The East African - - OPINION -

An­other in­no­va­tion by Uganda’s eter­nally re­source­ful elite.

If Kenya made mo­bile money a re­al­ity, Uganda has cre­ated the new Swiss ac­count. Pre­vi­ously, rich peo­ple and dic­ta­tors who ac­cu­mu­lated huge for­tunes that they did not want tax au­thor­i­ties to know about salted them away in coded Swiss ac­counts. If the dic­ta­tor got killed in a coup, the Swiss bankers would smile se­cretly in­side the bank.

That, we are told, made it pos­si­ble for banks in such coun­tries to lend at very low in­ter­est rates and look very hu­mane, since they had vast blood-stained de­posits for which no cus­tomer was claim­ing in­ter­est, or was in any hurry to with­draw.

But now the famed Swiss se­crecy has been di­luted. The grow­ing trans­parency move­ment but even more ur­gently, the global ter­ror­ism threat, have turned Swiss ac­counts into a tar­get of scru­tiny. And then the anti-money laun­der­ing laws that vir­tu­ally ev­ery coun­try must en­act have also be­come a nui­sance to the Swiss banker.

In comes the Ugan­dan in­no­va­tion. The rich and mighty of Uganda have come up with an in­ge­nious re­place­ment for the Swiss ac­count. They have fig­ured out that no Swiss ac­count is bet­ter than the land that we walk on. It is the best bank to hide your mil­lions. And so in­stead of both­er­ing with nosy global sys­tems, they just put their money into square miles of land.

While some cyn­i­cal peo­ple call it land grab­bing, it is not a cheap process by any means. It in­volves iden­ti­fy­ing sev­eral square miles of land for which there has been no ti­tle is­sued. That means spend­ing mil­lions of shillings on scout­ing. You then pro­ceed to bribe a chain of of­fi­cials, from lo­cal chiefs and clan lead­ers to ad­min­is­tra­tors and tech­nocrats in the lands of­fices. This runs into bil­lions of shillings. Fi­nally, you get your clean ti­tle to three square miles of land after spend­ing Ush1 bil­lion, which is about $3mil­lion. There is vir­tu­ally no way you would have moved three mil­lion dol­lars to Switzer­land or any other coun­try with­out be­ing no­ticed. That is why we have had of­fi­cials keep­ing half a mil­lion dol­lars un­der their bed for months, not know­ing how to move it. Some­times the wife steals it and hubby has to find ways of deal­ing with her with­out the rel­a­tives, friends and in-laws won­der­ing why she is be­ing beaten to near death. Any­way, after you em­body your three mil­lion dol­lars in three square miles of land, you can take the ti­tle to the bank and bor­row $6mil­lion, be­cause the land it­self is worth $10 mil­lion on the mar­ket. Then you refuse to pay the bank, hav­ing con­verted the money into other as­sets. Then the bank sells it at a huge loss and the per­son who buys it has to deal with the so called squat­ters – the peo­ple who were born on it and whose an­ces­tors have lived on it for gen­er­a­tions. Then a cri­sis en­sues as the buyer tries to evict them. And maybe po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion takes place and the gov­ern­ment of­fers to com­pen­sate the new buyer so that hun­dreds of fam­i­lies are not evicted. The new buyer then joins the long list of un­paid gov­ern­ment cred­i­tors. And life goes on un­der the new Swiss bank­ing sys­tem of Uganda. Those poor Mobu­tus and Gaddafis of yes­ter­day, they shouldn’t have taken their cash to Switzer­land when the Swiss banks were right un­der their feet – their grand­kids wouldn’t be curs­ing to­day.

Il­lus­tra­tion:john Nyaga

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