The ongoing inquiry into cases relating to land fraud on Tuesday interrogated officials from a foreign construction company, Seyani Brothers for allegedly acquiring public land using illegal means.
The land in question measuring up to 13 acres situated in Bukasa, Kira municipality in Wakiso district is said to have been a city cemetery under KCCA but ended up in the hands of private owners for development.
In 2004, Seyani Brothers and Company (U) Ltd, a civil engineering and construction company were looking for land and would later instruct their lawyer, Herbert Mugerwa Kiggundu to find them a property.
The company had been seeking to expand its operations in order to set up a warehouse and other physical facilities.
Mugerwa, 49, who was appearing as a witness before the commission of inquiry on Tuesday said he was approached by brokers who said they had land in Bukasa which his client (Seyani Brothers) finally acquired.
But since the proprietors of the company were not Ugandan citizens, they agreed with Mugerwa to purchase the land in his names and then lease it out to them for a period of 99 years.
“At the time of purchase, the 13 acres freehold title was transferred into my names on the understanding that my client was not a Ugandan. The idea was that the title is transferred into my names and then I lease it out to Seyani Brothers,” the advocate of the High Court who practices under Kabayiza Kavuma Mugerwa Ali (KMA) and Company Advocates said in his testimony.
The land had been bought from a lawyer named Muzafaru Lwere Lwanyaga at an undisclosed amount of money in 2009.
Asked why the titles were made in his names not Seyani, he said; “It is about trust and being cautious. They were more comfortable with me. We have prior dealings where all their titles are in my names and it is me who leases them for 99 years. You would rather deal with a layer with whom you have worked for the last 12 years than a stranger.”
The assistant lead counsel to the commission, John Bosco Souza then asked; “You said you visited this land before purchasing it. Did you see any cemetery around that area?”
But Mugerwa who said he had instructed a surveyor to inspect the land in question denied having seen a cemetery on it or any other encumbrances in that case.
“We didn’t see an cemetery. We did see some squatters and crops grown but the person selling the land told us all the squatters had been compensation and I saw documents to that effect,” Mugerwa said.
He insisted that due diligence was done on the property including conducting a search in the land registry which confirmed that the seller was the registered proprietor of the land. Mugerwa also added that the property was free of squatters and other adverse claims.
Commissioner Dr. Rose Nakayi however faulted the lawyer for his narrow interpretation of adverse claims which did not put into consideration the possibility that other people beside the bibanja owners could have had a claim on the land.
“I find your conceptualization of adverse so narrow and intended to benefit your argument while doing injustice to the legal framework. You sent a surveyor to inspect and find out whether there were bibanja holders but it is likely that there were graves on this land which were not put there by the bibanja holders,” the Commissioner said in her submission.
But Mugerwa said there were hardly any features to point to the fact that there were graves.
Dr. Nakayi further accused Mugerwa of facilitating the acquisition of land by foreigners to purchase the land in Uganda under the guise of a lease.
“In such circumstances, I think the arrangement is tantamount to selling land to a non-citizen. On paper it is a lease but when the nature of the dealing is interrogated, it is like a sale. Because you said the Seyani Brothers paid a lump sum.”
The witness denied this too saying there were documents spelling out the relationship he had with Seyani Brothers as a purchaser himself while the latter were the lease holder.
Asked whether with hindsight he would still carry out the transaction if he was aware of the cemetery, Mugerwa said; “I am very superstitious and I don’t think my clients would have been interested in buying the land had they known there were graves.”
Meanwhile, the commission also heard from Manish Parbat Seyani, the Managing Director of Seyani Brothers Company (U) Ltd regarding the same issue, who blamed government institutions for claiming land to which they have no title. Parbat told the commission that the company would not have proceeded to buy the Bukasa land had there been any other claims on it.
“We (Seyani Brothers) have been in Uganda since 1991 and we are mindful that every land transaction has to go through due diligence. We normally prefer lease holds issued by KCCA, Uganda Land Commission or the Church because dealing with institutions minimizes future risks,” Parbat, 35, said.
He added; “We did not see any graves. If there was any information that this was a prospective land, it would have been a different thought process. In the construction process, there would have been opening of graves but we saw no such thing”
The investor indicated that since the time the purchase was made, there has been no adverse claim whether private or public including notification from KCCA regarding its claim.
“How are we supposed to know? If government owns the land why don’t they have a title? In this case the question should be put to KCCA and the government agency issuing titles as to what went wrong,” he said.