruption in the ministry.
“Those who bring money ensure the entire chain gets a portion; so it becomes very hard to reject the money,” he said.

One of the land registrars blamed questionable land transactions on politicians who pressure them.
“We receive phone calls from powerful people; some are ministers telling us to do this or do that,” he said.

“How can a junior officer reject such orders? Politicians have become a big problem for us, but it’s us who are blamed,” he said. 

Another land registrar said land registrars are unfairly blamed whenever a land transaction goes bad.
“Even if it is a surveyor who makes a mistake or a cartographer is to blame, everybody blames the registrar, yet we are not competent in surveying, valuing [land] or cartography. We are just at the tail end.”   

But Mr Mayanja said: “You [registrars] are blamed because you are supposed to ensure everything is in order before the transaction is done.  The land titles have your signature. So that’s why you have to be careful.”  
Mr Ogaro attributed the unchecked corruption at the ministry to the low pay to staff at the ministry. 

“If you are paying land officers Shs1.5m yet they are handling transactions of billions of shillings, what do you expect them to do?” he said.  

“The ministry got just 0.1 percent of the national budget, how do you expect to eliminate corruption and improve services with such a budget?”  

A female staff member said even if they serve people in an honest manner, they have already been convicted as corrupt. 
“People believe the system can’t work without corruption. That’s why they keep on asking brokers to do work for them and they believe those brokers are part of the ministry. That’s why the belief that we are corrupt isn’t going away.” 

Mr Mayanja has insisted among the reforms he wants to institute in Uganda’s land system are rules that will eliminate land brokers. 

“You see many people outside,” he said, pointing to the window. “They don’t work here but they are there.  Those are brokers and I want to eliminate them from our system. People should be able to do transactions without going through brokers because they are getting a lot of money from people and yet they don’t work for the ministry.”

In a bid to stem corruption, Mr Mayanja told his staff that he has been advised to go and sack everyone at the Wakiso lands office, which has gained a reputation for being the epicentre of land fraud. 

But Mr Dennis Obbo, the ministry’s spokesperson, who acknowledged the meeting with the minister took place, sought to underplay the tough talk by the minister when contacted for a comment. 

“To the best of my knowledge, it was an internal meeting where the minister was meeting the registrars to understand the challenges facing the ministry. But it wasn’t over corruption per se,” he told Sunday Monitor in a telephone interview.

In 2018, following a public outcry, security operatives from State House Anti-Corruption Unit raided Wakiso District land registry, the busiest in the country, and rounded up surveyors, land officials and brokers. The team led by Col Edith Nakalema seized electronic gadgets from land officers and their clients who had come to process land titles. 

“Before taking up such steps, I have decided to first talk to you people. I believe you want to work and it is only after understanding you and coming up with a working document that I will take certain measures,” Mr Mayanja cautioned.