Some people who have dealt closely with Mohammed Hamid, the man at the centre of the sexual harassment and bribery cases that led to the arrest of labour state minister Herbert Kabafunzaki, cringe when you mention the Sudan-born businessman’s name.
One of the two people interviewed, who have conducted business with Hamid, described him, in an interview with The Observer this week, as a shrewd, sly person.
“He has a baby face which makes you think he is innocent but when you get to know and deal with him, his bad side comes out,” one said. Hamid, popularly known by his business name, Aya, is a Sudanese-Ugandan businessman.
Both individuals preferred to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardizing their relationship with Hamid. One of them, who said he still has a running contract with one of the companies associated with Hamid, described the businessman as someone who “never wants to lose a battle” and who “never accepts that he is in the wrong,” even when the facts are clear.
“I was once seated in his office in Kawempe and two gentlemen walked in. I think they had done some work for him and they were demanding payment. He first listened to them, then he suddenly barked at them to get out of his office. When they insisted on being paid, he called his security who threw them out,” said the person.
Hamid told The Observer yesterday that he could not stop people from holding unpalatable opinions about him.
“You have called me and I know you already have an opinion about me. Everyone has an opinion about me. I cannot influence how I want people to see me,” he said.
Hamid is no stranger to controversy or media scrutiny. But he has been thrust into the news lately after he reportedly engineered the arrest of a minister on suspicion of soliciting a Shs 10 million bribe from him.
Hamid is said to have contacted President Museveni who availed him security personnel from the Special Forces Command to execute the highly publicized arrest on April 8 at Serena hotel. At roughly six feet tall, Hamid, 41, is an imposing figure. He is a casual dresser and has a penchant for a flamboyant life.
In an interview with a local newspaper two years ago, he confessed that he lives lavishly with his two wives under one roof at his opulent house in Kololo. In a photo splash accompanying the interview, Hamid showcased a fleet of cars that included a top-of-the-range Mercedes Benz and two Range Rover Vogues.
In the background was a swimming pool.
“I have to give my children what they want because I can afford to,” he said in the interview, cuddling two of his sons.
TREATMENT OF WORKERS
Hamid does not cuddle his workers, at least two former employees told The Observer this week. One of them is Jamila Opondo, who has been in the news for accusing Hamid of sexually harassing her. Opondo told The Observer on Wednesday that Hamid is a “sex freak” who derives pleasure from abusing his workers.
“He treats workers as objects that you can play with and then throw away,” Opondo said.
Twice, Opondo reported Hamid to police but she says she did not get any assistance. On Monday, Emilian Kayima, the Kampala Metropolitan police spokesman, told journalists that Opondo’s case will be re-investigated and officers who handled the first cases will be questioned. Another employee who previously worked at his biscuit factory in Kawempe as supervisor said Hamid is very unforgiving, even for the slightest of lapses.
“Even when you apologize, he will at least slap you while abusing you,” the employee said.
Part of the reason why Hamid is able to get away with his rough treatment of workers is because many have no formal contracts, according to the former employee, who declined to be named.
The former employee said: “He can call you in the morning and tell you that you have been made a supervisor. When you ask him how much or the terms, he responds: ‘just work’.”
Many of the workers soldier on amid these conditions partly because they have no specialized skills and cannot get competitive pay elsewhere: they are casual labourers, storekeepers, porters, etc…
With youth unemployment in Uganda hovering at 62 per cent, according to a report by ActionAid, prospects of some of these workers getting jobs are slim. Some workers at the biscuit factory, we have been told, spend months lobbying to get simple manual jobs. When they get them, they will withstand anything, including being abused, to keep them.
The few workers who have reported Hamid to police and other authorities for mistreatment have not been largely helped. Usher Wilson Owere, the chairman general of the National Organization Trade Unions (NOTU), told The Observer yesterday that he once engaged Hamid over issues related to workers’ poor treatment.
“I told him to unionize his workers and he promised to change. He listens,” Owere said.
Owere said NOTU is also following Opondo’s case. William Niwasasira, the public relations officer for Aya Group, said yesterday that reports of workers’ mistreatment by Hamid were concocted and not true.
