21 April 2018

Uganda: Lands Officials Cited in Asians' Properties Bonanza

Photo: The Monitor
The dispute. Men sit at the entrance of Faze 2 Restaurant, the property at the centre of the dispute.

Kampala — Hundreds of properties worth millions of dollars that belonged to Asians forced out of the country by Idi Amin are the subject of intense interest as government looks to wind up the body that manages them.

Sources have told Saturday Monitor that in anticipation of the properties being sold off, highly placed individuals have positioned themselves to acquire them at relatively low prices, and the fight for the most prime ones is already leading to court cases.

One of the properties over which there is already a court case is Plot 10 Nakasero Road, which houses Faze 2 Restaurant.

Its registered proprietor, Mr Kuldip Singh Dhami, values it at close to Shs1b and fears that there is a calculated move by officials in the Departed Asians Properties Custodian Board and the ministry of Lands to grab it from him.

The Departed Asians Properties Custodian Board was formed after the fall of Amin to manage the properties that had been taken away from Asians who had left the country.

The board would enable those Asians who returned to the country to take back their properties and manage those that were not repossessed by the original owners.

When President Museveni came to power, the plan was that after a certain date in 1993 or 1994, the properties that had not been repossessed by the original owners would be sold off and the board wound up.

But this did not happen early enough and the Auditor General has since observed that plans to wind up the board should be quickened, which has renewed the scramble for the properties.

A court case

Mr Kuldip, 80, who now lives in Nairobi, has sued Kampala District Land Board, the Departed Asians Property Custodian Board and the Commissioner Land Registration in the Ministry of Lands over the property that houses Faze 2 Restaurant. In his affidavit filed on February 12, 2018 in the Civil Division of the High Court, Mr Kuldip says a lease of 99 years was awarded on the contested land in 1920 and that in 1971, he became the registered proprietor of the property, after which he developed the plot into his residential house.

In 1994, Mr Kuldip writes, the Departed Asians Property Custodian Board tried to take over his property and he proved to them that he had never departed the country and his property was therefore never among those to be managed by the board.

In the cache of documents Mr Kuldip filed in court is a letter dated June 8, 1994 and signed by one Ruth Namirembe-Alijo for the then acting secretary of the Departed Asians' Property Custodian Board.

The letter, addressed to Barya, Byamugisha & Co Advocates, Mr Kuldip's lawyers, reads: "We have confirmed from the documents you submitted that your client, Mr Kuldip Singh Dhami, did not leave Uganda during the 1972 exodus, and therefore his property is not subject to the provisions of the Expropriated Properties Act 1982. We have therefore withdrawn it from the list of properties to be sold. Any inconveniences caused to you and your client is regretted."

Before that encounter with the Departed Asians' Property Custodian Board, Mr Kuldip had had to go to court with Roko Construction Limited over the property, and in 1981 won the case with the court finding that he was not a departed Asian and therefore his property was not among those to be managed by the Departed Asians' Custodian Board.

"Things done behind my back"

Mr Kuldip is back in court over the same matter, because, he says in his affidavit, "everything (information) seems to be limited to achieve a special goal".

Mr Kuldip wrote in his affidavit: "Everything is being conducted behind my back. Neither the minister (Ms Amongi), nor the executive director of the second respondent (Departed Asians Property Custodian Board) nor the commissioner of lands have addressed any of the complaints to me to establish who is in the property or why the property was not expropriated.

They are only actively working underground amongst themselves with the aim of appearing to use legitimate means to take my property."

With his lease on the property nearing its end (April 2019), Mr Kuldip approached Kampala District Land Board and offered to give up the remaining period on the lease in exchange for him being granted a fresh lease of 49 years, which he achieved.

On September 12, 2012, Mr Kuldip entered an agreement with Kampala District Land Board to lease the said plot, paying Shs209.7m as a lump sum and committing to pay ground rent of Shs20.9m per year for the 49 years of the lease period.

In a letter dated October 30, 2017, Lands minister Betty Amongi put it to Mr Yusuf Nsibambi, the chairman Kampala District Land Board that his board dealt with Mr Kuldip in error because, according to the minister, the land in question was being managed under the Departed Asian property Custodian Board.

Kampala District Land Board manages all public land in the city. Its chairman, Mr Nsibambi, has had run-ins with Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) and some other government officials, and in 2011 the offices of the board were closed down for months after the police raided it and took away its files.

His troubles started when Ms Jennifer Musisi shortly after assuming office as Executive Director of KCCA claimed that since Kampala was no longer a district, it would no longer have a district land board and all the land that the board had managed before would then be taken over by KCCA.

Mr Nsibambi eventually won the legal battle and the war of words that ensued, he said that highly placed individuals in government, who he called "mafia", wanted to arm twist the Land Board and force it not to renew leases on 11 prime properties in the city in order for the "mafia" to take them over.

Six years later, Mr Nsibambi was again summoned by the police, this time to explain the decision by the board he chairs to grant a fresh lease on Plot 10 Nakasero Road to Mr Kuldip.

In the letter Ms Amongi wrote to him, she had demanded that Kampala District Land Board reverses the decision to renew the lease within two weeks, by November 15, 2017, to enable her to report back to the board of the Departed Asians Custodian Board.

She said in the letter that Cabinet had taken interest in the matter and had too made certain directives about the management of the departed Asians properties.

Things picked up speed and a "public hearing" was held in the ministry of Lands, without the attendance of Mr Kuldip or his agent, and a decision was made to cancel the new lease that Kampala District Land Board had granted to Mr Kuldip.

A letter summoning Mr Kuldip to attend the "public" hearing had purportedly been issued sometime in December 2017, but Mr Kuldip says he never received it or any communication from the Lands Office or the Departed Asians Property Custodian Board.

The whole process of cancelling the lease and selling off the property to another person would perhaps have been concluded without Mr Kuldip's knowledge if Mr Nsibambi had not been summoned by the police to explain his board's decision to grant a fresh lease to Mr Kuldip.

Mr Nsibambi turned up at the police with Mr Edward Sekabanja, Mr Kuldip's lawyer, who presented evidence of Mr Kuldip's existence and would eventually file the court case on behalf of Mr Kuldip.

"People inspected my property"

In his affidavit, Mr Kuldip says that since December 2017, he received reports from his tenant, the manager of Faze 2, Restaurant that various persons were visiting the property and inquiring about its ownership as they had information that it was up for sale.

"He informed me that the plan was to cancel the lease title, use the second respondent/defendant (Departed Asians Custodian Board), raze down/demolish the structures, proceed to sell the property and force the first respondent (Kampala District Land Board) to issue a new lease to a 'choice person'," Mr Kuldip wrote in his affidavit.

Mr Kuldip says his fears that his property had been earmarked to be grabbed by some individuals when at the hearing of the case he filed in court, "several persons came to court with interest in the case (with lawyers to represent them)."

"This meets my suspicion that between the second respondent (Departed Asians Custodian Board) and the agents of the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development who authored the original letter above, are conspiring to sell or have sold my property," he adds.

With the new lease now cancelled and the old one which was reinstated as a result set to expire on March 30, 2019, Mr Kuldip told court that he fears that the case won't have been disposed of and he will have no lease on the property, exposing him to risk of losing it. For this reason, he applied that the court issues an injunction against selling off his property.

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