THE UGANDA LAND COMMISSION CHAOS: HOW DID WE GET HERE?
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By Mulengera Reporters
Going by media reports, Uganda Land Commission (ULC) is one government agency that is suffering and bleeding from multiple organ failure. On one hand are the 7 Commission members or Commissioners demanding for the exit of Beatrice Byenkya Nyakayisiki who has been ULC Chairperson since September 2019.
A former Hoima Woman MP, Byenkya replaced Baguma Isoke who equally had previously been Minister and MP. They both hail from Bunyoro. Byenkya became ULC Chairperson at a time the Land Fund, a key Museveni campaign promise aimed at shielding Bibanja holders, was beginning to take root and getting operationalized. It’s the avenue through which Parliament appropriates billions of shillings annually to be used to pay off absentee landlords in return for the Bibanja holders to get freehold titles and live in peace without having to be evicted by private developers buying from absentee Mailo landlords.
Created by an Act of Parliament, ULC is almost like a Ministry on its own with a countrywide mandate. They have a Chairperson equaling a Minister (very reason Nabakooba doesn’t have much authority or control over Byenkya) and Accounting Officer/Secretary who is the equivalent of a Permanent Secretary in a Ministry setting. But because the Secretary has always had to be a lawyer (technical in that sense), ULC has always had an Under Secretary to help on the Finance and Administration function of the Commission.
Much of the Beatrice Byenkya era at ULC has been characterized by a vacuum at the Secretary level. People have had to serve as Secretary in acting capacity until Col Edith Nakalema-backed Barbra Imaryo was recruited in the substantive capacity.
Coming from NITA-Uganda, Imaryo, being a lawyer, quickly analyzed the problem at ULC and plotted to hit the ground running. She engaged stakeholders to get quick feedback and equally engaged the about 40 staff members ULC has. She promised clean up while making the entire service delivery chain by ULC more efficient, predictable and transparent. She assured stakeholders nobody would have to pay anything to get served. She specifically assured absentee landlords, entitled to being compensated billions by government in order to allow Bibanja holders live on the land in perpetuity (with freehold titles), that none of them would have to bribe anyone in order to get what is due to them.
There had been a couple of Under Secretaries who had worked well with Chairperson Byenkya before Imaryo came. These include the notorious Benon Kigenyi (formerly of Gender Ministry and now of Public Service Ministry), Jethro Mugumya (died of Corona), Geoffrey Seremba and others. These had acted as both Under Secretary and Accounting Officer or Secretary too as there was a vacuum preceding Imaryo’s arrival. Current Under Secretary is the fatigued Daniel Mugulusi who was transferred from the Ministry of EA Affairs. Mugulusi hasn’t had a good time at all having to stand between two belligerent ladies namely Chairperson Byenkya and substantive Secretary Imaryo.
Whereas the Act places the accountability and financial function squarely in the hands of the Secretary (Imaryo who earns Shs1.8m per month compared to Byenkya’s Shs21m), the ULC Chairperson has naturally desired involvement in making of financial decisions. Aided by Mugulusi, Imaryo has had to repeatedly make her see the need to keep away from such matters and stick to her mandate of chairing Board meetings and doing oversight.
And as Minister Judith Nabakooba found out a few days ago, much of the feuding relates to desire to control the billions that come for the absentee land lords’ compensation under the Land Fund. Even when Imaryo is the Accounting Officer, Chairperson Byenkya has sometimes had to bypass her and write to the Finance Ministry contradicting her communications and payment instructions in favor of some absentee landlords (by disputing their inclusion on the list). She has sometimes had to write even to BoU seeking to stop payments of money to absentee landlords under the Land Fund while disputing the authenticity of the beneficiaries’ lists.
Finance Ministry has had to release such money on quarterly basis; last quarter Shs31bn it was and Shs21bn for this upcoming (October-December) quarter. Even when they aren’t on good terms, the two powerful ULC ladies have to be petitioned by whistle blowers imploring them to investigate claims that some top officials at ULC are involved in solicitation of kickbacks from some of the absentee landlords being compensated.
“There is an official at ULC who uses brokers, drivers and an own son to collect commissions from such landlords. The official is lately on rampage and angry at everyone after failing to earn anything from the landlords who got compensation and shared the Shs31bn that came under the last quarter. The official is tearful because every land lord his/her brokers ring says ‘I can’t give you anything because I already shared with Commissioner so and so.’ This has angered the official who is now out to fight everyone. Yet to get to the root of the problem, the two power ladies [Byenkya and Imaryo] must work together. Unfortunately they aren’t agreed on how to conduct the necessary inquiry into such extortionist claims,” says an insider adding that cohesiveness is what ULC needs now at a time Gen Museveni, who had promised to grow their Land Fund allocation to Shs500bn, is becoming frustrated on hearing claims of such grand corruption at the Nakawa-based Commission. All said and done, insiders sympathetic to Byenkya fault youthful Imaryo for being too principled and disrespectful towards elderly Byenkya who is fit to be her mother or even grandparent.
There is also the issue of high staff turnover which supporters of Imaryo blame on the paranoia with which Chairperson Byenkya approaches work. That whoever objects to her views or advises against any of her decisions becomes enemy and many have been branded thieves and recommended to Public Service for transfer. Sources repeatedly referenced on Under Secretary Geoffrey Seremba who was a very productive man but was forced out after a short time because the paranoid Byenkya was uncomfortable with him. He subsequently was transferred to the Ministry of Health from where Premier Robinah Nabanja demanded to have him moved to OPM to serve as one of the Under Secretaries because of his great work ethic.
Yet that isn’t all. Many lower staff cadre have had to frequently be gotten rid of because Chairperson Byenkya considered them hostile to her views. These include Internal Auditors, Senior Accountants and Principal Land Officers. This has led to uncertainty. Byenkya supporters also dislike Imaryo because on becoming ULC Secretary (and Accounting Officer), she changed the system on how to deal with such landlords. In a bid to eliminate the possibility of Commissioners or brokers extorting money from them, Imaryo personally rings such creditors and personally updates them about their pending arrears. She encourages them to report back in case anyone menaces them. She decreed that no other Commission employee gets involved in giving out any information relating to such payments, a thing her critics dismiss as unnecessary micromanagement.
The decision by majority Commission members allying with the Imaryo camp, while badmouthing Byenkya who they have since denounced as unfit to hold office, has only made worse an already bad situation at ULC. Some of the ULC Commissioners have taken their hatred against Byenkya to a whole new level by petitioning the Auditor General demanding forensic audit into all transactions that occurred in the pre-Imaryo era when she was directly supervising those who acted as Secretary.
Some of the stakeholders credit Imaryo for being firm and insisting on returning credibility to ULC as a 21st century organization that must transparently serve all without solicitation of kickbacks. She is credited for fast tracking payments resulting into hundreds of Bibanja holders getting rescued from menacing landlords in many parts of Uganda. In the recent months, ULC has paid out landlords and given out to freehold titles to thousands of Ugandans and thereby deepening Gen Museveni’s popularity in some of these communities. This has happened in places like Kayunga, Bunyangabu (over 800 land titles), Gomba, Mubende, Mityana (will be soon), Nakaseke (over 600 titles given out at the prompting of Gen Saleh) and Kasese in Rwenzori sub region. (For comments on this story, call, text or whatsapp us on 0705579994, 0779411734, 0200900416 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org).