Locals accuse Tororo Phosphate investors of cheating them
Uganda’s biggest mining project accused of manipulating locals into signing unfavourable land lease agreements.
By Edward Ssekika
“When I went in, they opened for me pieces of paper and said you sign here. I first hesitated and asked where the rest of the (project affected) people were, they told me if I don’t want the money, I should get out, and if I don’t sign my land would be taken by government for free,” Rose Tibita, narrates.
Tibita is one of the hundreds of residents affected by the phosphates mining project in Osukuru and Rubongi sub counties in Tororo district. She was forced to sign a surface rights agreement without knowing the contents of the contract, later realising that she had surrendered her land to Guangzhou Dongsong Energy Ltd, a Chinese company that is mining phosphates in the area, .for 99 years.
In 2013, government awarded the company a mining lease to mine and process phosphates. The investor will construct a plant that is expected to produce 300,000 tons of phosphate fertilizers, 300,000 tons of steel and establish a sulphuric acid plant with an annual capacity of 200,000 tons, among others.
The phosphates project covers 26.5 square kilometres (approximately 1,907 hectares) of land.
Already, 123 project affected persons have been compensated and evacuated from the area, with the project expecting to displace 4,800 people in 14 villages in the two sub-counties.
However, locals are accusing the company of dishonesty in their dealings with them, particularly regarding land leases and compensations. Like, Tibita, most the project affected persons claim they received meagre compensation. They now want the President to intervene, claiming they have been cheated. “We want these agreements [Surface Right Lease Agreements] to be revised to reduce the lease period from 99 years to 21,” says James Oketcho, the local council Chairman in Abur village, Rubongi sub-county. “They should use the district rates for compensation and we also want our land titles, or else government should terminate the mining lease for investor,” he adds. The locals were promised land titles as part of the deal.
According to Tibita, she only discovered she had been hood winked when an educated friend of hers interpreted the agreement for her. “After signing and receiving the money, I gave the agreement to somebody to read to me and I leant that the agreement said I had leased my land for 99 years,” she told Oil in Uganda. “The government had told us we (project affected persons) shall lease our land for 21 years.”
Lucy Onyango, another project affected person, adds that in addition to signing a 99 year lease, the Chinese investors used their own rates to compensate locals for their land and property instead of the approved district rates.
Just like Tibita, Onyango was told not to share the agreement with any person because they could steal her money in the bank. However, after some months, when she gave the agreement to someone to explain it to her, she realized that compensation rates for crops and other developments on the land were lower than what had been promised.
Vincent Matano, one the project affected persons says that local people had initially rejected the project but an inter-ministerial committee set up by President Museveni persuaded them to accept. The committee was headed by Energy Minister, Irene Muloni and included her deputy at the ministry, Peter Lokeris, then lands minister, Daudi Migereko, Peter Nyombi (then Attorney General), police chief, Kale Kayihura and some statehouse officials.
“I remember in one of the meetings with the committee, Peter Nyombi told us we would be given land titles,” Matano recalls. “To my surprise, they have taken our money, our land and no land title has been given to any of us. Why should government connive with an investor to cheat its own people?” he questions.
The affected persons have raised their complaints with relevant government ministries and departments but have not received any help so far. “Last year, we wrote a petition to the Speaker of Parliament asking Parliament to investigate the way the project is being implemented,” says Matano. “Up to today, there is no response.”
Indeed, in their petition to the Speaker of Parliament, dated April 29, 2015, the affected persons report that they were intimidated and induced to sign lease agreements whose contents they didn’t understand.
It was a good deal, company lawyers insist
Guangzhou Dongsong Energy Group Ltd officials declined to talk to Oil in Uganda, referring us to their lawyers. When we spoke to Denis Kusasira, the managing partner at ABMAK Associates, the law firm that handled the transaction, he blamed the affected persons’ actions on civil society organisations whom he accused of confusing the locals. He maintained that the project was well handled. “Even when you do everything well, they [CSOs] will still find something to complain about,” he shot back. “So we are not one hundred percent clean, but this is a well-executed project. It should be a case study,” he said.
He said people were sensitized on whether to take a monitory compensation or be resettled but none opted for resettlement. He explained that the compensation at the rate of thirty million shillings for each acre of land, additional compensation for crops and other developments on the land as well as a thirty percent disturbance allowance were commensurate with the 99 year lease. “I have told those people that it’s okay we can sign a 21 year old lease agreement, but we have to reduce the money,” adds Kusasira. “So there is nothing we didn’t follow, but people will always hope for more.”
On the different rates, Kusasira said Tororo District had compensation rates of 2013. However, those rates were not approved by the Chief Government Valuer and in his opinion (Government Valuer) they were excessive. As a result, the Government Valuer came up with the 2014 rates upon which the investor compensated the affected persons. “I’m confident that this was the most well-handled project. Whoever attempts to sue our client should be prepared to lose. I’m waiting for anyone in court,” he said.
On the land titles, Joshua Byabashaija, also a partner with ABMAK, blamed Tororo District Land Board for the delay in processing them. He said the law firm deducted one hundred twenty five thousand shillings from each affected person’s compensation for the titles and forwarded their applications to the Land Board but the Board claims that it has no money to facilitate meetings to process the applications. “The investor can’t fund government institutions to do their work,” he argued.
Martin Orochi, the Tororo Resident District Commissioner (RDC) agrees, blaming the Land Board for frustrating the titling process. “The confusion is in the district land office. Some of the officials there have their own interests,” he said.
The newly elected district Chairman, Apollo Jaramogi, told Oil in Uganda that the affected persons were top of his list and he would soon meet all relevant actors over the issue. “I will have to fight for my people. I’m going to raise all these issues with the investor and the ministry and if possible these agreements will be reviewed,” he said.
Denis Kusaasira says it is possible for the agreements to be reviewed, but that would mean that the project affected persons refund part of the money they were paid because a 21 year lease costs much less.