15 November 2017

Uganda: Former Mbarara Mayor Helped Give Away Forest Reserve Land

On Friday, November 10, Wilson Tumwine, the former mayor of Mbarara municipality, appeared before the commission of inquiry into land matters.

He was asked to explain the massive encroachment on three forest reserves. He was also accused of helping private developers gain access to the forest reserve land.

During cross-examination led by assistant lead counsel, John Bosco Suuza, Tumwine twisted himself in knots. ALI TWAHA brings you an abridged version of the proceedings:-

Suuza: Please state your name for the record.

Tumwine: Wilson Tumwine, former mayor, Mbarara municipality.

Suuza: You have been attending these hearings for the last three or four days. You heard a number of testimonies in which your name features prominently in the process leading up to the grabbing of land by a number of individuals within central forest reserves like Rwemitongore I and II and Ruti. Tell us under what circumstances did you get involved in the loss of this land?

Tumwine: I may not have been involved in influencing that encroachment. But from 2002 when I became mayor, I believe Rwemitongore I and Rwemitongore II were already encroached upon, I think between 2003 and 2003.

My role as mayor was to write to the executive director of National Forestry Authority (NFA) informing him of the encroachment. As council, we made sure that all those who were encroaching on those areas did not get their plans approved.

Suuza: The very first time you dealt with this matter was writing to NFA and alerting them. That's all you did?

Tumwine: That's what we did and fortunately, the executive director of NFA and his team came and visited those areas, identified the encroachment and promised that they were going to tackle it. Since then, I don't recall anytime when they tried to do that.

Suuza: Unfortunately, we do not have a record of your letter to NFA. Do you remember the name of the executive director of NFA?

Tumwine: It's Mr [Michael] Mugisa.

Suuza: The picture I'm getting is of a mayor concerned about public property who tries to take some measures. At what point did you decide that we should not protect these forest reserves but have them degazetted?

Tumwine: You will discover that because of many reasons, especially when we got the population explosion and needed more land for industrial development in the municipality. We also discovered that these so-called forests were becoming a habitat of criminals. Because they were not managed properly, they became a habitat for mosquitos and health hazards.

I personally could not see the value for NFA to keep these areas. There were no trees grown. In our application for degazettement, we only asked for Rwemitongore I which was about 30 hectares. Then Rwemitongore II which is about 11 hectares and Ruti area which is about 119 hectares. And we left out...

Suuza: Mr Tumwine, it does not matter the size or whether there were trees or not. What matters is that this land was reserved for forestry purposes. As a leader concerned with the health of the people, why did you decide that this land has to go?

Tumwine: That's what I was explaining. Kamukuzi which is four hectares was left as a forest. And Rwemitongore III which is 43 hectares was left as a forest. In modern development, my lord, it's not that if we degazette these three areas, we are totally going to destroy the forest cover.

Suuza: We have land which is specifically reserved for forestry purposes. Now you're telling us that the right way to do that is allocate it to private individuals and take it away from the body mandated with promotion of forests. I don't think that makes any sense. What did you do [next] having made that decision?

Tumwine: We applied to NFA to degazette those three areas which I think totalled about 160 hectares.

Suuza: Do you remember when you applied to NFA?

Tumwine: I wouldn't recall.

Suuza: Did you get a response from NFA?

Tumwine: We did. They asked us to fulfil certain conditions and regulations which we did.

Suuza: What were those conditions?

Tumwine: To get alternative land equivalent or more than the area we wanted to degazette. To make sure that that area is surveyed. To get an environmental impact assessment done for both areas.

After, we were asked to establish a structural plan for those areas we wanted to degazette so that it complies with development of the municipality. We did and submitted them to the ministries of urban development, local government and to the office of the president...

Suuza: Let's go back to the reasons as to why you thought you needed to have this land degazetted. I'm sure you have a home and that there is some form of vegetation around it, there is a chance that a criminal can hide in those tress or mosquitos can stay there. Do you ever consider destroying them because of that?

Tumwine: I don't think that one would come into my mind. If you visited Mbarara municipality, border to border; you will discover that we established more trees along the roads and compounds. A good example is that one behind us.

Bamugemereire: Was that done in your time as mayor?

Tumwine: Yes, those ones on the roadside were put there by myself.

Bamugemereire: Really? People who have been to this [Ntare] school 50 years ago will tell you that this place has become less green?

Tumwine: I'm talking...

Bamugemereire: Can you keep quiet and listen. By the way, we need you to understand that you are before the commission to listen and answer. And we are doing an audit of your time as mayor. So don't roll eyes and feel too important. I advise you to be calm and answer the questions.

