The scandal involving the acquisition of an embassy for oil-rich Equatorial Guinea has taken a new twist. Pepper online has now learnt that some officials who jetted in Uganda last week for President Yoweri Museveni’s swearing-in ceremony, reportedly left unsatisfied with the house that they were sold. To make matters worse, they did not even stop there.
“They were going there but later cut the trip short and made a U-turn,” a source said without divulging into details. We are told, the oil-rich nation is demanding answers from officials at Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Some officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are accused of playing dirty tricks that saw the Government of Equatorial Guinea lose over six hundred thousand United States Dollars ($600,000) in a grossly inflated purchase of the property. According to sources, the Equatorial Guinea government had advanced USD2M (About Shs7bn) for this purpose.
However, it is alleged the house ended up costing between USD1.3M to 1.7M. An official in the office of the Chief of Protocol is said to have illicitly obtained two hundred fifty thousand United States Dollars ($250,000) in the transaction. The property in question is a residential building on Plot No. 31 Mackenzie Vale in Kololo which was recently “purchased” by the Government of Equatorial Guinea to house its Embassy in Kampala. We have also learnt that the title to the property has not yet been transferred to the Embassy and that the Uganda Land Commission, from which the lease was obtained did not give its consent and may not be officially aware of the transaction. The property was sold on 5th February 2021 but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs approved the deal on 23rd February which is against the Diplomatic and Consular Property Conventions Act.
URA has also written to the concerned officials to furnish them with all information related to the transaction. Whereas the property was sold at USD1.7Million, real estate agents say the property’s (in 30 decimals) value is around USD900, 000. Equatorial Guinea has also asked for a full report and the official who handled the transaction on their behalf has also been recalled. Officials at Foreign Affairs are also on spot for issuing a diplomatic letter allowing some officials in the transaction to take cash through Entebbe Airport.
To make matters worse, the agents/brokers who were involved in the property search have not been paid their commission amounting to about USD136000. The source of information relating to the corruption scandal is a detailed letter addressed to officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Regional Cooperation.
The letter is also variously copied to the Inspector General of Police, Office of the President, State House of Uganda – Anti Corruption Unit, the Inspector General of Government.
Dated April 05, 2021, the letter not only registers a complaint but also constitutes a whistle-blowers’ dossier exposing the syndicated under-the-counter dealings. The complainants/whistle-blowers are real estate consultants/agents by occupation. The two initiated and brokered the sale and as such have intimate knowledge of and facts relating to the criminal enterprise that progressively overshadowed the entire transaction.
The transaction in question involved a foreign national who is an envoy, the property owner (“leasee”) and seller on the one hand and a Secretary at the Embassy of Equatorial Guinea in Kampala on the other hand.
According to the letter, in December 2020, in the course of their work, the two property agents learnt that the Embassy of Equatorial Guinea in Kampala was scouting for a built property in the upscale suburbs of Kololo which it would convert into a Chancery (i.e. official premises of the Embassy). The Agents contacted a range of property owners. After a series of engagements with the Agents, the seller agreed to offer his property on terms one of which was that his last price would be one million two hundred thousand United States Dollars ($1,200,000). The asking price was set at one million three hundred thousand United States Dollars ($1,300,000).
At this point, the seller had not been made aware of who the intending purchaser was. The property in question is in Leasehold Register Volume 2362 Folio 3and sits on approximately 0.117 hectares (about 30 decimals) of land. The lease has only twenty-seven (27) years to run. Another point of agreement was that the seller would pay 3% of the selling price as Commission Fee to the Agents.
The Agents set about preparing a Sales Commission Contract which would be executed to seal the points of agreement between them and the intending seller. He agreed to receive the draft contract by email. The property owner also granted them permission to take the intending buyer (yet unknown to him) on an inspection visit of the property.
