Sunday, May 13, 2012

When children really don’t matter all that much at all

Ugandan newspaper readers are used to reading regular stories about encroachments and evictions. Land rights are a major issue here, whether they concern tiny ramshackle mud and pole huts barely floating on patches of newly drained swamp or acres of prime farmland handed over at knock-down prices to close associates of government ministers. Last week’s land-grabbing story takes the biscuit, however.

Kololo is a pleasant residential area of central Kampala, occupied by embassies, hotels and mansions for the well-heeled.  Kololo’s schools, like those of nearby and similarly privileged Nakasero, are among the oldest in the city, many going back to colonial times and with solid reputations to go with their relative antiquity. Of course in Kololo, as you might expect, property and land prices are high. Inevitably, therefore, some of its schools occupy some highly desirable sites.

Property speculators against children … now, who do you think is likely to win that battle?

Well, East Kololo Primary School can give you an answer. A company called Adventure Real Estates Ltd – a giveaway of a name if ever there was one – is currently in the process of taking over the school’s land. Apparently the Uganda Registration Services Bureau told the Monitor that it has no record of the company having been registered, but this appears to be a minor concern. Every evening at sunset, the trucks have been moving in and carting off lorry loads of soil to be dumped elsewhere. Work finishes at dawn, almost as if the developers didn’t want to be seen…

Now, how come a predatory investor can take action like this against a government school, a school implementing Universal Primary Education, without anyone appearing to be able to stop it?

Ah well, now this is a real Ugandan story.

Every Ugandan school should have a School Management Committee (SMC) which is responsible for running the school (more like an English Board of Governors than a Scottish Parent Council). Newspapers report that the company managed to ‘nobble’ a couple of members of East Kololo’s SMC, one of them the vice-chair, who two years ago secretly organised an illegal meeting which approved a 48-year lease of the school’s land to the developer, The original shareholders have since sold their shares on to the Bharwani brothers. The rest of the SMC heard about the meeting almost a year later when they received a letter from the Town Clerk.

The chair of the SMC then wrote to the secretary of the Land Commission, the Permanent Secretary (PS) in the Education Ministry and the Town Clerk, to ask them to stop the deal. He also wrote to the Director of Education and Sports at Kampala City Council Authority recommending that it took disciplinary action against the two culpable SMC officials.

The story gets murkier, however. The Daily Monitor reports that the PS originally replied that the Ministry “is not a party to the alleged leasing of the school land to Adventure Real Estates Ltd”. Sixteen days later, however, he withdrew his letter having, apparently, seen papers provided by the two SMC members. It makes one wonder what Ministry officials have been up to behind the back of their PS.

The Monitor quotes from the more recent letter: “I have therefore withdrawn my letter to you and would consequently not support the cancellation of the lease offer by the Land Commission. Adventure Real Estate should proceed to operationalise their commitments and undertakings.” So much for the Ministry.

Apparently, the developers have told the Ministry and the Land Commission that they will engage in some action related to “corporate social responsibility” with the school. The magic words ‘computer suite’ have been mentioned. One is led to wonder which of the various public servants involved in the wrangle have been bought off, for how much and by whom. In fact, the Land Commission has been reported as being about to receive Shs123 million.

The SMC have since said that apparently Adventure Real Estates wrote a letter to the school in 2009 expressing interest in its land. The letter was delivered by one of the guilty SMC members two years later, on the same day that the school learnt that Uganda Land Commission had handed the land over.

All very mysterious. One thing is certain, though: nobody, absolutely nobody has been thinking of the children.

This is not an isolated story. The school across the road, Kololo Secondary School, also lost its land to unscrupulous investors. The same thing happened to Shimoni Primary School which was turned off a prime plot opposite Garden City to make way for a hotel complex. Ironically, Shimoni moved in with East Kololo when it lost its buildings. Five years later, the hotel has still not been built. Just down the road from East Kololo another school, City High, has only just finally fought off predatory developers.

And it is not just children in comfortable city residential areas who suffer. Last year, the Resident District Commissioner of Amuru sub-county (northern Uganda) turned up at Kololo Primary School (nothing to do with East Kololo above) and ordered the staff and pupils to leave. He was accompanied by military personnel who then beat up those who refused. The school occupies communal land offered to it by a local pastor. The Madhvani Group, well known for its interests in Amuru, had claimed the land. At least ten schools in Nwoya are also under threat. The chair of the local council has set up a reconciliation team to resolve the problem and educate people about the importance of schools. Sad that this should seem necessary.

Now, unscrupulous investors exist all over the world. It is a common story for landlords to illegally evict tenants from their houses or farmland so that developers can move in, or to bully them so severely that they just give up their rights. The west also has its fair share of racketeers and manipulative venture capitalists. However, there can be few countries in the world in which public authorities turn a blind eye while businessmen destroy public education facilities and, by so doing and with impunity, damage the schooling of the nation’s children.

In Uganda, it sometimes seems as if children really do not matter all that much at all.

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