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Forget the new taxes, ministry of Lands will burden us even more

As the country was busy debating the social media and mobile money taxes, something else which will have a much bigger impact on the economy happened.

On July 2, the acting commissioner for land registration issued guidelines on depositing documents for registration at the ministry zonal offices. To show the commissioner’s seriousness, the statement was paid for in local media and was written in capital letters!

“All instruments of subdivisions, transfers, leases and mortgages deposited for registration at all the ministry zonal offices shall be submitted by the registered owner in person, who shall appear together with the transferee, lessee or mortgagee and witnesses at the front desk of the ministry’s zonal office for identification,” reads the statement in part.

So, if you buy land and you want to transfer it, you will take that person to the ministry’s receptionist to look at them and confirm. This is happening in a country where the majority of people have national identification cards and registered Sim cards.

Dennis Obbo, the Lands ministry spokesman, explains the land ownership process. New guidelines mean the buyer and seller have to be physically present to transfer a land title

“In addition,” the commissioner added, “to concisely state money consideration in a transfer instrument, a copy of the bank payment slip shall be produced at the front desk as proof of full payment of consideration from the bank account of the transferee to the bank account of the transferor.”

This means that if you are buying land, you must first deposit money on your account and then transfer it to the bank account of the seller. You can no longer pay for land in cash. This is in a country where the majority of people have no bank accounts or banks are many miles away from them. In case you want to use the lawyer like you have been probably doing, you will still have to appear there in person together with your witnesses.

This process is probably the most regressive in the whole world. If you live and work abroad and you want to invest in Uganda, you can no longer instruct your lawyers to do it. You must buy a ticket and get time to fly home.

I don’t know how efficient the land offices are today but there is nobody in this country who is buying land and doesn’t have a story to tell of the inefficiency in the land registry. If it is not the white page missing, it is the registrar who is not in office every day.

The office in Wakiso is now the busiest and can take you months just to transfer from name to another. Now, with staff involved in physical verification of who is who, it will take many years before one can buy and register their land. And what would be the motivation of the seller after they have money on their bank account to go through such a cumbersome process?

By the way, the statement from the good acting commissioner didn’t tell us what skills the registry staff have in identifying one person from another. People say I resemble my elder brother so much.

My brother’s kids used to struggle to differentiate us. I meet my brother’s friends who for a few minutes think they are talking to him. I can easily go to land’s office as my brother. Of course, our biometrics are not the same but with corruption in most land registry offices, that shouldn’t be a problem. The point here, though, is that people physically going to Wakiso, Bukalasa or Mukono won’t solve the issues in the land registry. It will make registering one’s interest on a piece of land harder.

In fact, a new line of conmen is going to emerge who will just wait for the elderly and uninitiated to con them. It will also make the process more cumbersome than it already is.

The economy will not benefit as a whole. Land is the most important issue in Uganda today when it comes to business growth especially for the small and medium enterprises (SMEs).  If you don’t own or have access to land, banks can only lend you as little as Shs 500m.

And that is when you are a very established SME. Otherwise, to get money from the bank to push your business to the next level, you need to have land. If accessing and registering land is made more difficult, we will end up with more people without land, who won’t be able to scale their businesses to the next level.

Yet with technology, there must be ways through which land registration shouldn’t be such a difficult process. Sometime back, the ministry closed its land registry, apparently to digitize it. Nobody knows what happened with that. The economy suffered because people couldn’t borrow money. Some people also couldn’t sell their land to get money needed for their medical bills and other expenses.

If the ministry wants to do physical verification before one transfers land, they should ensure there are enough offices with staff trained and equipped to verify who is who. This would mean an office in every constituency to make it accessible.

Otherwise, I see people lining up from Wakiso to Nansana every day. And the commissioner didn’t say who in the bank in the case of mortgages we should go to. Is it the CEO, executive director, board chair or branch manager?

If the acting commissioner wants to make changes that will create impact and gets confirmed in the job, he/she needs to start thinking outside the box. That shouldn’t be difficult in a world full of disruptive technologies.

djjuuko@gmail.com

The writer is a communication and visibility consultant.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd