Mixed reactions as govt seeks to relocate Luzira Prison to Buikwe

Internal Affairs Minister Kahinda Otafiire (centre), Uganda Prisons Service Commissioner General Johnson Byabashaija and Commandant of Prisons Academy and Training School Brenda Sana  at the pass out of prisons officers at Luzira Prison on July 7, 2023. PHOTO/FRANK BAGUMA

What you need to know:

  • Meetings to kick-start negotiations over the matter are expected to start on March 6.

A proposal to relocate Luzira Maximum Security Prison and have a five-star hotel built in its place has drawn mixed reactions. 

Whereas Uganda Prisons Service Commissioner General Johnson Byabashaija welcomed the plan yesterday, several lawyers and human rights activists labelled it as a bad deal. 

President Museveni in a July 10, 2022, letter directed Internal Affairs Minister Kahinda Otafiire to start negotiations with Tian Tang Group to relocate Luzira Prisons. A Chinese investor and former police officer, Mr Zhang Zhigang, owns the Group. 

Mr Museveni said the firm is willing to relocate the prison to another place within Uganda at their cost, an idea he backs, and tasked Gen Otafiire to quicken the negotiations. 

Meetings to kick start negotiations between officials from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Prisons, the Office of the Attorney General, and that of the Administrator General is expected on March 6. 

The government will acquire 640 acres of land in Buikwe District where the prisons will be relocated. 
Dr Byabashaija yesterday told Monitor that the issue was first mooted in 2008, but was yet to yield any results. “That Land in Luzira is too prime to remain a prison in 2024 and beyond,” he said. 

Luzira, which is situated in Nakawa Division some 10 kilometres south-east of Kampala, is the country’s oldest maximum-security prison with a designated capacity of 1,700 inmates but often holds close to 8,000 prisoners and sits on 276.52 acres of land. 

Dr Byabashaija said he was yet to get an official communication from the government on the ongoing development. 

“As you can see in those letters, we are not copied. We expect an official communication on the subject. But this issue has been going on since 2008,” he said. 

Similarly, other relevant government ministries, departments and agencies, including the Uganda Investment Authority (UIA), the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance, said they had not been consulted. 

ICT junior minister Godfrey Kabbyanga Baluku said: “We also saw the letters from social media, But I am sure there were discussions held and the Internal Affairs ministry is best placed to comment about it.” “Find out from Gen Otafiire because we, as the ministry of information, have not yet been given that information,” he added.

Monitor could not get a comment from Gen Otafiire as he was unreachable on the phone and had not responded to our text messages by press time. 

But Monitor understands that Gen Otafiire will chair the March 6 meeting to discuss the next steps of the proposal. 

Gen Otafiire had in a February 22 invitation letter on a consultative meeting on the proposed relocation of Luzira Prison, asked Attorney General Kiryowa Kiwanuka to attend. 

Gen Otafiire said the Uganda Prisons Service had already identified 3.5 square miles [2,240 acres] in Buikwe District out of which they have agreed to buy one square mile [640 acres] for the said relocation. 

He said the family of the late Antonio Lutwama Kabogoza, who owned the land, has never applied for Letters of Administration since he died in 1928 but the family and other beneficiaries have agreed to sell the land to Uganda Prisons Service. 

Despite UIA being the government agency responsible for approving investments in the country, an official said they were not involved in the discussion. 

The official, who preferred not to be named so as to speak freely, said: “We were not consulted about this proposal. We also saw it in the news. Some hotels are established after the investor gets our license but others do not come. So Tian Tang being a big company may explain why they didn’t come to us.” 

The official said although some investors can set up establishments without getting an investment license, the powers to allocate any [public land for investment is vested in UIA. 

But several lawyers and human rights actors criticiSed the move by the government, saying it is not only unclear but will also affect the administration of prison services. But other actors welcomed the proposal, saying it would decongest the prison. 

Mr Peter Walubiri Mukidi, a constitutional lawyer, dismissed the move as a bad deal, which is ill-motivated. 

“If there was a need to relocate this prison, it would be a competitive bid announced internationally but why did Mr Museveni choose to seal it back door? Remember we are talking about prime land in Luzira. I sense an element of graft and stealing of national assets,” he said. 

Mr Walubiri added: “It will increase the cost of transporting prisoners, especially those with capital offences. Remember most of the big courts are here in the city, so it will also cost them in terms of time where one might reach here at 2pm and return at midnight. It disorganises the movement of prisoners.” 

Relatedly, Mr Eron Kiiza, a human rights lawyer, said relocating people to Buikwe is a disguised way of ensuring that many are cut off from family visits and legal aid they desperately need for their legal journeys, and mental and physical health. 

 “It will heighten the cost and inconvenience of public and lawyers’ access to their relatives, friends or clients detained in a distant Buikwe District. It is already hard to visit inmates in Kigo and Kitalya,” Mr Kiiza said. 

Equally, the Chief Executive Officer of Legal Aid Service Providers Network (LASPNET), Dr Sylivia Namubiru, said relocating the prison comes with a huge cost that will trickle down to the prisoners. 

“It is going to increase the cost of delivery of justice. I wonder if the President was well advised on this because we as the key stakeholders were not consulted before such a decision was taken,” she said. 

But Dr Byabashaija countered the arguments. “We have been operating courts from Kitalya. That’s no big deal.” He did not, however, say whether the government plans to relocate more prisons sited on prime land in other cities across the country. 

Likewise, the Executive Director of the Human Rights Defenders Association (HURIDA), Mr Gideon Tugume, said the move is good since it will decongest the prisons. 

The Luzira Maximum Security Prison was established by the British in 1924 and opened in 1927. It was designed to host 600 inmates but now holds up to to 8,000 inmates.  

The prisons earlier owned 392.9 acres of land before the Uganda Land Commission (ULC) reportedly gave out 116.476 acres of this land to various developers in 2014. 

The June 2018 Auditor General’s report indicated that Luzira prisons remained with a total of 276.52 acres as land that remained occupied by the prison.