Oil at the centre of land conflicts in the Albertine Region
HOIMA DISTRICT: 56-year old Joyce Gaga recalls that 21st morning of July when a group of men armed with arrows and pangas stormed her compound in Lenju village as she was preparing her breakfast.
“They immediately started beating me up and they insulted me. They accused me of being part of the herdsmen that are grazing cows in their gardens,” the elderly mother of four told Oil in Uganda.
The scars on her chest and arms are indeed testimony of that fateful day that left at least twenty other families in the village homeless after their houses were burnt down by the assailants.
Lenju village, which falls within Exploration Area-2 in the oil-rich Kigorobya sub-county, has been the scene of clashes between normadic pastoralists, some of whom are reported to have come from as far as Luweero district in the central region; and the Alur cultivators who settled in the area about two years ago.
It is in this same area that the first oil seepages were encountered and documented in 1890. Besides oil, it is also endowed with fertile soils, salt deposits and lucrative fishing spots on the shores of Lake Albert.
There are conflicting accounts from both the pastoralists and cultivators over the causes of the clashes, but both groups agree that the discovery of oil in the area has escalated the value and scarcity of land.
According to the Mid-western Regional Police Commander, Charles Ssebambulidde, people are coming from all over the Albertine Graben to settle in Kigorobya, putting more pressure on available land.
Ssebambulidde reveals that he has intelligence reports that some families that were compensated in the refinery area in Kabaale parish in Buseruka sub-county have now settled in Lenju and Howa villages on land that they have not legally acquired.
Others, according to Rugongeza Hannington, a sub-county security officer in Buliisa, are immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The Lenju area Councillor, Mugenyi Mulindambura, confirms this, adding that the ‘new settlers’ also disregard traditional land uses in the area.
“I visited the area with members of the District Security Committee and discovered that some farmers are setting up gardens in areas zoned for grazing while some herdsmen are grazing in an area zoned for cultivation,” he said.
He believes land tensions in the sub-county are due to ethnic communities struggling to acquire land believed to possess oil, salt and other mineral deposits with a hope that they will share in the royalties accruing from exploitation of the minerals.
Herbert Munyomo, a Hoima politician who unsuccessfully vied for district chairmanship in the last elections, argues that ethnic communities have been marginalized since oil exploration commenced in the district. “It is regrettable that exploration activities and the oil find in the ancestral territories of the numerically small indigenous peoples of the Lake Albert basin has come with land grabbing and illegitimate acquisition of titles for such lands especially by senior government officials who are non-indigenous to the Albertine basin,” notes Munyomo, who also leads the Lake Albert Indigenous Peoples Survival Movement (LIPSUM).
Yet, observes Makerere University’s Mwambutsya Ndebesa, the conflicts are not likely to stop soon because ethnic sub-groups in the Albertine will continue to seek for ways of sharing in the royalties from oil.
“Culture confers power on cultural leaders. Those in power can use any ethnic group for patronage,” he argues. “If the existing cultural institution demands too much from exploitation of natural resources, those in government may encourage another cultural institution that will demand less to emerge.”
But with a new oil licensing round expected in a few months, the land conflicts in the Albertine area will increase as speculators descend on newly-licensed areas in pursuit of fresh opportunities.
Report by our special correspondent