Kampala — As the public inquiry into land matters comes to an end, almost a year of searching for causes and lasting solution to one of the prevalent problems the country faces today, the Justice Catherine Bamugemereire team finds itself entangled in accountability queries and accusations of 'lavish' expenditures.
Sources told Daily Monitor that the Justice Bamugemereire's team last week requested for an additional budget of Shs7b to conclude their investigations, including writing the report.
However Ministry of Finance rejected the request for new funds because the Commission has not accounted for the money released to them previously.
The Secretary to Treasury, Mr Keith Muhakanizi, last week blocked the request for additional funding and advised the Commission Secretary, Dr Douglas Singiza, to seek accountability documents from Ministry of Lands Accounting Officer, Ms Dorcas Okalany.
Although Mr Elbert Byenya, the Commission spokesperson, said they had not received accountability queries from Mr Muhakanizi, the Ministry of Finance spokesperson, Mr Jim Mugunga, confirmed the information.
"The request for additional funding to the Commission lacked supporting documents. Best practice requires entities including the Land Commission to account for all public funds in time through their respective accounting officers," Mr Mugunga said.
He also explained that Ministry of Finance funds the Commission's activities through the budget of the Ministry of Lands whose Permanent Secretary (PS) is obliged to remit and account for all public funds released to the Commission.
On why Finance blocked the Commission's request for Shs7b, Mr Mugunga's response was dressed in diplomatic gesture.
"We did not block their request, we asked for supporting documents and work plan for the balance of activities before we can decide whether to release the money or not," he said.
Daily Monitor has established that although the Land Commission is funded through the Ministry of Lands budget, the ministry's technical team has advised the PS against accounting for money given to the probe team.
The PS was instead advised to write to the Finance ministry officials to seek accountability from Justice Bamugemereire's team.
Upon the advice of the technocrats, Ministry of Lands on Wednesday distanced themselves from accountability of about Shs13b which was remitted to the Commission.
They instead asked the Land probe team to take full accountability of the money and submit the relevant documents to Finance ministry if they want more funding.
Lands minister responds
Although Ms Okalany was unavailable for a comment, Minister of Lands Betty Amongi reminded the land probe that her ministry is "just a conduit" and cannot therefore be asked to provide accountability for the monies spent by the Commission.
"Accountability for the monies given to the land probe is supposed to be done directly. As a ministry, we are just a conduit. We get money from Finance Ministry and pass it to them... if there is any problem with their accountability, it's not us to explain," Ms Amongi said.
She also said the Finance Ministry examined the Commission's budget requirements and informed her ministry that the government was unable to raise the Shs7b the Land Commission wanted because there are other Cabinet priorities which include enhancing salaries for civil servants and financing infrastructure projects such as the oil roads, refinery and Standard Gauge Railway.
When Justice Bamugemereire was contacted for a comment, she said: "As you are aware the Commission is conducting a public interest duty and in many of the cases undertaken which we have had to deal with, there have been costly investigations."
The Bamugemereire Commission has already spent Shs13b and were asking for Shs7b more to cater for undisclosed pending complaints, monthly wages for the commissioners and arrears for the support for three months.
However, the Finance Ministry has accepted to release Shs2b to the Commission to complete the pending work. But the release is contingent on the Commission submitting proper accountability for the previous monies and clear work plans.
Mr Elbert Byenkya, the lead counsel for the land probe and its spokesperson, yesterday defended what some staff called "unnecessary fat allowances" for the commissioners. He justified the "fat pay" saying the Commission is doing "a special job".
"There are official channels for communicating those [accountability] things, but when you are extending the Commission, you need an extra budget. The Commission being not a permanent body, there is a person we report to and it's the PS for Lands and the PSST [Muhakanizi], who would be raising such issues," Mr Byenkya told Daily Monitor.
He said he did not know that Mr Muhakanizi and his team were not satisfied with the Commission's accountability.
But when informed that it is Muhakanizi who questioned the accountabilities the Commission submitted to Finance Ministry, he blamed people he said do not want the Commission to probe into land deals.
"I think what's happening here is that if there is an investigative commission and there are a lot of people who are not probably enjoying the experience of having a commission, peddling rumours such as the lack of accountability is not surprising. There are people who are unhappy," Mr Byankya said.
There have been complaints about "a pampered commission" enjoying astronomical allowances and "huge monthly wages" yet their support staff have taken about three months without pay and have been told to "endure the pain and serve the country" as they prepare to go home on May 9.
On April 9, Dr Singiza, the acting Secretary to the Commission, wrote to about 100 support staff asking them to use the remaining period to tie the loose ends because the Commission is "winding up land inquiry activities."
He also made it clear that the Commission's tenure will expire on May 9, 2018.
"The Commission shall therefore wind up and the staff shall be discharged with effect from May 9, 2018. After this date, only the core group involved in Report Writing shall be retained," the internal memo reads in part.
