Late in July 2018, the Parliament of Uganda invoked rule 220(2), which provides that “distinguished persons from within or without the nation may be allowed by the Speaker to address the House on any matter of importance”.
That paved the way for the visiting Prime Minister of India, Mr Narendra Modi, to address the House.
Mr Modi, who became the first Indian premier to address the House, offered Uganda Shs780b in trade loans to drive further developments in agriculture, healthcare and increased electrification of the country.
There was, however a special package for Jinja, a city that is home to a site and monument that many an Indian considered sacred.
“Among these [strands of ties that connect India and Uganda]the most sacred is the site at Jinja, at the source of River Nile, where a portion of the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi were immersed… at the sacred site in Jinja, where a statue of Gandhi now stands, we will build a Gandhi Heritage Center,” Mr Modi declared.
In November 2018, an architect from the National Building Construction Corporation of India was dispatched to Uganda.
The architect and Mr Durga So, who was the cultural attache at the High Commission in Kampala, visited the Source of the Nile for an onsite inspection.
The ante was raised later that month when the High Commissioner, Mr Shankar Rao and Jinja City officials—led by the deputy Town Clerk, Mr Jofram Waidhuba—entered into discussions that led to an agreement on the amenities that were meant to be put in place .
The parties agreed that the project would entail beautification and landscaping of the Source of the Nile gardens; construction of a glass viewing deck at the former Rippon Falls rock; construction of a pedestrian bridge connecting the western and eastern banks of the River Nile and; cable cars plying between the western and eastern banks of the nile.
The project was also meant to cater to the construction of a high-rise building containing an auditorium, conference rooms, museums showcasing Indian and Ugandan cultures, a tourism information centre, a yoga center and a sports center complete with swimming pools and a gymnasium.
It was envisaged that what was meant to be the Mahatma Gandhi International Convention and Heritage Center would cost $15m (Shs56.5b).
The center was primed to be the biggest structure after the Jinja Central Market. Four years later, however, the project has never taken off. Chances that it ever will are increasingly diminishing.
Mr Tom Butime, the Minister for Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, told Sunday Monitor that the funders had backed out of the project.
“India has since drawn the offer. We did not handle the matter as fast as we should have because of a land problem,” Mr Butime said.
Both Mr Butime and Ms Doreen Katusiime, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, blamed the unfortunate development on failure by the government to find ample land for the project.
Whereas Jinja had offered some land at the Source of the Nile, the architect from the NBCC had deemed it both inadequate and unsuitable for the project. The High Commission advised the authorities to find an alternative piece of land.
“They (NBCC) have replied that this would not be possible in the interest of the project. In view of this, unless Jinja Municipal Council (JMC) allows parcel H to be used for the construction of the Mahatma Gandhi Convention and Heritage Center and museum or identifies another suitable stretch, it will not be possible to proceed with the project,” Mr Dass wrote in a May 15, 2019 letter.
Parcel H is a seven-acre piece of land. Adjacent to the grounds of the National Agricultural and Trade show, the land has been dogged by controversy for more than two decades.
It was the cause of a standoff in 2007 between JMC and the Jinja District Land Board. The Council, which had until then been a bona fide occupant and custodian of the public space under the provisions of both the Constitution and the Local Government’s Act, had applied for a lease for the said land. The land board, however, instead leased it out to Black Eagle Investments without the approval of the Council.
That once again brought to the fore inadequacies and contradictions in the law in regard to the powers of local governments and district land boards over land in, especially, urban centres.
The Council declined to accept payments for premium and ground rent. The council also refused to grant Black Eagle Investments change of land use from a green belt to a hotel.
The Inspectorate of Government was forced to investigate the matter after it received a petition from “concerned citizens.” A 2012 report of the ombudsman’s investigation, however, absolved both Black Eagle and the District Land Board of any wrongdoing.
“If Jinja Municipal Council is still interested in the land, it should, together with the District Land Board, compensate Black Eagle Investments Limited,” the ombudsman recommended.