Suuza: I'm just not convinced about your reasons to give away the forest reserve.

Tumwine: My lord, what I said is that those forest reserves were supposed to be properly managed.

Suuza: And therefore?

Tumwine: We wrote to NFA to make sure the existing green is cleared such that criminals do not have anywhere to hide and mosquitoes certainly would be reduced in those areas. Before I left as mayor, they wrote back proposing that Rwemitongore III is managed under eco-tourism.

Suuza: You said there was population expansion and that people needed land, there are many people in this area, did they all get land with the assistance of Mbarara municipality?

Tumwine: Yes.

Suuza: In what way?

Tumwine: Most of this land before 1995 was managed and controlled by Mbarara municipality. And whenever, you wanted to develop any of these areas, you would apply to Mbarara municipality.

Suuza: Do you still have any land to give out?

Tumwine: No, thank you.

Suuza: What I want to understand is why you thought it was your duty to facilitate the appropriation of government land in order to satisfy the needs of imaginary people.

Tumwine: My lord, according to degazettement regulations, it's only urban authorities that are supposed to apply and, therefore, on behalf of our people as a municipal council, we thought that was the legal way.

Suuza: You said that in the fulfillment of the conditions prescribed by NFA, you acquired alternative land somewhere, where did you acquire it?

Tumwine: In Kyeera, Kiruhura district.

Suuza: How did you acquire it?

Tumwine: We actually asked people to look for any land that was about 168 hectares.

Suuza: Which people did you ask?

Tumwine: Everybody...

Suuza: When you say we asked everybody, I want to know how did you go about it?

Tumwine: As council, we go to councillors and ask them if they knew anybody with that land within the vicinity and at the end of it Kiruhura was the only area we got land that was favourable for tree planting. Secondly, it was of the equivalent acreage and therefore we thought we could go in for that.

Suuza: The Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Act, I think, applies to municipal authorities. Am I right?

Tumwine: Yes, sir.

Suuza: It prescribes procedures by which government may purchase goods, services and property. So, under what method would that approach that you adopted in the council fall?

Tumwine: I think there is when you can identify a capable supplier. Secondly, you can advertise and [there is] direct procurement. And that is the one we used to get that land because, according to the law, you have to get that land valued before...

Bamugemereire: No. According to the law, what justification did you have for having a direct procurement?

Tumwine: For me as a mayor, I only oversee the technical operations. I don't procure and I don't influence procurement.

Suuza: Who made this proposal to the council?

Tumwine: I think the town clerk.

Suuza: You had nothing to do with it?

Tumwine: You see, the town clerk would personally bring an idea into the executive committee. It approves of it; it presents it to council then it approves it.

Suuza: You said your job is to oversee the technical staff of the municipal council, when they proposed to have a direct procurement as opposed to open bidding, did you not ask any questions?

Tumwine: Yes please.

Suuza: What questions did you ask?

Tumwine: I asked whether we had any other alternative land apart from that one. And they said no.

Bamugemereire: The issue is not the land but the method used to procure the land.

Tumwine: (Witness remains silent.)

Suuza: Did it not strike you as perhaps you are going to spend Shs 230 million in the context of a process that was not transparent?

Tumwine: The town clerk and the technical staff had only one piece of land and they went for direct procurement of that land.

Suuza: We heard that but before they decided, what processes did they undertake? And we are telling you that they should have conducted an open bidding process because that's what the law says. The question is why did you not raise any issues?

Tumwine: It was my job but I couldn't do otherwise.

Suuza: I want to put it to you that the involvement of you and your council in this process was a breach of the law and amounted to abuse of office. You said you wrote to NFA but I have not seen your letter. But I have two letters from NFA. One is dated February 18, 2008 and another September 27, 2011. I want you to look at both letters starting with the one of September. To whom is it addressed?

Tumwine: To the mayor.

Suuza: What is the subject?

Tumwine: Occupation permits in Mbarara CFR (central forest reserve)

Suuza: What was going on?

Tumwine: Actually, that was hearsay because as far as Mbarara municipality is concerned, we have never issued any leases in the forest reserves.

Suuza: He is talking of you allocating plots of land?

Tumwine: Maybe me as a municipality and not as the mayor.

Suuza: But it was addressed to you and you're the head of the municipality. You have to answer the questions.

Tumwine: That's what I'm saying.

Suuza: Did you respond to that letter?

Tumwine: I did not. I put notes for the town clerk to reply.

Suuza: What was supposed to be the reply?

Tumwine: We were supposed to reply saying we are aware the process of degazettement is ongoing and we had no authority to allocate. And I asked the town clerk to make sure that he identifies whoever is supposed to do the environmental impact assessment and they do it as hurriedly as possible.

