By Joel Kidandaire
The Commission of Inquiry into Land is on the spot over the harsh treatment of lands Minister Betty Amongi who for two days was subjected to nothing short of humiliating, degrading and inhumane treatment. I am still coming to terms with the fact that a lady can refer to an adult, mother and Minister as, ‘young lady’ in a condescending show of power relations.
If one watched the trial of the 2010 Kampala twin bombing suspects linked to the international terror group Al-Shabaab at the War Crimes Division of the High Court, wherein current Deputy Chief Justice Owiny Dollo was presiding judge and current Mbale resident High Court judge Justice Susan Okalany the lead prosecutor, the suspects were treated with respect and dignity that falls within the concept of presumption of innocence enshrined in article 28 of the 1995 constitution.
Accordingly, one would wonder, if the High Court can treat suspects of mass murder, terrorism and treason whose victims to this day live with scars and some of whom attended court to watch the perpetrators face justice, how about a minister who is accused of breaches of the Leadership Code of Conduct and alleged land grabbing? Clearly, from the conduct of the chairperson of the commission, which wasn’t unique to Amongi anyway, one would be forgiven for concluding that the Lady Justice lost control of her emotional stability with due respect.
The case of R v Sussex Justices, Ex parte McCarthy is a leading English case on the impartiality and recusal of judges. It is famous for its precedence in establishing the principle that the mere appearance of bias is sufficient to overturn a judicial decision.
One can only imagine how many applications for judicial review will be filed in the High Court challenging some of the commission’s proceedings.
That said, I wish to comment on the issue of the dispute. From my reading of the facts, the Departed Asians Custodian Board is under the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development and the line minister is its board chairperson. The Attorney General, Minister of Trade, Minister of Lands, Minister of Local Government sit on this board that meets monthly to review budgets and play an oversight role.
The day to day running of the affairs of the board is the mandate of the secretariat where a minister wouldn’t have a role. In fact, one doesn’t have to be a lands minister to influence acquisition of property since the secretariat is the one that looks into applications.
In 1983, government of Uganda came up with the Expropriated Properties Act to take care of properties of Asians expelled by President Idi Amin that weren’t claimed on return of the Asians. That property then vested in government through the board which can sell the same but before its sells it can make a decision to let it out to a citizen of Uganda on temporary basis.
That decision on which person (artificial or natural) takes charge of the property is made by the secretariat not the board where the minister sits. In fact, sometimes, state ministers in the lands ministry can attend these monthly board meetings if their boss isn’t available. To accuse the Lands Minister of conflict of interest and influence peddling is to impeach the integrity of the entire board since one member alone cannot make a decision.
This then raises a triable point of law on whether there was actually conflict of interest on the minister’s part.
At what point does one accuse her of influence peddling when the board doesn’t make the decision on who can be allocated what property for a temporary period of time, in which case they actually pay rent to government?
The first time Amobet Limited, the company of the minister and her sister first applied to be temporarily allocated these properties was 2010. The applications were rejected. The company, per the minister’s explanation, had lost interest in further pursuit of the same as it tried out other opportunities in Juba, South Sudan. Around 2016 the secretariat of the board reconsidered and gave them some of the now challenged properties. Of course the coincidence here is that it is around this time that Amongi was appointed minister so she would struggle persuading many minds.
Rent was paid to government for six months but the company couldn’t take possession of the property thanks to claimants and now claims its rent back from government.
One can smell the influence of the minister in trying to ensure her company takes possession to the chagrin of the Asians who lay claim of an interest in the property. Of course if there was abuse of power on the part of the minister it must be exposed and she pays the price.
However, this matter is in court. One wonders then, why the commission wanted to poke its nose in matters before court and where court is better placed to declare the right position as the commission’s recommendations have no force of law. They are only that—recommendations that can be accepted or rejected by the powers that be.
Isn’t there interference with the work of courts by the commission and violation of the subjudice rule? My gut feeling is that, the commission is over stepping its mandate.
Lastly, if there was conflict of interest, and as lawyers we can argue about that all day given the facts at hand, again, it is my view that the Inspector General of Government under the Leadership Code Act is the right platform for investigation of the minister for any breaches if any.
It was even more surprising that the commission asked the minister to render an account of all her properties, and inquired into her personal dealings such as buildings she has recently acquired. Clearly, public officials declare their wealth to the IGG annually and again, the IGG is best placed to ask these questions as and when the need arises. The Commission is good for dramatic value and playing to the gallery but even in doing so, it should go slow on biting more than it can chew and over stepping its mandate. Otherwise allow me thank the good Lady Justice for the wonderful job she is doing and salute the sobriety of her commissioners who have dedicated time to inquire into this intricate question of land. For God and my Country.
Mr. Joel Kidandaire is a businessman, lawyer and Bar Course student at LDC.