“Police has investigated many of these claims and they are not true. People will come up with excuses for their incompetence and poor work,” Niwasasira said.
He described his boss as a kind person who grooms people.
According to information from various internet sources, Mohammed Hamid was born in 1976 and spent his childhood years in Sudan. He was raised by his older brother Mohammad El-Hamid Mohammad who is said to have been an influential businessman in Sudan but he fled to Uganda when Omar-el-Bashir ascended to power in June 1989.
He set up a commodities importation business and, a few years later, he was joined by Hamid. However in 1997, Hamid broke away and ventured on his own. He then set up the Aya brand through which he pursued various business interests.
His business concerns (some of which have closed shop) include: AYA Mining, which is supposed to be a gold mining facility; Aya Biscuits in Kawempe; Pan Afric Commodities Ltd; Fifi Transport Uganda Ltd and Aya Bakery (U) Ltd.
Yet by far his most known investment is the former Hilton hotel (now referred to as Pearl of Africa hotel) atop Nakasero hill. From its groundbreaking in 2006 till today, the project continues to generate one controversy after another.
It was projected to cost $90 million and its promoters touted it as the first truly five-star hotel in Uganda. The 27-storey hotel is supposed to comprise 272 luxury suites and guest-rooms. It is also supposed to offer a range of facilities such as: two bars for entertainment, a large health and beauty spa, conference and meeting facilities for over 1,000 delegates and ballrooms for private functions.
Initially it was supposed to be ready for Chogm in 2007 but ten years later, what is in place is a gleaming and imposing superstructure of the hotel and lush gardens. Interior finishing and furnishing is still ongoing. Niwasasira, the public relations manager, said 90 per cent of the hotel is complete and sections of it will be open to the public by April 27.
CLOSENESS TO MUSEVENI
“How many people can get a phone, call the president and have him attend to their problem instantly?” asked one of Hamid’s former business associates, looking straight at me.
He was referring to the Kabafunzaki saga in which Hamid is reported to have called the president and got his immediate attention.
“Not many,” the associate answered his own question after a long pause.
From the time Hamid made it to the public limelight in 2006, President Museveni’s name has always been invoked whenever there is a reference to his businesses. We have been told that Hamid was introduced to President Museveni by Habib Kagimu, a local businessman in the mid-2000s.
Hamid appears to have impressed Museveni so much that the president pushed for the investor to be allocated a prime 15 acre piece of land for the hotel project.
We have been told that in one of the meetings with local business group, Kwagalana, the president was cautioned by some of its members to be careful with Hamid. They reportedly told the president that Hamid did not have money to build such a project but Museveni did not take heed.
In fact, that seemed to trigger Museveni’s increased fondness for the businessman and he all but became the unofficial spokesperson for the hotel project. At that point, SFC was tasked to provide security for Hamid and, in local speak, he became “untouchable.”
And when negative media publicity on Hamid’s business dealings persisted, the president issued a stern warning to the media. On November 10, 2008 while touring the construction site for Hilton hotel, President Museveni warned the media against maligning “good investors” like the Aya Group.
“I have been patient for a long time. I will sort them [media] out if they continue. I have heard that Aya Group is being maligned by some newspapers,” Museveni said.
The president’s remarks followed a series of stories in local newspapers about the business troubles that were being experienced by companies associated with Hamid. One of the group’s subsidiaries, Aya Biscuits, was facing receivership over failure to pay a loan while a local lawyer Muzamir Kibedi had taken the group to court demanding $2.5 million in legal fees.
Kibedi had represented the company in negotiations to secure a loan of $41.5 million from the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC). At the function, Museveni said he would find a way of dealing with “greedy people like lawyers.”
Kibedi told us this week that he had amicably resolved his issues with Hamid and did not want to comment further.
Pressed for details, the lawyer said: “Leave me alone. I have no business with Aya anymore. ”
Yesterday, Herbert Kabafunzaki confirmed to The Observer that he had quit cabinet, dispelling social media reports that he had been sacked.
“I have decided to step aside because some people were saying that I am interfering with the investigation. It was my decision,” he said.