Cronies Vie for Asian Property Rights

PROPERTIES confiscated from Asians have been the political plums of successive Ugandan governments for 20 years.

Former President Idi Amin set an early precedent for cronyism by promoting an illiterate Army sergeant to the rank of colonel and making him manager of one of Uganda's largest enterprises - the previously Asian-owned Kakira sugar factory.

The colonel "knew nothing about management, but these people were above the law. They were untouchable. They were the government," recalls Godfrey Lule, who served as Mr. Amin's attorney general for four years before being accused of treason in 1977. Although the factory was outfitted with new machinery, output ground to a halt, he says.

In a blunt assessment of the Departed Asians' Property Custodian Board, which controls such properties, a self-critical government report released last November stated: "The Custodian Board has been a conduit for distributing political favors. For every change of regime, a new set of winners - the exiles and freedom fighters - are reallocated the properties.... Even today, the Custodian Board properties are not free from political manipulation."

Influential politicians were given prime Asian properties at negligible rents. By subletting, the new "owner" made huge profits. In a typical example, according to one influential Ugandan businessman, one man was to pay the Custodian Board $2 a month in rent for an Asian property. He never paid utility bills and was five years behind on rent payments - claiming that he was poor - before the board realized that he made $12,000 per month from his tenants.

One senior World Bank official described this entrenched system of patronage as the "greatest and longest-running free lunch in the history of the world [for] big-shot politicians."

No one owns the confiscated properties outright, except in cases where forged title deeds replaced some "missing" files. Consequently, no maintenance has been done on most Asian holdings for 20 years.

One Asian businessman returned to find that piles of sand and rock intended for the repair of his hotel - which he left in 1972 - were still there. But the cement had been stolen.

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