Minister for Lands, Betty Amongi on Tuesday found trouble responding to queries put to her by the Commission of Inquiry on land matters relating to a land dispute between a company she co-owns and an Indian family that claims to have proprietary rights.
Amongi appeared before the Commission after being issued four criminal summons all of which she had failed to oblige to. Commission Chairperson, Justice Catherine Bamugemereire had yesterday threatened to arrest the Minister if she failed to appear today at 9am to file a statement and give testimony.
Last week, Toshak Partel, an Indian whose parents lived in Uganda at the time Asians were expelled made a complaint before the Commission alleging that the Minister had fraudulently acquired a plot of land in Kololo, Kampala belonging to their family. He said that the Minister had used her company, Amobet Investments Ltd to wrongfully evict them.
Today, Lead Counsel to the Commission, lawyer Ebert Byenkya tasked Amongi to explain her connection with Amobet Investments Ltd, a company in which she is majority shareholder.
The company in December 2017 wrote a letter to the Departed Asians Custodian Board, a body charged with administering the expropriated properties on behalf of government, applying to acquire four pieces of property in Kololo, Kyadondo Kibuga Mengo and Industrial Area. Amongi sits on this Board in her capacity as the Lands Minister.
These properties included Plot 29 Acacia Avenue in Kololo which is claimed by Partel and another (Plot 12 Prince Charles Avenue) also in Kololo.
However, the Minister shocked the Commission when she stated that she had no knowledge that the said properties in which her company (Amobet) had interest, were being applied for. She claims that she and her co-owner, Adong Kate had delegated the operations of the company to Henry Mubiru, the Managing Director.
“We do a lot of business. We asked him [Mubiru] to handle on our behalf. Our MD had been given power to run the company. We told him to only inform us whenever problems arise,” Amongi said.
The Commission queried her on how Mubiru came to learn that such prime properties located in Kololo were available for acquisition given that his boss (Amongi) was a member of the Departed Asians Custodian Board, she said Mubiru had been informed by property brokers.
Interestingly, Amobet was granted the said Plot 29 on December 14, two days after Amongi’s company applied for it. This hurried transaction is what further bothered the Commission.
“Given your position and the extreme expedition with which somebody is given a prime property, do you see a problem? It may be seen as though somebody was under pressure because you, an important person was the one applying,” lawyer Byenkya asked the Minister.
But she said this was only a matter of efficiency.
When the Board okayed the application by Amobet Ltd for temporary ownership of the disputed Plot, the condition was to pay Shs 550,000 per month, a fee that is extremely low for a property in Kololo.
But upon acquiring this Plot, Amobet issued a notice to Midcom which was renting it at the time, to vacate it or else pay USD 9,000 (Shs 32.4 million) in rent.
“That’s an astronomical profit made off a government property. And this profit would be coming to a company whose majority shareholder is the Lands Minister who also sits on the Board,” Byenkya stated.
Amongi in response said; “I would not have anticipated how much our MD would have asked for rent”.
This prompted Justice Catherine Bamugemereire to ask the Minister whether she did not view her actions translating into a conflict of interest.
“Do you see a potential conflict of interest? As a Cabinet Minister, where is the line? We are dealing with a property that was allocated to you while you were Minister, mixing the business of government and your personal business,” asked Justice Bamugemereire.
She further wondered why since her appointment as Minister, Amongi hadn’t reviewed all her business to make sure they weren’t clashing with her Ministerial role. In some instances, she acted in her capacity as Minister to adjudicate in a dispute she was a party to.
“Under the Leadersgip Code Act I haven’t found the law that bars Ministers from doing business. I don’t see any conflict of interest,” Amongi responded.
In reviewing all the minutes of the Board, at no single point has the Commission traced an instance where Amongi or the other members declared a conflict of interest despite many of them actually having interests in properties overseen by the Departed Asians Custodian Board.
The Commission also learnt that the Board hasn’t held its monthly meetings since January this year.
While Amongi repeatedly defended Mubiru, the Amobet M.D for his competence in executing his duties, the information availed to the Commission by Uganda Registration Services Bureua (URSB) shows that Amonet hasnt filed annual returns for years.
Tuesday’s day-long hearing was adjourned to Wednesday when the Minister will among other issues respond to other land grabbing allegations against her for a piece of land in Lira claimed by a Ugandan based in London.
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