BY Gerald Tenywa
A supermarket and premises for rental offices stand on a one-acre piece of land, where Sadrudin Virani, an investor of Asian origin, was cleared by NFA three years ago to set up a timber seasoning (drying) yard and a modern artisanal training centre.
The conditions spelt out in the licence were grossly violated. But what is more surprising is the lukewarm response from NFA, which is mandated to manage central forest reserves.
“It is true NFA licenced Virco Holdings, which is owned by Virani. This is within our mandate, but we never authorised them to get a lease,” Michael Mugisa, the NFA executive director, said. He added:
“What was a tenant-landlord relationship has been watered down by a leasehold title issued to the investor by the Uganda Land Commission (ULC), meaning that NFA can no longer impose conditions on the investor.
Things are being done with impunity.” This is one of the three plots that have been created out of the land belonging to Nakawa forest reserve, which is managed by NFA.
The original plot in the hands of NFA is plot 20-40, covering 11.1 hectares. The fresh plots now in the hands of new owners Virco Holdings is plot 20-24 measuring 1.069 hectares, plot 4 measuring 0.17 hectares belonging to Dick Olet, a former commissioner of forestry and plot 5 measuring 0.384 hectares belonging to RARA Infotech, an ICT firm. If NFA fails to recover land from the claimants, it will remain with plot 24-40 along Spring Road.
When contacted, Mayanja Nkangi, the chairperson of ULC said: “I do not know anything About that land you are talking about.”
Nakawa and Bugolobi forest reserves used to be part of an expansive forest that once sheltered parts of Banda to the shores of Lake Victoria in Bugolobi. Over time, the forest was destroyed by the expansion of urban areas. Nakawa and Banda forest reserves, which house a tree nursery, are a remnant of the ancient forest.
Virco deal fishy
The deal became questionable four years ago when it came to light that the investor, under Virco Holdings, had processed a leasehold title for part of the forest reserve.
ULC issued a title, despite NFA protesting against the offer of the leasehold title over the one-acre piece of land. “Thus, Virco Holdings applying for a leasehold title is a breach of agreement with NFA,” says Paul Buyera Musamali, an official at NFA.
“This is, therefore, to inform you that NFA does not agree to Virco Holdings applying for a leasehold interest in the said land.”
Musamali was reacting to a December 11, 2008 letter from the then ULC secretary, Balam Mubala, which noted that an application to lease the land had been submitted to the commission, although Virco Holdings’ application letter was not copied to NFA.
“The purpose of writing to you this letter is to let us know whether you agreed to the processing of the land title for the one hectare of land,” Mubala wrote to NFA. Efforts to get a comment from Virani were futile as he could not pick his phone.
NFA headquarters not safe
Even before the dust could settle after a timber drying plant was turned into a supermarket, an investor recently turned up with a land title for where the main office block for NFA is.
“Can you imagine someone has a land title showing that he owns part of the NFA office block?” asks a whistle blower.
Asked about the fresh claim on another part of Nakawa forest reserve, Mugisa said: “I was surprised four months ago, when people belonging to an ICT firm called RARA came with a land title, saying they wanted to start construction on “their” land behind NFA offices. I halted them.
They had letters of no objection (purportedly issued by NFA officials). But the officials have denied ever writing the letters.”
He points out that a committee has been instituted by the board of trustees to investigate the circumstances surrounding the lease offers with a view of recovering the land.
Also, the Criminal Intelligence and Investigations Department (CIID), is investigating the matter, according to Mugisa.
Former commissioner under probe
Mugisa said Dick Olet, a former commissioner of forestry, was given land under a forest reserve in a contentious manner. “It was controversial, but the turning point was the house that belonged to the works ministry, but was built on a forest reserve.
When the Government pool houses were being given away, Olet benefitted from the house and later the board of trustees (former NFA boss Baguma Isoke’s board) decided to give him the land.”
This too, according to Mugisa, is going to be investigated by the committee instituted by the board of trustees and CIID.
Civil society blames land commission
How did the Uganda Land Commission (ULC) issue a land title in a forest reserve? ULC had an opportunity to do ground work to establish that the land was not in a forest reserve.
“We saw this coming and it smells of corruption,” says Gaster Kiyingi, a member of the Forestry Governance Learning Group, coordinated by Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment.
“There is lack of institutional coordination, but the bigger problem is corruption. People who gave the licence went ahead to advise Virani to lease the land.”
He adds: “This has been going on for some time, but politicians have not come out to stop this mess. Where is the political will to protect our heritage?”
The apartments that were illegally constructed on the NFA land