Amin Visram remembers the joy of his childhood in Uganda: games of marbles, badminton and the laughter of his friends.

And he remembers seeing his breath condensing in the cold air when he and his family landed in Canada as refugees after being thrown out of the country they called home.

That was in 1972, when Uganda’s former dictator Idi Amin expelled 55,000 South Asian residents from the East African country. Almost all of them scrambled to flee the country, with only a few hundred well-connected Asians staying on.

The 9,000 or so properties they left behind, which were expropriated by the state, were some of the most valuable real estate in the country – and are still being fought over, 50 years on.

Lawyers, officials and Ugandan Asians described a tangle of forged documents, corruption and endless court cases. There are even conflicting accounts of exactly how many unclaimed properties remain.

Visram, who was 13 at the time of the expulsion, is still chasing money he was promised for his family’s three houses, including his childhood home.

He said that in the 1990s his family gave power of attorney to a businessman in Uganda to recover and manage the properties.

The family received $5,000 for one house, which they consider inadequate, and nothing at all for the other two, and the businessman was accused of large-scale fraud by a parliamentary inquiry published last year.

“Between Canada, the United States and (the) UK, I would say there are hundreds of families in this situation,” said Visram, who now runs a hotel group in Canada. “Somebody has unjustly gotten rich off the back of these refugees.”

The property saga highlights endemic corruption in Uganda, which was ranked 144 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Valuable assets

Amin was ousted in 1979. The abandoned Asian properties – some taken over by soldiers, others occupied by tenants who paid rent to the state – were a crumbling reminder of his rule, lying at the historic heart of Uganda’s cities.

In 1983, a new government enacted a law allowing former owners to reclaim their properties, handing stewardship of the process to the Departed Asians Property Custodian Board, a government agency.

But restitution only really got going in the 1990s, when the World Bank made it a condition of lending and President Yoweri Museveni – who remains in power – began courting Asian investment. The properties were worth an estimated $1 billion at the time.

In 1991, the World Bank wrote that the expropriated buildings “represent a substantial component of Uganda’s capital stock (including) shops, warehouses, motor garages, office and apartment complexes, residences, manufacturing and over 400 agro-processing plants, agricultural estates and other farms”.

Yet in the rush to return the properties, some “crooks” crept in, said Dan Wandera Ogalo, a lawyer who has represented the Custodian Board in court.

Uganda’s former dictator Idi Amin expelled 55,000 South Asian residents from the East African country. Credit: Handout/Reuters.

Property empires

Many of the Asians expelled in 1972 never returned to Uganda after Amin’s ouster, granting power of attorney to others to reclaim properties on their behalf.

Some of them used those powers to build property empires while remitting only a fraction of the income to the original owners, according to four prominent Ugandan Asians.

Much of that depended on “rampant corruption” at the Custodian Board during the 1980s and 1990s, said Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan Asian academic at Columbia University.

He added that “Custodian Board officials and several unscrupulous Asian lawyers” turned the repossession process “into an opportunity to make a huge amount of money”.

The unruly scramble for the properties drew in opportunists from across the Ugandan elite, said Ibrahim Kasozi, an opposition politician who led the parliamentary inquiry.

He said a “mafia” of lawyers, judges, officials, business people and government ministers had conspired to grab properties and obstruct justice.

“The government is not committed to give (back) those (properties) because individuals within the system, they are benefitting.”

The parliamentary report found “massive deliberate errors committed by impostors and fraudsters, with the aid of office bearers in the (Custodian Board)“.

The board’s current executive secretary, George William Bizibu, told Context he would not comment on the report “because that’s at the level of parliament”.

Among those named in the parliamentary report is an Asian businessman called Mohamed Allibhai – the same man that the Visram family gave power of attorney over their home.

The report said Allibhai had fraudulently repossessed nearly 1,000 expropriated properties “and went on to manage or even own the the detriment of the real owners”.

Allibhai did not respond to a request for comment, but his lawyer Eddy Okumu said some people were trying to reopen decades-old cases for selfish ends.

“The genesis of those allegations of fraud is to find a way of grabbing these properties and sell them,” he said.

In July, a judge ruled that the parliamentary committee had “exceeded its mandate” and acted “illegally” by investigating cases that had already been settled in court.

Forged documents

Dog-eared files are stacked on cabinets and piled on the floor at the Custodian Board offices in Kampala, the Ugandan capital.

“This is just a drop in the sea,” said Bizibu, the board’s head since 2017.

He said 4,063 properties have been reclaimed and another 1,500 sold by the government. More than 2,000 properties remain unclaimed.

“Everyone has a right to come and claim his or her property, even today,” he said. “Currently I have around 10 claims which we’re working on.”

But 50 years after the expulsion, verifying claims is no easy task. The biggest challenges, he said, are “impersonators”, “forgeries” and “loose ends” in the archives.

“If I meet a hundred (people) there could be only 10 who are genuine,” he said, as a queue formed outside his door.

Nobody can agree on how many properties have yet to be reclaimed.

Context spoke to lawyers, former officials and Asian community leaders who challenge Bizibu’s figures, with estimates ranging from just 200 unclaimed properties to as many as 4,000.

Benard Shaw Tumwesigire, an Army officer who was appointed executive secretary of the Custodian Board in 2009, said he had processed data on about half of the unclaimed properties before he was “arbitrarily” forced out in 2017.

“Those who did not wish me to finish capturing the data decided to lock me outside the office,” he said.

His replacement, Bizibu, is a former ruling party activist who had close ties to the finance minister at the time of his appointment.

Bizibu was arrested by the president’s Anti-Corruption Unit earlier this year over suspected fraud at the entity.

A unit spokesperson said he had not been charged in the ongoing investigation, and Bizibu denied wrongdoing, saying his arrest was not related to Custodian Board matters.

Pandora’s box

Museveni, who has said the battle against graft was one of his main priorities for his current term as president, has expressed exasperation with the property saga.

Last December, his influential brother Salim Saleh – who has extensive business interests of his own – launched an initiative called Operation Harmony with the stated aim of resolving the issue.

Ogenga Otunnu, a historian at Chicago-based DePaul University and the chairman of Operation Harmony, said that it is seeking a “harmonious settlement of this issue”.

A resolution cannot come soon enough, said Mumtaz Kassam, a Ugandan Asian lawyer and diplomat who was heavily involved in expropriated property cases.

“Please let’s wind up the Custodian Board once and for all so that we can all move on to develop the country,” she said.

That idea has been under discussion since the 1990s, according to board minutes reviewed by Context.

But Tumwesigire, the former executive secretary, said some of those pushing for the Custodian Board’s closure are trying to keep a lid on a “Pandora’s box” of corruption.

More than 7,000 miles (11,300 km) away, in Canada, Visram is exasperated by the failure of the Ugandan government to right a historic wrong.

“It’s just a frustrating process for 50 years: it’s almost like you want to put your hands up in the air and say to hell with it,” he said. “And I think that’s what the government wanted us to do.”

This article first appeared on Context, powered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.