On December 11, 2020, the Agents got in touch with a secretary of the Embassy and conducted him around the property for inspection (photographic evidence of his initial visit to the property is available). The secretary was impressed with the property and the seller’s price. According to him, it met all the prescribed standards of suitability and the budget allocation for procurement of a grand Chancery would accommodate the price. It is reported that the Government of Equatorial Guinea had allocated two million United States Dollars ($ 2,000,000)to the Embassy to procure property for purposes of a diplomatic mission (Chancery).
Thus impressed, the secretary advised the Agents that he was satisfied with the property and did not have to inspect other properties. This property alone would make the list. He then asked to see the property owner to make his acquaintance and hold preliminary discussions. He also advised the agents that he would meet an official in the office of chief of protocol that very day and brief him about this finding. He stressed that that official was involved in the hunt for property and that all matters were reserved for his advice. The Agents advised him that should the Embassy make a decision to procure the property, the Agents would receive in payment a finder’s Commission Fee (5% of the sale price).
On December 13, 2020 the agents arranged at the secretary’s request a meeting with the seller. The meeting was held at Imperial Royale Hotel in Nakasero. Before that meeting, however, the agents had taken trouble to inform the seller that the intended buyer (still unknown to the seller) was satisfied with the property and the price quotation. The property would most certainly be procured. The Agents insisted that the seller sign the Sales Commission Agreement between the Agents and him. This had been sent to his email address. Their expectation therefore was that during this meeting, beyond making acquaintance with the secretary and holding preliminary talks, the seller and the Agents would execute the Sales Commission Agreement. It is at the meeting that the property owner first became aware of the fact that the intending purchaser was the Embassy of Equatorial Guinea. The seller and the secretary exchanged contacts at the meeting. The Agents presented the Sales Commission Agreement to the property owner having signed their part. On this occasion however, the seller did not sign the agreement, advising that he needed time to study and digest the text.
This meeting was critical for three other reasons. Firstly, at this meeting, the Foreign Affairs official made it clear that another meeting would have to be arranged the same day with the official in the chief of protocols office in attendance. Up to this point, the Agents had not seen or met him in person. The seller, much to the delight of the secretary, mentioned that he knew the official and was friends with him. Secondly, during the progression of deliberations, the secretary requested the Agents to leave the meeting place for a while so he could have a private conversation with the seller.
The Agents went outside of the meeting place and left the two together for some time. They were not called back to the meeting. Instead, the secretary emerged out of the meeting place and advised the Agents that he and the seller would have another decisive meeting with the Chief of Protocol later in the day.
Thirdly and most importantly, when the Agents went in to see the seller (following the departure of the secretary), he informed them that the secretary had mooted a proposal to the effect of which would be an upward revision of the purchase price. He had indicated to the seller that there were many parties to “take care of,” including Ministers.
The seller, who has a lifelong weakness for never keeping secret things secret, informed his dumbfounded listeners that the secretary had floated a deal the terms of which were that he would guarantee payment of the seller’s asking price of one million three hundred thousand United States Dollars ($1,300,000) on condition that he “loads” four hundred thousand United States Dollars ($400,000). This difference would be money to take care of various interests (including ministerial interests). Thus, the seller would officially receive in payment one million seven hundred thousand United States Dollars ($1,700,000) and “kickback” four hundred thousand United States Dollars ($400,000) to the secretary and the official in the chief of protocols office to take care of “interested parties.”
The seller reportedly further informed the Agents that the secretary and the official had already discussed the nefarious idea of “loading” money onto the purchase price of whichever property was selected. What remained would be convincing an intending seller to buy into their dirty enterprise. After the initial meeting with the seller, the secretary had in fact gone directly from the meeting to brief the official about the day’s deliberations. The seller also informed them that another meeting was slated for later in the day with the protocol official in attendance. No mention was made of the time and venue.
The Agents advised the seller to carefully examine the secretary’s proposal as it would likely have consequences for the transaction especially considering that these were the funds of a sovereign government. They also spoke of the need to have the property subjected to a valuation process. The seller seemed unbothered. In any case, to guard against the dangers of being sucked into the vortex of a future scandal, the Agents made clear to the seller that their Commission Fee would strictly be based on and a percentage of the official selling price of one million three hundred thousand United States Dollars ($1,300,000). The seller received a hard copy of the Sales Commission Agreement, promising the Agents to study the text before signing. He would invite them at an appropriate time to receive the signed Agreement. Thereafter he dismissed them for the day.