The ombudsman also guided that “alternatively, Black Eagle Investments Limited can apply to Council for change of use since/if the place is indeed considered a green belt”.
The ombudsman’s advice was surprising given the controversial circumstances under which the land board leased out the land to Black Eagle Investments.
“JMC rejected both recommendations as it was not responsible for the wrongful land allocation, but the District Land Board which is appointed by Jinja District,” Mr Kezaala explained in his handover report.
That compelled the Council to accept the premium and ground rent payments.
It also endorsed Black Eagles’ application for a change of land use from an open space to a five star hotel. The firm, however, used the land as collateral to secure a $2m (Shs7.5b) loan.
It later transferred its interests in the said land to Ms Nile Agro Industries of businessman Magan Patel.
According to Uganda’s former Deputy High Commissioner to India Muhammad Baswari Kezaala, negotiations involving Ms Rebecca Kadaga, the former House Speaker, were held with Mr Patel. The negotiations were tailored at encouraging Mr Patel to get compensated for the land, but they came to naught.
The chairperson of the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), Mr Daudi Migereko, who has been partly involved in the negotiations with Mr Patel, believes little progress has been made on that front because of the casual approach of the negotiators.
“Whenever we set a date to go and negotiate, some people are the first ones to go there. Once you say let us negotiate with him, they go there ahead of the rest. So the problem is not politics. It’s the people,” Mr. Migereko said.
Mr Migereko does not name anyone, but it is generally understood that people in the city’s leadership and some sections of the employees of Jinja City are quite reluctant to see the Source of the Nile developed.
The Source of the Nile is one of the city’s biggest revenue centers. With a monthly collection of Shs60m from the gates alone, it is a cash cow that an impoverished city might not want to surrender, something Mr Migereko finds hard to understand.
A city councillor, who asked to remain anonymous, told Sunday Monitor that the Source of the Nile is a cash cow for a range of people.
“Whoever is deployed at that gate never wants to leave. It is easy to collect and not remit everything to the Council because the supervision is minimal,” the councilor said.
The councilor argues that the only way those petty interests would be dealt with would be by limiting the Council’s power as far as gate collections and permit issuances are concerned.
Another storm brewing revolves around a development that happened on January 25, 2018 when the National Physical Planning Board endorsed the Jinja Council’s approval of a change of land use. It essentially limited the change to only five out of the 12 acres of open space. That, however, did not stop Black Eagle from fencing off all 12 acres of land.
It has also emerged since that Jinja City Council recently signed an MoU handing Nile Agro Industries the power to manage the other seven acres for which a change of land use was not authorized to manage. This raises fears that it might be manipulated to make the town lose the land.
“The signed MoU does not negate the National Physical Planning Board decision that the seven acres be left for public use. Neither does it negate the board’s decision to chop off the seven acres from the land title and have the same in the names of Jinja City,” Mr Kezaala warned.
However, the assistant Town Clerk, Mr Peter Mawerere, denies the existence of such an MoU, adding that the land is still intact.
“The seven acres are still open space even though they are part of the land title in the hands of Nile Agro Industries,” Mr Mawerere revealed.
Whereas the cocktail of interests remains, the biggest challenge and impediment to rekindling the Indian government’s interest in the land would be by acquiring land in the area of its interest. Once that is done, all the other interests will go with the wind, but can that be done?
Mr Kezaala says this can be done by showing some tough love to those that possess the land that was deemed suitable and ample for the project. He recommends compulsory acquisition or cancellation of the title held by Mr Magan Patel.
“A legal approach will most likely result in a cancellation of the title and the same reverting to government, because technically, the law says green belts shall be held by the local governments in trust for the people,” Mr Kezaala says.
Mr Migereko supports the idea of canceling the title in order to pave the way for the project.
“In the case of the Civil Service College in Jinja, government took a bold decision and canceled titles. The same was done for the land for the Aga Khan’s University Teaching Hospital in Nakawa. There is a precedent,” Mr. Migereko reasons.
The problem, though, is that in this case the will to cancel the title is nonexistent.