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Uganda’s embassy in Canada sparks fury over house plans

Uganda’s High Commission in Ottawa, Canada, has set tongues wagging after it demolished the official diplomatic residence, a stucco house, which had “heritage protection” under Canadian laws to be replaced by an eight-storied structure.

The “unapproved” demolition, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) first reported on February 9, infuriated both area residents, and local authorities who are mulling legal action against the construction company hired by the High Commission for the redevelopment work.

The High Commission enjoys immunity from such legal action under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations

The 67-year-old house along Mariposa Avenue in the upscale Rockcliffe Park neighbourhood in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, in the Ontario province was one of the Ugandan government properties abroad long red flagged by the Auditor General as in “very sorry state.” The Ottawa City Council had also condemned the property. 

However, the house, like several others situated in the conservation district, had “heritage protection” under the Ontario Heritage Act. The contention is that area residents and local authorities preferred that the house be renovated in keeping with the heritage fashion of the neighbourhood, but the High Commission had other plans: building a larger and taller edifice with new amenities such as a swimming pool.

CBC quoted officials of the neighbourhood residents’ association urging the Ottawa City Council to disallow the redevelopment to send message that home owners cannot tear down heritage properties willy-nilly to build bigger on a blank slate.

The authorities, CBC reported last Wednesday, were yet again up in arms accusing the High Commission of indifference and “contempt” after the Mission did not attempt an explanation. The authorities and area residents are now pushing the area city council to alter some of the elements in the proposed redesign.

In Kampala, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs defended that: “To the best of our knowledge the contractor was eventually granted the permits to start repairs but the integrity of some of the walls was already so severely compromised that some of the walls could not survive the rigours of construction work. Clearly the contractor was caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.”

“The Contractor has followed the recommendation to apply for a demolition permit and the article does say that City staff are recommending that council approve the application, for demolition which will come to Council’s built heritage committee,” the ministry’s head of public diplomacy, Margaret Kafeero said in response to media inquiries.

The Rockcliffe Park city authorities, according to CBC, alleged three violations of the building code act from late October, as well as another allegation of failing to comply with an order from late November or early December.

CBC further detailed that that there was a permit in place for the property, but only to alter and build additions to the home. However, on the morning of October 23 last year building code services received a complaint that the house was being razed down.

The High Commission maintains another house along Cobourg Street in the Sandy Hill neighbourhood in Ottawa which the latest Auditor General John Muwanga’s report listed as also condemned. The two storied house was once a home of the former Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson in the 1960s.

In 2018, Sandy Hill authorities rejected an application by the High Commission to demolish the house which is also under heritage protection.

The episode in Ottawa puts under sharp focus the malaise of Ugandan officials exporting their disrespect for heritage buildings—structures of historical or cultural importance—which at home the government attaches little or no importance to.

In similar fashion, the official residence of Uganda’s ambassador to Washington DC has been closed for nearly two years now while the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Finance in Kampala continue to play cat and mouse games over its renovation.

The house, along Loughboro Road in the upscale Kent neighbourhood in Washington DC, was last used by the previous ambassador Mull Katende who left the posting in mid 2022. His successor Ambassador Robbie Kakonge stays in a $8,000 (Shs30m) per month rented apartment.

This reporter visited the diplomatic residence last November in the upscale neighbourhood, home to several top US politicians and other key figures in Washington, and witnessed first hand its derelict state.

The house’s main problems are plumbing—broken water pipes that had started soaking the walls. In late 2021, the Ministry of Works dispatched civil engineers to study the structural integrity of both the embassy building and official residence to inform redevelopment. The top technocrats in the Ministries of Finance and Foreign Affairs have inspected the property since.

As the renovation plan drags on,  Daily Monitor learnt of a plot to sell the ambassador’s residence and purchase a new one, the plot involving a Ugandan-US based broker who was involved in the phantom Eutaw Constructions Company. The broker is acquainted with several government offices. 

In 2014 government lost Shs24.7b in a scheme engineered by a list of officials when the [former] Uganda National Roads Authority (Unra) executives awarded a Shs165b tender to construct the 74km Mukono-Katosi-Nyenga to a fictitious American company, Eutaw Construction which later subcontracted the deal to a Chinese company.

The Ministry of Finance however told this newspaper the working plan is to renovate the house whenever the money is available.