Protecting Land Rights in Apaa, Amuru District, Northern Uganda

Okot Nyormoi

Okot Nyormoi is Associate Editor of Nile Journal 
and is the author 
of the novel Burden of Failure

Apaa land has been the center of local as well as international attention for decades. It has seen wars, changes in land utility, eviction and re-occupation and many other activities. The land is about 827 Sq. Km, (82,700 hectares) lying between Amuru and Adjumani Districts. Recently, the President of Uganda appointed a new committee chaired by the Deputy Speaker of Parliament to replace an old one to find a lasting solution to the land wrangle in Apaa. The previous one, chaired by the Prime Minister, Dr. Ruhakanna Rugunda apparently failed to resolve the problem. Meanwhile, a report of a Parliamentary Judicial Committee of Inquiry into the land question appointed by the Speaker of Parliament, Hon. Kadaga, is still pending.


The flurry of investigative activities was prompted by the chronic problems of land grabbing in this area dating back to the time of the two-year anti-colonial war of resistance (1910-1912), waged by the Lamogi people of the Acholi ethnic group of northern Uganda. When the Lamogi people lost the war, they, together with others living along River Nile were coerced to vacate their ancestral land and resettled closer to Gulu, the colonial administrative center. Contrary to the popular colonial narrative of moving people to protect them from wild animals, such forced displacement was done for the convenience of the colonial administration. as admitted in a memoir by Postlewaite, one of the colonial district administrators. Shortly thereafter, the colonial authority declared the vacated land between Murchison Falls and East Madi, a game reserve. In 1926, this became the Murchison Falls National Park.

After about 25 years, the people were permitted to return to some parts of their ancestral land. The return to the ancestral land was, however, short lived. The second forced displacement of the population in Acholiland came in the 1940s when people were compelled to abandon their ancestral land once more because of sleeping sickness introduced into the area by European colonizers traversing Africa from the Congo.

Meanwhile, a portion of the vacated land was gazetted as the Aswa-Lolim Wildlife reserve in 1959 and another section further north became the Kilak and East Madi Controlled Hunting Areas in 1960, respectively. The Kilak Controlled Hunting Area was degazetted for private ranching and agricultural development by General Amin in 1972 for his sycophants. People again moved and settled on their ancestral land after the war that ousted General Amin.

Due to insecurity during the 20-year war, the people were forced to evacuate the land and moved to internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps. While in the IDP camps, the new government decided to degazette the combined Kilak and East Madi Controlled Hunting Areas and immediately re-gazetted it as the East Madi Game Reserve in 2002. The goal was marketed by the government as part of the program of wealth creation for the people.

As it turned out, the newly expanded East Madi Game Reserve was offered as a concession to a South African recreational game hunting businessman, Bruce Martin, in 2006 game. He declined the offer then due to insecurity in the area though the war was already winding down. Meanwhile, people returned and resettled in their ancestral areas only to be ordered to vacate the land again. This time, the eviction order met with stiff resistance whereupon, the security agencies: police military and Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) used brutal force at least three times (2006, 2011 and 2012) to evict people from their now expropriated land.

Apaa land has always belonged to Acholi people, before colonialism, as part of Kilak County in Acholi District during colonialism and after Independence. Its evolution into Kilak Controlled Hunting Area was by connivance of the colonial administration and not with the people’s consent. Hence, government denial of this fact, even by Parliament, is a violation of the Ugandan Constitution and international law which it has been doing in evicting people from various locations besides Apaa, including Karamoja, Buganda, Bunyoro, Tororo and Lango.

Having failed to successfully evict people, the government through its agency, the UWA and the National Forest Authority (NFA) changed tactics by re-drawing the boundary, putting Apaa in Adjumani District where they marketed it as a program to not only create wealth but also conserve biodiversity. However, the people were not fooled because they had never agreed to or were sensitized about the alteration of the boundary as far back as 1998. Plus, the people objected to giving preference to animals and not people.

Most recently, the government tried to use soft tactics to evict people by denying the people of Apaa social services. In a shameless act of cruelty, the government closed the medical clinic, primary school, roads and even the market at Apaa village. The idea was to force the inhabitants to vacate the area without using physical force which had failed miserably.

In a last-ditch effort to evict people from the land, the government presented a false choice between leaving Apaa and be compensated if the number of people is small or degazetting the land if the number is large. To manipulate the process, the people were not consulted or informed properly. They also abused the counting process by using soldiers to intimidate or skip homes to undercount the people. Thus, fulfilling the requirement for eviction.

Although the Apaa land grabbing problem is complex, it is not too difficult to see what is not driving it. The land wrangle is not driven by inter-ethnic conflict between the Madi and Acholi people because they have managed to live side by side peacefully. It is also not because elected or non-elected leaders are politicizing what the government says is not a political issue. Unfortunately, those who hold such a view are simply obfuscating the issue while they themselves are playing politics of land grabbing.