This meeting would be the last time the Agents would set their eyes on the seller again before closure of the transaction. Thereafter, a series of dramatic events ensued. The seller’s general disposition toward the Agents curiously and suddenly changed. He refused to see them, often citing a busy schedule. Quite understandably, he was in Nairobi most of the time. However, it became totally impossible for the Agents to meet him over the weekends when he returned from Nairobi and during the Christmas holidays when he was in Kampala. He would neither take nor return the Agent’s calls. He thinly responded to a few text messages and messages on WhatsApp. The Agents’ sole demand at this stage of the transaction was that the seller signs his part of the Sales Commission Agreement. They were making no other demand of him.
The Agents maintained contact with the secretary who advised them that a delegation from the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Equatorial Guinea would be in Kampala after the presidential and parliamentary elections to “conclude negotiations” with the seller. He also advised them that the head of this delegation, a one Ms. Maria Angeles Miaga Bibang Nsang (Secretary of State in Charge of Economic and Patrimonial Affairs in the Government of Equatorial Guinea) would be the right person to sign a Finder’s Commission Fee Agreement with the Agents and authorize the Embassy to make this payment.
The secretary also advised the Agents that for purposes of adhering to procurement requirements, three other properties had been identified and added to the list of candidate properties for purchase. These, however, were mere dummies and in any case, he had submitted to his government a detailed report that favoured the property and which in equal measure disadvantaged the other properties. Finally, and most importantly, he informed them that he had the blessings of the official in the Chief of Protocol’s office in the matter. The latter would watch over the deal to its materialization.
On January 25, 2021, the Embassy of Equatorial Guinea wrote to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs informing it that a delegation was due to arrive in Kampala on January 28 2020. In essence only two people comprised this delegation. This Media house has seen a copy of the said Diplomatic Note (Ref No. 016/021 of January 25, 2021).The diplomatic note also asked the Ministry to make arrangements for a meeting between the head of the delegation and Hon. Okello Oryem. We have established that the Minister did not get to meet this delegation.
On the same day, the secretary contacted the Agents on the phone. He informed them that the visiting duo would inspect all the four properties but this was a mere ritual as in fact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Equatorial Guinea was already taken with the good report highlighting the primacy and suitability of the property. He assured them that both the seller and the Embassy were committed to meeting their financial obligations toward the Agents for their labour and services. Most importantly, the secretary requested the Agents to be present at the property in the afternoon to receive the delegation and conduct them around. Photographic and video evidence shows that the Agents were on the property and indeed received the party and conducted them around for inspection. Curiously, on this very day, the seller who was in Nairobi got in touch with one of the Agents and asked him to ensure all went well. He advised the Agent that he would be in Kampala in a few days’ time and would commit to his obligations by signing the Sales Commission Agreement. What prompted this call may have been fear on the seller’s part of what the Agents might say or do during the inspection tour to disadvantage the property if they had serious doubts about his intentions since he was yet to sign the Agreement. In Fact he sent a copy of the property’s title deed to the Agent on WhatsApp so he could print and present it to the delegation as well as to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
After the party inspected this and other properties, the Agents did not hear again from the secretary nor did they get to meet the seller when he flew into the country to conclude the transaction. In another bizarre turn of events, on February 5, 2021, at the rented premises of the Embassy Wampewo Avenue, Fumu Close, the seller and the secretary (on behalf of the Embassy) signed a Sale of Land Agreement in respect of the property on Plot No. 31 Mackenzie Vale in Kololo.
There had been no negotiations whatsoever. The Agreement had been discreetly and hurriedly prepared. We have gained access to a copy of the signed Agreement. The purchase price of the property was, as previously agreed, one million seven hundred thousand United States Dollars ($1,700,000). The Agreement was signed around midday. In the late afternoon of the same day, the secretary presented to his bank (Ecobank, Parliament Avenue) a letter authorizing the bank to transfer (by RTGS) the amount of one million seven hundred thousand United States Dollars ($1,700,000) from the Embassy account (7170006729) to the seller’s account.
