The Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Maj. Gen. Kahinda Otafiire has denied claims that he facilitated a process that saw a government property located along Aldina Visiram Road in Jinja municipality fictitiously leased off to a private investor in 2011 at Ush 2.4 billion.
Otafiire was appearing before the ongoing commission of inquiry Thursday morning to respond to allegations that recently connected him to the land fraud.
Documents before the commission indicate that in 2011 while serving as the Minister of Tourism, Trade and Industry, Otafiire authored a letter of no objection to an application filed by businessman Simpson Birungi under his company Birus Property Limited to acquire the said property for redevelopment.
Birungi is said to have taken advantage of the Minister’s letter to flaut the process of acquisition at the expense of the tenants that were trading from the building.
Four years later in 2015, the tenants were evicted and the building demolished, an exercise that saw property and livelihood for the affected people lost.
In addition to this, the commission is concerned that the relevant government departmets ignored the redflags raised by the Inspector General of Government regarding the fraudulent acquisition by Birus which led to financial loss of public resources.
However Minister Otafiire on Thursday argued that his role as Minister of Trade was only to issue a letter of no objection to any industrialist interested in acquisition but not to determine who won the bid.
“Me, I saw a person who said he was being frustrated and I called the Permanent Secretary and told him – ‘Look, our policy is to allow industrialists and entrepreneurs to develop these premises’,” Otafiire told the commission in his testimony.
“Because, the general outcry was that the buildings were dilapidated. The program for which the buildings were put up had lapsed and they were being mismanaged. We had no reason to frustrate industrialists seeking to develop them [properties].”
Commenting on the impact of his letter to the later intricacies, he said; “Ours was limited to no objection and as to who got the property and what they did with the property was none of our business. The question of incumbrances and procedure rested elsewhere.”
Otafiire apportioned the blame on his junior, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Trade then, Emmanuel Olawuna for neglecting his responsibility to do due diligence and advise the Minister.
The Commissioners also queried the Minister on whether he was privy to the directives from a 2015 Cabinet meeting ordering that investigations be made and the Jinja property repossessed by government. But Otafiire claimed he was neither aware of this nor the fact that a public notice had been issued for the cancellation of the Birus Property Services lease.
Justice Bamugemereire asked: “Shouldn’t it concern you that different organs give directives and they are defied? There has been alot of wrong doing even on the part of the police. The High Court ruling was at some point amended to suit the investor. I would imagine that such acts of impunity should concern you especially as Minister of Constitutional Affairs.”
“I am surprised that all the responsible bodies didn’t act big as they sound. Who is he [Birungi] to ignore all these authorities? If the police couldn’t handle who am I as Minister? The police is given mandate to ensure the rule of law,” Otafiire responded.
He expressed concern, adding that he is willing to share on the findings of this commission so that he can engage the relevant organs. “Now that am aware, I will as the Ministry of Finance what they are doing about the situation.”