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Oil fuels land grabs in the Albertine Region

Rather than resolve the conflicts, some local leaders are facilitating well-connected individuals to grab ancestral lands from title-less locals.

PURONGO SUB-COUNTY, NWOYA DISTRICT: “This has been a peaceful place, but three years ago, outsiders raided our village claiming they own this land. They are here because of the possible existence of oil in this area.”

So recounts 53-year old Santa Daniel Achiro, a widow and mother of seven, who has lived in Alokwinyo village, Purongo sub-county in Nwoya district for over 30 years.

The usually sleepy Nwoya and Nebbi districts have hit the headlines lately, with locals up in arms over the increasing cases of land grabbing, pitting the two districts against each other as well as the predominant tribes in them: Acholi and Jonam.

Like Achiro, many elders recognise that other factors older than oil are partly fueling the land conflicts (see Prof. Ogenga-Latigo’s interview on the subject), but agree that the area’s petroleum potential is the latest cause.

Nwoya District Chairman, Patrick Oryem (Photo:Flavia Nalubega)

Nwoya District Chairman, Patrick Oryem (Photo:Flavia Nalubega)

According to the Nwoya District Chairman, Patrick Oryem, land conflicts in the area started escalating after 2006, around the time oil was found.

He explained that since then, more people have flocked to the district in pursuit of oil opportunities, intensifying the demand for land.

“Land for farming has become limited yet people must find means of survival. They therefore fight for their only asset,” said Oryem.

The Nebbi District Chairman, Benson Okumu, told Oil in Uganda that a meeting of the two districts’ heads that was convened in July did not yield much.

He said an earlier meeting at the beginning of the year that was attended by Nwoya MP and Minister Without Portfolio, Richard Todwong, also degenerated into a shouting match between Jonam and Acholi representatives.

“Oil discoveries should not divide us, there is no need to fight one another,” Hon. Todwong reportedly told the warring parties.

Further South of the Albertine

In Buliisa, at least forty households in Waisoke Village, Bugoigo parish, Butiaba sub-county are accusing the area Chairman and the local security officer of aiding a businessman to evict them from a ten-acre piece of land they have lived on for some years.

The residents, who confess to not owning the land under dispute, say that the two officials coerced them into signing forms that surrender the ownership of the land to Francis Kaahwa, a native of the area.

A copy of the form the residents were forced to sign

A copy of the form the residents were forced to sign

“They came here and forced us to sign forms which stated that the land did not belong to us,” said Janet Nyirumbe who has lived in the area for three years. “They beat us and threatened that if we did not sign the forms, they would call police to chase us.”

Oil in Uganda has seen a copy of the said forms that indicate an agreement signed by one Ngabu Salvatori, a resident, and two area Local Council Chairmen, allowing him to stay on the land up to 31st December 2014.

Referring to a meeting held on 12th April 2014, the agreement gives the locals temporary stay in the area, and cautions them against allowing more people to settle on the land. However, it makes no mention of Francis Kaahwa.

People in high places

The desperate residents believe that Francis Kaahwa is not working alone.

“We believe there is a powerful force behind him,” said Nyirumbe. “Actually we think government is behind him because he cannot be terrorising people without anyone questioning his acts.”

The locals freely talk about Kaahwa’s ‘great’ wealth and power, as well as his seemingly unstoppable quest to own every single decimal of land in this oil-rich district.

According to them, Mr. Kaahwa is either incredibly lucky or he has ‘connections’ to top government officials who inform his acquisitions.

Even the communal land he is claiming in Waisoke hosts the Karuka oil well.

Efforts to contact Kaahwa were futile, but in a recent interview with Oil in Uganda over similar allegations involving other pieces of land, he denied any wrong-doing, maintaining that he is only a businessman with a passion for real estate.

He acknowledged that most of the oil wells in Buliisa were on his land, but vehemently denied grabbing any of it.  “People call me and request me to buy their land,” he explained. “My dealings are all transparent. I have documents from the District Land Board stating what I own and what others own.”

Security threat

Rugongeza Hannington, the sub-county security officer who witnessed the agreement, said that the majority of the complainants are immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo who pose a security risk.

“The Chairman confirmed that they do not know these people,” he told Oil in Uganda by phone. “We even recovered a scrap of a gun in that area and considering that insecurity in Bugoigo parish is on the increase, as a security officer I cannot just sit and let anyone from anywhere come and settle here,” he argued.

When Oil in Uganda phoned the areaChairman, Bagonza Nobert, he too claimed that the aggrieved people were from Congo.

He denied any links to Francis Kaahwa, but agreed that oil is at the midst of the conflict.

“Those people who are being evicted came from (Democratic Republic of) Congo, Nebbi and Pader. They are here because they announced that there was oil here,” he said.

He said the disputed land belongs to Bugongo Environmental Protection Association (BEPA) and those being evicted were merely squatters.

Oil in Uganda spoke to Kaliisa Kenneth, a member of BEPA and formerly Buliisa District Chairman, who confirmed that the Community Based Organisation acquired the controversial piece of land in 1997.

He revealed that the organisation was shocked to learn that the squatters had been forced to sign the forms and even unsuccessfully attempted to have Rugongeza recall them.

“We have heard that Kaahwa is claiming to own the same land,” he said.

Local leaders soiled

Buliisa MP, Stephen Mukitale questioned the manner in which his constituents are being evicted.  “The people who are there are also squatters but they should not be chased like that,” he said.

He added “There are about 120 land cases in Buliisa district and we all know that the grabber is working with some of the district leaders because he would not know where these oils would be set up. This information is leaked to him.”

Richard Okwai-Mungu, a community worker, also blames local leaders for taking advantage of the naivety of the locals and facilitating land grabs.

“It is a pity that the local leaders and other stake holders like Area Land Committees at parish and sub-county levels are involved in land grabbing through dealing with unscrupulous buyers,” he told Oil in Uganda.

“People here do not know the value of land,” he noted. “They do not know anything to do with land titles.”

He however believes that training the police, local level land committees and local leaders in land dispute management could help to curb the problem.

But for now, what is needed is an immediate solution to calm the situation and curtail any possibility of violence. With just under three months to the December 31st deadline, some of the residents are vowing not to leave without a fight.

“One thing for sure is that we shall not leave this land unless pangas and guns come out,” warns Janet Nyirumbe.

Report by Beatrice Ongode and Flavia Nalubega