We have gained access to a copy of this letter authorizing transfer of funds which is also a document attached to the Agents’ letter. It is worth mentioning that the seller flew into Uganda from Nairobi on the same day that the Agreement was signed.
By this date, however, the head of the visiting delegation had flown back home and left his trusted official to finish the work. Not to raise any suspicion of complicity, it was, apparently, carefully arranged for the seller to stay a little longer in Nairobi to allow the delegation time to exit Uganda. Before leaving the country, however, the party called at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and expressed their gratitude for all the assistance rendered to the Embassy in this complex enterprise.
Events which did not favour the Agents (now lawful claimants following the transfer of funds) continued to unfold. The seller left the country on February 6, 2021 secure in the knowledge that the deal had been successfully sealed. The Agents had made frantic attempts to meet him on February 5, 2020 without success. He also would neither take nor return their calls. When called on a different number, he picked the call and advised the Agents that he would return the following week and settle his obligations.
When the seller returned to Kampala (unannounced), the Agents, who had now taken interest in his movements, were waiting to confront him. On the rainy day of Saturday February 13, 2021, one of the Agents walked in on the seller at Imperial Royale where he was meeting the guinea and Foreign Affairs officials. The Agent made certain to take video and photographic recordings of this chance encounter with the trio. The seller was reportedly very shocked to see him and inquired how he had become aware of his presence in Kampala. The Agent made his demand clear, the payment due to the Agents for their services. The seller advised him that he would meet his obligations to the Agents as soon as he received payment from the Embassy. The embassy official that was involved in this transaction could not explain why the Finder’s Commission Agreement had not been signed as promised. However, he indicated to the Agent that the Embassy would retire its indebtedness to the Agents anytime in the course of the week. The funds, he said, were being processed.
OFFICIAL IN THE CHIEF OF PROTOCOL’S OFFICE
Our review of the Agent’s whistle-blowing letter (and the mass of critical documents attached thereto) reveals that the Chief of Protocol had a very, very prominent role he played in the entire transaction. He had always been the man in the shadows, overseeing the execution of the entire truncation from his office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Not only had this Equatorial Guinea official mentioned to the Agents on their first encounter that the official at Foreign Affairs Ministry had to be privately briefed about this house, when the seller and embassy official met for the first time on December 13, 2020 at Imperial Royale hotel, they made clear to the Agents that another meeting was slated with the Foreign Affairs official for later in the day. Also, some property “brokers” plying their trade in the Kololo area that we independently spoke to confirm that this Ugandan official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was actively involved. In their letter, the Agents repeatedly assert that this Foreign Affairs official was at all times informally in touch with both the seller and the embassy official before the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was officially informed. They claim that he was a primary actor in the negotiations and other procedures that fed into the transaction albeit operating in the shadows.
Agents operating in the Kololo area of Kampala also confirm that last year, this property (sitting on 30 decimals with 27 years remaining for the lease to run) was on offer for sale at USD1.1million.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, they indicate that there is no way such a crammed property could fetch even USD1.3Million.
Under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on behalf of the receiving State (Uganda) facilitates the acquisition on its territory in accordance with its laws of premises necessary for the mission of the sending State (Article 21). However, execution of this role by the Ministry is one thing and taking pecuniary benefit (in the execution of that role) by one of its officers is another.