Since it started its inquiries last year, the Land Commission has had about 140 sittings. Sources said the commissioners are paid about $200 (about Shs720,000) per day they sit, with an additional to $690 (about Shs2.5m) per day whenever they travel abroad.
The team has visited Ghana, United Kingdom, and South Africa, spending at least seven days in each country. This translates into about Shs470m for seven commissioners for 21 days abroad.
"I think the Commission is doing a very special job. If you want people to do the job properly, dedicate all their time to doing that job and you want them to excise utmost integrity, you can't have both ways. There is a cost to the time people are spending and I don't think that the commission wages are inconsistent to the work they are doing," Byenkya said.
With a backlog of about 4,500 complaints, out of about 6,000 received in the last 11 months of the commission, the Bamugemereire team is winding up on May 9 after spending about Shs13b, the bulk of which has been spent on wages and allowances.
On the case backlog, Mr Byenkya said, "that's a matter for the Appointing Authority to decide".
He said to investigate a single complaint, it takes time and added that there is big need for intervention to deal with peoples' complaints on land.
The President, on December 8, 2016, appointed the seven-member Commission, which was sworn in on February 21, 2017, but started work on May 3.
They were mandated to inquire into the effectiveness of the land law, policies and processes of land acquisition and management in Uganda.
The President received the interim report in February this year.
Justice Catherine Bamugemereire full response
About accessing funds
As you are aware the Commission was appointed in December 2016 but only got to start work in May 2017. The primary driver for the delay of the commencement was budgetary concerns. There were also structural issues of delivery of funds. You realise that our operational funds are released through the Ministry of Lands, which is responsible for the Land Sector which we are investigating. Lots of obstacles have been thrown our way on this account alone. But that is tale for another day.
Firms on achievements
Secondly, I would like to be careful not delve into operational issues of an on-going probe. Many of the issues raised will constitute an integral part of the report which we would not like to pre-empt at this stage.
We, however, reject any attempt to water down the tremendous work done by the Commission to stave the spate of land grabbing which had gotten out of hand. At the commencement of this inquiry, numerous villages had suffered and/or were about to suffer mass evictions which through the Commission's selfless work we have been able to halt. To assess the impact of the work done by the Commission, one needs not look far.
We have camped in all the major regional centres of this country and addressed immense challenges that had fomented for decades. We have confronted these challenges with courage and at great personal risk.
To give you an idea about the Magnitude of the work done, let me share with you a rough number of communities who were at risk of mass evictions in whose cases the commission has intervened. They include; Hoima (10,000 people), Mubende (20,000people), Gulu (10,000 people), Jinja (2000 people), Masaka (Thousands of people), Mbarara (Thousands of people), Wakiso (10.000 people and more), Nakaseke (10,000 people) and Mbale (10,000 people).
Degradation of wetlands and forests cases in Wakiso, Masaka, Lwera, Kajansi, Gulu, Mbale, Fort Portal and Kasese were also handled. Massive fraud in Land offices, problems on Church land and issues with cultural sites were not in solation.
What does it cost to investigate a case?
Going by the regional tours, we have made the unit cost of a case and can be availed. This is arrived at by costing the advance investigation team costs, the security, the facilities for hearings, the cost of witness transport and subsistence and the witness protection, not to mention the cost of the entire probe team.
The staff costs
We adopted a project style which loads and offloads manpower as need arises. In this regard, we have had modest staffing but for the record, the estimated staff cost were included in the approved workplan that was presented to HE the President and Ministry of Finance. It would be absurd if approval of the workplan and attendant costs were sought from the Department we are investigating. In this regard therefore, benchmarking trips were also agreed upon from the outset and were budgeted for upfront and duly approved.
Unpaid staff members With regard to the alleged failure to pay staff for three consecutive months, this is absolutely false. Payment of staff emoluments have been irregular because of the budgetary challenges outlined above. We have all been taking home monthly payments in bits and pieces. We asked our staff to endure pain and serve their country. But we have always endeavoured to settle outstanding salary arrears as soon as resources become available.
For the record, this assignment was given to us by HE the President and with have already submitted a well-reasoned Interim Report. Commissions of Inquiry are expensive but we are happy that our work has had impact as evidenced by the huge number of complaints filed with us in seven months. We are aware that land grabbers and beneficiaries of the scam will go to all lengths to discredit this work but we have no doubt in our minds that the person who assigned us the task and the ordinary citizens are satisfied with the level of commitment my team has displayed in execution of this task.
I do not intend to respond in more detail than I have done as doing so would violate the oath we took at the inception of the Commission of Inquiry.
Our books of account are available and open to scrutiny by Authorised officers. Please note that no more amount of threat, blackmail, dirt-throwing and kitchen sink and other under-hand methods will deter us from executing the assignment HE the President entrusted with us. Thank you.