Walking along the streets of Mbale town in eastern Ugandan, you will notice the large number of Asians living in the area. Many of them are Ugandan nationals, born and raised here although they have their ancestral and ethnic roots in Asia.
As the Catherine Bamugemereire-chaired commission of inquiry into land matters continues its investigations, the question of the departed Asians properties has resurfaced.
A number of indigenous Ugandans and the former Asian owners in Mbale are locked in courtrooms, trading land-grabbing accusations. These were part of the scenes that featured in last week’s cross examinations during public hearings held at Mbale resort hotel.
When Asians were expelled by dictator Idi Amin in 1972, they left behind about 8,965 properties. All were expropriated by government and placed under the Departed Asians Properties Custodian Board (DAPCB).
Following the enactment of the Expropriated Properties Act of 1982, the properties were reclaimed by the former owners some of whom got repossessions after petitioning court.
At least 25 per cent of the cases lodged were against the Custodian Board’s management, registration and allocation of the Asian assets.
Although the heavy presence of Ugandan-Asians in towns such as Mbale and Jinja have largely shaped the development of those areas, over time, the gulf between locals and Ugandan-Asians has widened, fueling anti-Asian sentiments.
“The kind of segregation that is happening now is insidious and dangerous,” Bamugemereire noted.
For some reason, the government is not responding to the growing resentment, among indigenous Ugandans, of the country’s Asian and largely Chinese populations.
The case of Patel Parima highlights the undercurrent of antipathy. Parima returned to Uganda to repossess properties which belonged to his great grandparents. The 61-year old has lived in Mbale since 1982, but says he has never felt welcome.
The family are known as land owners. Indeed, this is reflected in the chunks of land the family owns in Mbale town. Parima has lodged claims on over 25 plots in prime locations that belonged to former Asians owners, who, he claims, gave him power of attorney.
He has so far been allocated plots 14/16/18/20 Nabowa Road, plot 38 Nkokonjeru Terrace, plot 1 Bunyole Road, plot 28 Bunyole Road, plot 15 Lwakaka Lane, plot 1/3 Freight Road, Plot 2 Bugwere Road, plot 16 Bufumbo Road and plot 16 Union Road, among others.
However, the family of 47 is pursuing a number of court cases against locals who have vowed not to vacate the plots, brewing further conflict between them and the former Asian owners.
“The work ethics of the officers and judge has to change drastically. Morals and work ethics today are at zero… I would be a bit afraid to speak, my lord. My experience living in Mbale is that chief magistrates courts are not the right courts. If I have an option, I rather file a case in Kampala not in Mbale,” he testified.
Abas Manafa, a dealer in general merchandise on plot 16 North Road, is one of many Ugandans who applied for properties that belonged to the departed Asians through the custodian board.
He told the commission of inquiry that government compensated the Asians for their properties, and that the Patel family, therefore, had no claim over his property.
Hussein Wasike, another businessman acquired an Indian property located on Nabowa road in 1973. In 2010, the Patel family went to court seeking repossession of the building.
Others include the repossession of a public school, Elgon Nursery and Primary School, which has operated for 44 years. The Patel family is also accusing the custodian board of illegal allocation of its land.
“The custodian board has no address, people just show up with documents and claim our properties. I wrote to the ministry of Finance and got no response,” Parima said.
“The district land board is a place in Mbale that is totally unorganised. Nobody has records and the door is always locked,” he testified.
There are claims that most of these properties have been allocated to politicians. President Museveni’s position on this matter is not clear. However, he has often encouraged the Asian community to come back and invest in the country.
There are claims of preferential treatment towards the Indian investors. Disputes over property and the absence of serious wage regulation in Uganda has left workers employed by Asian investors feeling exploited. If the current situation continues, it will make it extremely difficult to push for development, some Mbale locals say.
“People are not developing buildings because they are afraid they may be taken away from them. We are suffering and government should help us with this,” Manafa said.
In Mubende district, central Uganda, Asian businessman, Abid Alam, has run into trouble with the commission over alleged violent eviction of thousands in Bukoba district. Like in Mbale, the conflict can only complicate delicate race relations.
The DAPCB was established to manage all assets transferred to it by virtue of section 13 of the Assets of Departed Asians Decree of 1973. It falls under the ministry of Finance. On December 19, 2014, cabinet directed the winding-up of DAPCB. However, this has not been done to-date.
John Muwanga, the auditor general, noted in recent reports that there a number of pending activities which must be undertaken and yet the board has not acted upon them.
“These activities include valuation of properties, preparation of books of accounts and appointment of officers to manage its activities during the winding up process. The continued operation of the DAPCB without appropriate structures could lead to loss of the remaining properties,” Muwanga said in a report for the period ending December 30, 2016.