It is perhaps the prominence of his place and role that this Foreign Affairs official personally hosted the delegation of Equatorial Guinea in his office. Indeed, in its Diplomatic Note to the Ministry (Ref No. 016/021 of January 25, 2021), the Embassy had requested that a meeting be arranged between their state representative and a Ugandan Minister in the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Credible sources with knowledge of what transpired on that day confirm to us that the Minister did not host his colleague. Was this by design or was it an inevitable eventuality? Sources also tell us that sometime in 2019, the same delegation had been in Kampala on a property-finding mission. On this occasion, however, they had not found property in Kololo but rather the embassy official had identified suitable property for purchase in Naguru to serve as a Chancery. When the delegation paid a courtesy call on the Minister, he advised that Naguru was not an appropriate area for the location of an Embassy. He consoled that with patience, the Government of Equatorial Guinea would find suitable premises for its Chancery. Reports indicate that there was a bitter feud between the embassy official and other diplomatic staff in the Embassy who were suspicious of his intentions in wanting to locate the Embassy in Naguru. The houses he presented for purchase were, by all indications, less than ideal and grossly inflated.
However, we have also seen the Diplomatic Note from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (signed by Foreign Affairs official) approving the transaction dated February 23, 2021. It is common sense that the approval should have preceded the transaction of February 5, 2021. Why was the Diplomatic Note approving the acquisition of a transaction given almost three weeks later? Was the passage of time meant to conceal something?
On April 5, 2021 (Easter Monday), this embassy official ordered the final shifting to the new premises on Plot No. 31 Mackenzie Vale. This is despite the fact that the transfer of title to the property has not been affected yet and may present with certain difficulties. On April 6, 2021, as if to crown the project, the Foreign Affairs official was at the new premises as Guest of Honour during the grand opening of the new Chancery. We have seen photography highlighting this event. Was this official officially delegated to attend this event? Sources also tell us that this rash shifting into the new premises (despite the gaps) was on the advice of the Ugandan official to try and bring closure to what had become a tumultuous season for the trio. At this point, the Agents had started making petitions for their pay and highlighting the gross illegalities that featured in the transaction. An Embassy will not normally move into premises before title legally transfers to it.
MORE USD266,324 ALLEGEDLY SWINDLED
As mentioned earlier, the Government of Equatorial Guinea had reportedly allocated approximately USD2MM to procure a grand Chancery in a suitable geographical area of the city of Kampala. USD1.7M of the total sum went to the ‘actual’ procurement of the property. With miscellaneous expenses met and Embassy lawyers paid (a sum actually known to the Agents from their sources but which will remain undisclosed for now) it is alleged by the whistle-blowers that the Equatorial guinea Embassy official and the house seller allegedly designed and successfully executed another scheme to swindle USD266,324, which represents monies left over. Documents relating to this allegation are also in our possession.
The property has a small guest unit in the backyard. The three allegedly mooted the idea of turning this guest unit into residential quarters of the Third Secretary at the Embassy. The guest unit had only recently been refurbished by the property owner, as had indeed most of the property. However, it is alleged that the three made a case for re-modeling the guest unit. A budget of USD266,324, which was virtually the rounded sum of unspent monies (balance) was designed. Experts opine that the actual re-modeling works are very minor and do not extend beyond the entrance area of the small guest unit. To accomplish their scheme, it is alleged that the trio hired a company of doubtful reputation (names withheld), to undertake the works. The company is linked to the same house seller. Our investigations also shows that no signed contract was ever entered into with the company. It merely furnished a quotation (a copy of which was accessed by the whistle-blowers from their sources and attached to their dossier). The oil rich nation embassy official then proceeded to withdraw in cash the entire sum from Ecobank. It is not clear how much of this cash was handed to the company’s representative. What is alleged is that the said re-modeling works could not, on good estimates, cost more than USD15000. When this same official traveled to Equatorial Guinea on February 15, 2021, sources indicate that the representative of the company was invited to the Embassy for a meeting. However, to the astonishment of his hosts, he could neither produce a contract entered into with the Embassy nor receipts to evidence payment from the Embassy. He could not also explain why money was tendered to the company in cash rather than through the conventional channels like bank transfer of funds.
MONEY SHIPPED OUT OF THE COUNTRY
Events that occurred on Monday February 15 2021 further put the official in the Protocol office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs further on spot.
