10 February 2007

Uganda: Who is Hassan Basajjabalaba?

Kampala — THE ongoing controversy over the management of Nakasero and St. Balikuddembe (Owino) markets in Kampala keeps drawing in the name of Hassan Basajjabalaba. Who is he? Elizabeth Agiro profiles the city tycoon whose firms won contracts to manage the two markets.

FEW people have ever heard his voice. Even fewer would recognise him in public. He leads the life of a recluse and is paranoid about the media.

However, Hassan Basajjabalaba drives flashy cars that are bound to draw attention, like an army green Mercedes Benz with personalised plates that earned him the nickname 'Hassan B'.

The contradiction comes as no surprise to friends who describe him as "unpredictable".

"One minute he is happy and then he is moody, depending on a particular situation," a friend once said. For someone who seemingly guards his privacy, Hassan is swift at taking action and thrives on showing off.

"If something is going for, say sh10,000, he can decide to pay sh100,000 if there is anyone challenging him," a source says.

Hassan is a slender and fairly tall business tycoon, who speaks a mixture of English, Luganda and Runyankore, while "shouting at the top of his voice." This argumentative business tycoon came into the limelight in 2001, when his hides and skins business raised a few eyebrows.

Then he built Kampala International University and was considered the richest Ugandan. Many wondered how he could have made his money while speculation was rife that he exported drugs hidden in the hides and skins. However, it was never proven.

Born to Iddi Basajjabalaba, Hassan is the fourth of 31 children. Growing up in Ishaka, Bushenyi District, Hassan and his older brother, Kassim, worked with their father in his hides and skins business. When Basajjabalaba senior died in 1989, the two brothers took over but due to mismanagement and misunderstandings, they soon run down the business.

But before he died, Basajjabalaba wanted one thing from his sons. He wanted them to build a school. Kassim took the initiative and built Standard High School along Entebbe Road. It was from this that they hatched Kampala International University (KIU) in Kabalagala. And because Hassan provided the funds, he took full credit for having come up with the idea.

Still, the mystery of his wealth continued. He bought a commercial building on Nkrumah Road at sh350m before going on a car-buying spree, acquiring mostly flashy cars: a Prado, Lexus and more Mercedes Benzes.

At another point, he proposed building a university in Bushenyi but the Ministry of Education and Sports rejected his bid. But he later managed to open a KIU campus specialising in medicine. He has been buying property in Kampala since.

Amidst the wealth he has amassed, it's only natural that Hassan is surrounded by false friends. According to someone who has watched Hassan's empire grow, he in essence has no friends.

"He is a friend to himself. People just associate with him to make money and get famous," he says, adding, "His is a one-man empire."

But how did he get rich without having completed school? "People work hard. But if you look closely, all rich men have not gone to school," he adds. The 40-year-old started school at Ishaka Primary School, finishing in Bweranyangi Boarding Primary School.

Thereafter, he studied at Ishaka Adventist College where he finished his S4 in 1985, although some reports claim he finished in 1988. In what could determine his future career leaning, Hassan performed well in Mathematics, Accounts and Commerce, but failed English and History.

Nevertheless, Hassan has shown his passion for education through KIU, but maintains the pompous attitude. On the day of the launch of KIU in 2002, a guided tour round the school etched a few memories on another person's mind.

He explains that Hassan looked like he wanted to learn everything and yet acted like he already knew everything. Hassan was dressed in a casual shirt.

He adds that although the library they toured did not look impressive, Hassan showed keen interest in it. Not trusting Ugandans to run the university, he first relied on expatriates, beginning with a Ghanaian as the university vice-chancellor. This was part of a strategy to give the university a high profile; never mind that the Ghanaian turned out to be ineffective. Initially Hassan's relatives held the sensitive positions at the university, but had to change following pressure from education authories.

This time round, Hassan is in the news, not for his mysterious wealth, but for discrepancies in how his companies, Victoria International Limited and Sheila Investments, won Kampala City Council contracts despite debts owed. He reportedly won the tenders because he proposed to remit sh104m per month for Owino Market and sh25m monthly for Nakasero Market. To date, Hassan's companies have failed to remit a total of sh4.8b.

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