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“We were cheated!” say brothers. “They’re opportunists!” say officials.

KANARA SUB-COUNTY, NTOROKO DISTRICT:  Two brothers in this recently created district accuse local officials of leasing to international oil companies land that their family had inherited—but the officials deny any wrongdoing, claiming that the brothers are “opportunists” trying to cash in on oil wealth.

Edward Tibamwenda and Sam Kato, blood brothers who live mainly from fishing on the southern shores of Lake Albert, claim that in 2005 Bundibugyo District officials leased five acres of their family’s land to Heritage Oil and Gas.  The family, the brothers say, was neither consulted nor compensated.

The brothers further complain that they now stand to lose more land to another, outside investor, in a deal brokered by officials from the newly created Ntoroko District, which was carved out of Bundibugyo in 2011.  These deals, the brothers say, fly in the face of pledges made by local authorities more than 60 years ago.

Edward Tibamwenda, now 56 years old, says that his late father, Samusoni Ruakaikari, moved from neighbouring Rwebisengo sub-county to Kanara sub-county in 1946. At that time, Kanara was part of Toro Game Reserve. Reserve officials, Tibamwenda says, used to “harass” the family, trying to keep them off reserve land. So the family appealed to the King of Toro to intervene.

“The King talked with the wildlife officials,” says Kato, the younger brother, who now supplements his income from carpentry. “They gave us a portion of the land and gazetted the rest of the park in 1959.”

“All of these people here [in the village] are new,” Kato continues. “Some have been here for only two or three years. I have been here for fifty years!” Yet, he complains, local authorities have ignored the family’s rights. “Instead of consulting us, they are just doing things illegally—selling our land.”

The late Samusoni left thirteen acres of land to his family, the brothers claim. But, they say, the family never took firm possession of the land because they were facing a number of challenges.

“First, our mother was diagnosed with cancer and we had to nurse her. We were in and out of hospital. Then came the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) insurgency in early 2000. We were up and down and some of us were forced into camps under the protection of the army,” Kato explains.

“In 2005, Bundibugyo District officials took advantage of our suffering and absence and they leased out over five acres of our land to Heritage,” the wildcatter oil company that then held an exploration licence over the Semliki basin area. “We tried to oppose them but we had no voice because we are poor people,” Tibamwenda laments.

The brothers say their attempts to build houses on the land were blocked by district officials.

Oil in Uganda saw a letter, signed by on October 21, 2005 by one Frank Bagonza, a Bundibugyo District Land Officer, offering Heritage a five year lease on a five acre plot for a total rent of 120,000 Ugandan shillings (US$ 50). In the agreement, Heritage’s use of the land was restricted to housing, setting up a camp, offices and warehouses. Heritage was also entitled to renew the lease for 49 years upon expiry of the initial five year period.

The land in question appears to have been used for the stated purposes. Driving past the fenced compound, which is now guarded by Saracen Security, an office complex and about twenty tents can be seen.  Parked in an adjoining yard are trucks belonging to Mineral Services Limited (MSL), a logistics firm contracted by Heritage and kept on by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), which this year took over oil exploration in the area, following an agreement with Tullow Oil and Total.

In 2011, Tibamwenda and Kato learned that two more acres of the land over which they claim rights were to be leased to another investor—Transmarine, a water transport company—without their prior knowledge or consent.

“We saw the proposed master plan of Kanara Town Council, says Tibamwenda.  “It was hard for us to interpret, but my son looked at it critically and saw that the five acres are marked ‘MSL,’ while the two acres are marked ‘buffer.’” Ntoroko officials came with a representative of Transmarine to inspect at the land.

“We reported the issue to the Resident District Commissioner (RDC), Feddy Garyahandere. She wrote to the Kanara LC 3 asking for an explanation, but it seems the LC 3 has not responded,” Timbawemba said. Oil in Uganda saw a copy of the letter, written in February 2012 and copied to all senior district leadership, asking the LC 3 to respond to the Tibamwenda’s complaint.

Tibamwenda and Kato meanwhile fenced off the two acre plot, their own way of asserting ownership. Two unfinished mud brick structures, roofed with iron sheets, stand on the plot.

The official story

RDC Garyahandere told Oil in Uganda that on receiving the complaint she visited the disputed area, with the Ntoroko Chief Administrative Officer (CAO). According to Garyahandere, the CAO insisted that no land in the area is individually owned.

“The CAO said the area used to be a protected wildlife zone, part of the Greater Toro Game Reserve. But people used to fish on Lake Albert next to the reserve and they needed some landing sites, so the reserve agreed to give them some land.”

The community was given the use of some four square kilometres of land but, according to Garyahandere, in reality it still belonged to the state.

Frank Bagonza, the former Land Officer who signed the 2005 lease offer also said that the land belonged to the District, and that no locals objected to the lease arrangement.  “I remember when we were leasing out the land we consulted all the stakeholders, including local officials, elders and the community, and they said the area was vacant. We went down there and no-one was complaining.”  

Ntoroko District LC 5 Chairman, Timothy Kyamanywa, said that when Ntoroko obtained district status on July 1, 2010, it inherited all the assets and liabilities that had accrued under Bundibugyo District. “We found a resettlement plan in place and some of those areas were already gazetted,” he explained.

Kyamanywa believes the Tibamwendas’ claims are due to oil activities in the area and inspired by the hope for generous compensation. “When we came there, people were not showing any interest in that land, but when they heard that oil might be there, the value of the land shot up, encouraging them to seek compensation. They hurriedly built some structures on the land in order to increase its value,” he says.

He adds that the new district leadership tried to enter into dialogue in order to settle the matter but the Tibamwendas frustrated them.  “We sent the Vice Chairman to negotiate with them but they failed to agree, so we advised them to go to court and seek legal redress.”

Area LC 5 Councillor, Sam Magoola, said his attempts to mediate between the Transmarine company and the Tibamwendas did not bear fruit because both parties were unreasonable.

“During the District Council meetings, I stood up and defended them [the family], saying the district could not give out land without compensating owners. I was then tasked to mediate between the two parties, late last year and early this year. But we failed to reach an agreement. The Tibamwendas were asking for two hundred million shillings (US$ 80,000) while Transmarine was offering only five million (US$ 2,000),” Magoola recounts.

“I decided to withdraw from the mediation. I admit we wanted the investor because they would boost the income of the community, but the so-called owners were uncooperative.”

Magoola acknowledges that the Tibamwendas had customary rights over the land, but points out that their position was weakened by lack of supporting legal documents. “Those people occupied the land for so long, they have buried their children and parents there, but they never had a land title.”

Unresolved

The brothers appear willing to accept an out-of-court settlement. “If they can pay us for the five acres, we will accept the money and go and buy land elsewhere,” they chorused when asked if they would accept cash compensation for giving up rights to the disputed land.

However, they appear undecided as to whether they can part with the additional two acres.

“The land is small but we need it back”, says Tibamwenda, who currently rents a house in the middle of the town council. The family, he says, is big and needs more space. “We are six brothers. I have 22 children, and my brother has eleven. In total, there are about 50 members of the family.”

Meanwhile, the new district of Ntoroko faces administrative challenges. Assistant Chief Administrative Officer, Silvestre Kiiza, emphasises that when the original transactions took place, Ntoroko was under Bundibugyo District.

“We cannot talk about a 2005 land deal because we were not there. What I know is that recently, CNOOC and MSL applied to us to lease them land but we declined because we do not have a land board in place. Their application is still there, but we have no land board,” Kizza said.

Report by CM and FW