Sources say, on that day, the Equatorial Guinea official was to travel back to his country. He reportedly wrote a Diplomatic Note to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs requesting permission to use a diplomatic bag to carry “confidential documents and money” out of the country. Our sources indicate that this Diplomatic Note was not properly registered in the Embassy, nor was it assigned a sequential reference number. It was authored personally by the official and delivered personally to the official in the Protocol office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at his office in the afternoon on the same day. This official wasted no time in going to work. He wrote to Airport Authorities at Entebbe authorizing Equatorial Guinea embassy officials to ferry money out of the country in a diplomatic bag. As fate would have it, the Agents, who were on the first floor of the Ministry (where they had come to see Foreign Affairs official with a demand letter in respect of fees not yet paid by the Embassy), walked in unannounced. They report that they found the two officials exchanging bundles of cash in dollars. They report that on the same afternoon, around the hour of 4’Oclock, they followed the Foreign Affairs official as he exited the Ministry. His feet led him directly to Diamond Trust Bank.
At Entebbe Airport, the Equatorial Guinea official’s fate was waiting to manifest itself. Having presented his diplomatic bag to the authorities, an X-ray scan revealed the presence of large sums of money in the bag. Under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961), a diplomatic bag cannot be opened or seized. However, scans have enabled authorities to reveal the presence of contraband and offensive material in diplomatic bags. It will be recalled that a few years ago, authorities at Entebbe Airport discovered gold in diplomatic bags carried by diplomatic staff of the Embassy of North Korea in Uganda.
Having established the suspicious contents in the bag, security and customs officials at Entebbe Airport approached him to ask about the money. He made the claim that the money was collected from the issuance of Visas at the Embassy. At this point, he presented the letter from Foreign Affairs Ministry permitting him to carry the bag and its contents through. In fact, the Foreign Affairs official received a call from the airport that same evening. He reportedly confirmed writing the letter and requested the authorities to permit the Equatorial Guinea embassy official to proceed on his journey with the money.
As a precautionary step, the authorities asked him to declare the money under the Anti-Money Laundering Act. Although the scan revealed colossal sums of money in the bag, the traveler made what is believed to be an under-declaration since, anyway, the bag could neither be opened nor seized. Pepper Online is in possession of documents directly relating to this revealing episode.
We have seen a letter from Uganda Revenue Authority (Ref: URA/CG/9.3(a) of April 13, 2021) addressed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Casting doubt on the transaction, the Authority has expressed its desire to interface with diplomatic staff at the Embassy of Equatorial Guinea so as to make sense of the sale and purchase of property transactions.
Sources also indicate to us that the Government of Equatorial Guinea is taking the matter very seriously indeed. It could even walk away from the sham transaction. Apparently, a team will travel from the country to Kampala on an inquiry and fact-finding mission.
Many disturbing questions remain unanswered. Why was there no professional valuation of the property undertaken? How could Government funds (Equatorial Guinea) be spent with the casualness of spending on food items in Kalerwe market? Why were the necessary consents not obtained from the Uganda Land Commission as appropriate before the transaction? Why was the transaction supersonically rushed? What could possibly explain the execution of an Agreement and tendering full payment on the same day? Is there a record of negotiations between the parties especially given that this was a procurement by a sovereign government spending taxpayers’ money? Can what transpired be said to conform even to basic procurement standards? When Foreign Affairs official personally facilitated Equatorial Guinea embassy official to ship out of the country large sums of money in a diplomatic bag, was this done in furtherance of a dubious enterprise?
According to sources, whatever his case, the allegations made against the Foreign Affairs official are of very grave character and carry dire consequences if proved. As a civil servant, the allegations put him on a collision course with the anti-corruption laws of the land and laws that govern the conduct of public servants and execution of public office (e.g. Public Service Standing Orders). It is not yet clear whether the office of the IGG, the State House Anti-Corruption Unit and Uganda Police (CID) have taken interest in the matter. The Equatorial Guinea Embassy official and the house seller (who is also an envoy), on the other hand, enjoy diplomatic immunity which makes it a lot harder to enforce certain measures against them. This might be what emboldened them to short-change the Agents. However, legal experts tell us that it is not totally impossible to hold them to account.