By Dr. Ian Clarke
There are some Ugandans who put all their ingenuity into ‘business’ that is primarily involved in duping other people. One such business with which we are all familiar is selling ‘air’, and although I had heard about this scam, I had not personally been the victim until I joined the board of an NGO.
When I joined the board I found that they had decided to buy property as a means of investment. Therefore they looked around for a suitable investment site and zeroed in on a site within Kampala. They went through all the necessary procedures to safeguard the sale, including instructing a lawyer to carry out a search to ensure that the title was clean and everything was in order. They even had an engineer’s survey carried out.
The reports came back that the title was clear and they could go ahead with the purchase. However, someone on the board must have asked for more reassurances on this purchase. Hence, as part of the sale agreement, they introduced a clause, which made the seller responsible to repay the purchase price, should they be unable to develop the property for any reason.
The seller was a well known public figure, and gave the guarantee as part of the sale agreement, so they were covered, or so they thought. After the sale went through, the board was concerned that some local people had moved onto the site and were doing petty business. These people had not put up any permanent structures, but it appeared that someone had taken control of the site and was subletting it to small traders.
Since I had connections to KCCA I was asked to approach the relevant KCCA authorities to see if we could move the traders on, and put up a chain link fence to demarcate the site. Land is a very contentious issue all over Uganda, and in Kampala there are many sites that the owner has little hope of reclaiming, because they have become home to legions of squatters. So I spoke to all the relevant authorities to ensure that the matter was handled correctly, but during the process a much graver issue came to light.
When KCCA was approached they informed us that this was not a plot at all, but a road access. At first this was difficult to accept because we had gone through all the necessary processes, so we decided to engage another lawyer who was specialized in land issues. He investigated the site and reported to the board, but his first words were not encouraging.
‘I’m sorry to inform you that you have bought air’.
He explained that there were a group of conmen in Kampala who colluded to sell sites which did not exist. The scam involved the Kampala Land Board and the registrar of titles, plus some unscrupulous ‘businessmen’. They would identify sites, which were not occupied, belonged to a government body, were gazetted for access roads, or were in wetlands, none of which were legitimate plots. The registrar then gave them new plot numbers and issued titles. Normally this title would then be ‘bought’ and ‘sold’ by several of these businessmen to cover their trail, and give the appearance of legitimacy to the title. The site would then be sold to an unsuspecting buyer – like us.
In our case, the site was the end of a road, which had been converted into a plot and gone through that process. Apparently the lawyer who did the search would not have been able to identify the fraud through the normal search procedures, and the scam only came to light when we approached KCCA planning department. In our case it appeared that we were protected because one of the board members had the foresight to write a clause into the sale agreement, which made the seller liable to repay the purchase price, should we not be able to develop the land. However, the lawyer had more bad news.
‘Yes you can sue him and win’ he advised, ‘But you will have little hope of actually recovering the money.
‘This gentleman is well known as being involved in many crooked deals, so he will find a way not to pay’.
The lawyer told us that what we had experienced was not uncommon, and many of the perpetrators were well known: they had ‘connections’. I subsequently discovered that many of these bogus titles have been issued for the wetlands between Bugolobi and Namuwongo, and this issue is blocking the development of a planned by-pass between Bukasa and Bugolobi, but the land office has refused to cancel the titles. Perhaps these issues would be something for the new Presidential Anticorruption Unit to look into.
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