Suuza: Let's go to the next letter. What's the subject?

Tumwine: Clearing of land in Mbarara plantation Ruti block.

Suuza: What is the complaint?

Tumwine: "... advise Mbarara municipal authorities to halt intended development activities until the ongoing degazetement process is concluded."

Suuza: This is NFA again complaining that the institution that you head was involved in the giveaway of the forest reserve despite the fact that there was no degazettement order.

Tumwine: If I recall very well, we never went to Ruti to clear any piece of land.

Suuza: So, why do they keep writing to you?

Tumwine: I don't know.

Suuza: How did you pay for the alternative land in Kiruhura?

Tumwine: Council paid for the land.

Suuza: Where did you get the money?

Tumwine: It was hurriedly solicited from the wananchi (the people) to make sure that land was bought. We also asked ministry of local government to allow us a loan.

Suuza: Three questions; what was the hurry for? Under what legal provision did you get this money and who are the wananchi and how did you identify them?

Tumwine: We tried to look for land but it was in vain and this was the only land that was available. Unfortunately, the owner of that land also wanted money hurriedly. Council did not have any money available apart from the budget which had no money budgeted for [that].

Council approved that we would get money from whoever was willing to give us the money interest free and we pay back after we had got the loan.

Suuza: I ask you: what law allows you to borrow money from private individuals?

Tumwine: The land that was being acquired was for private developers. Council was procuring this land on behalf of the population and therefore...

Suuza: And, therefore, you thought it was a private transaction? How do you borrow money on behalf of the municipal council?

Tumwine: First of all, you have to get an approval from council. You also have to get a letter of authorisation from the ministry of local government.

Suuza: Did you get authorisation from the ministry?

Tumwine: Local government gave us authorisation to borrow Shs 150 million if I still remember.

Suuza: From where?

Tumwine: From the bank.

Suuza: Now I'm asking you about authorisation to borrow from your friends.

Tumwine: It was allowed by council.

Suuza: Mr Tumwine, there is a difference between a reason and an excuse. What you are giving us are excuses and they are not helping you. The fact is, you did not get authorisation from the ministry of local government. Why?

Tumwine: In council, our legal officer is the town clerk. He is the one who requested council for that permission.

Suuza: How many people did you borrow that money from?

Tumwine: I think they were many; I don't remember the number. But what I'm aware of is that we were able to get Shs 240 million. And so far, municipality has refunded Shs 190.4 million.

Suuza: Who received this money?

Tumwine: The treasurer.

Suuza: We have records that show that you received that money personally. Take a look at this letter and read it.

Tumwine: "...the following are details of funds received from Mr Tumwine towards the purchase of land in Kyeera refunded to him following the auditor general's recommendation."

Suuza: So money from these intending developers was paid to you personally contrary to the claim that it was paid to the treasurer. What do you have to say about that?

Tumwine: When the town clerk requested for this money from council, it is clearly written in the minutes that they mandated the town clerk and the mayor to get this money from the community.

Suuza: What we want is a clear answer. Did you receive this money personally?

Tumwine: With my hand, I never received money. This money came through me as a mayor to the treasurer and there is a book where people were submitting to the treasurer.

Bamugemereire: Somehow public money went through you?

Tumwine: The trust the community had is that they will only give council that money through me.

Bamugemereire: Good. I think that is the answer.

Suuza: What this shows me is that this was a project conceived by you, midwifed by you, and benefited from by you as an individual. And there is only one word to describe it; corruption. That is all I get from this whole thing. Am I correct?

Tumwine: No, my lord.

Suuza: [In another council minute] You told your colleagues on the committee that you intended to borrow money. In what capacity were you intending to borrow that money yet you said, you're not the accounting officer?

Tumwine: That was the mayor, not me.

Suuza: I beg your pardon?

Tumwine: That was the mayor in the chair and not me Tumwine as an individual.

Suuza: That's interesting. But who were these intending developers and the friends of council?

Tumwine: The communities are the ones who form the council.

Suuza: When our investigators came to you, you told them you have a lorry of land titles and you went further to say the land was already taken anyway. Those land titles that can fill a lorry, are you telling us that there is no single title that can be found in any of these forest reserves?

Tumwine: My lord, your first statement about your investigators, I have not met even one investigator. I as Tumwine did not go into the lorry full of rubbish.

Suuza: Mr Tumwine, watch your language. Looking back, are you proud of the role you played in this matter?

Tumwine: Which matter?

Suuza: The issue of the three forest reserves, Rwemitongore I, II and Ruti?

Tumwine: Our role as mayors is not even to allocate and that is a technical responsibility.

alitwaha@observer.ug

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