The real factor behind the land grabbing problem here and elsewhere is the “order from above”, in which the President of the country has decided to expropriate the so-called empty or idle land for his pet project of transforming the country into a middle-income level. Unfortunately, the overbearing strategy of land acquisition or reassignment of land functions without the consent of the landowners is producing unintended consequences.

Deception and bribery drives citizens to mistrust the government. Violent eviction with impunity elicits anger and hatred against the very security agencies and institutions which are supposed to protect citizens. In the end, people in Apaa and other areas in similar situations are not only becoming conscious of their human rights but are also determined to defend them. The silver lining of all the trouble is that the more conscious citizens become of their rights, the harder it will be for the government to impose its will on a reluctant citizenry.

 

Apaa land has been the center of local as well as international attention for decades. It has seen wars, changes in land utility, eviction and re-occupation and many other activities. The land is about 827 Sq. Km, (82,700 hectares) lying between Amuru and Adjumani Districts. Recently, the President of Uganda appointed a new committee chaired by the Deputy Speaker of Parliament to replace an old one to find a lasting solution to the land wrangle in Apaa. The previous one, chaired by the Prime Minister, Dr. Ruhakanna Rugunda apparently failed to resolve the problem. Meanwhile, a report of a Parliamentary Judicial Committee of Inquiry into the land question appointed by the Speaker of Parliament, Hon. Kadaga, is still pending.

The flurry of investigative activities was prompted by the chronic problems of land grabbing in this area dating back to the time of the two-year anti-colonial war of resistance (1910-1912), waged by the Lamogi people of the Acholi ethnic group of northern Uganda. When the Lamogi people lost the war, they, together with others living along River Nile were coerced to vacate their ancestral land and resettled closer to Gulu, the colonial administrative center. Contrary to the popular colonial narrative of moving people to protect them from wild animals, such forced displacement was done for the convenience of the colonial administration. as admitted in a memoir by Postlewaite, one of the colonial district administrators. Shortly thereafter, the colonial authority declared the vacated land between Murchison Falls and East Madi, a game reserve. In 1926, this became the Murchison Falls National Park.

After about 25 years, the people were permitted to return to some parts of their ancestral land. The return to the ancestral land was, however, short lived. The second forced displacement of the population in Acholiland came in the 1940s when people were compelled to abandon their ancestral land once more because of sleeping sickness introduced into the area by European colonizers traversing Africa from the Congo.

Meanwhile, a portion of the vacated land was gazetted as the Aswa-Lolim Wildlife reserve in 1959 and another section further north became the Kilak and East Madi Controlled Hunting Areas in 1960, respectively. The Kilak Controlled Hunting Area was degazetted for private ranching and agricultural development by General Amin in 1972 for his sycophants. People again moved and settled on their ancestral land after the war that ousted General Amin.

Due to insecurity during the 20-year war, the people were forced to evacuate the land and moved to internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps. While in the IDP camps, the new government decided to degazette the combined Kilak and East Madi Controlled Hunting Areas and immediately re-gazetted it as the East Madi Game Reserve in 2002. The goal was marketed by the government as part of the program of wealth creation for the people.

As it turned out, the newly expanded East Madi Game Reserve was offered as a concession to a South African recreational game hunting businessman, Bruce Martin, in 2006 game. He declined the offer then due to insecurity in the area though the war was already winding down. Meanwhile, people returned and resettled in their ancestral areas only to be ordered to vacate the land again. This time, the eviction order met with stiff resistance whereupon, the security agencies: police military and Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) used brutal force at least three times (2006, 2011 and 2012) to evict people from their now expropriated land.

Apaa land has always belonged to Acholi people, before colonialism, as part of Kilak County in Acholi District during colonialism and after Independence. Its evolution into Kilak Controlled Hunting Area was by connivance of the colonial administration and not with the people’s consent. Hence, government denial of this fact, even by Parliament, is a violation of the Ugandan Constitution and international law which it has been doing in evicting people from various locations besides Apaa, including Karamoja, Buganda, Bunyoro, Tororo and Lango.

Having failed to successfully evict people, the government through its agency, the UWA and the National Forest Authority (NFA) changed tactics by re-drawing the boundary, putting Apaa in Adjumani District where they marketed it as a program to not only create wealth but also conserve biodiversity. However, the people were not fooled because they had never agreed to or were sensitized about the alteration of the boundary as far back as 1998. Plus, the people objected to giving preference to animals and not people.

Most recently, the government tried to use soft tactics to evict people by denying the people of Apaa social services. In a shameless act of cruelty, the government closed the medical clinic, primary school, roads and even the market at Apaa village. The idea was to force the inhabitants to vacate the area without using physical force which had failed miserably.

In a last-ditch effort to evict people from the land, the government presented a false choice between leaving Apaa and be compensated if the number of people is small or degazetting the land if the number is large. To manipulate the process, the people were not consulted or informed properly. They also abused the counting process by using soldiers to intimidate or skip homes to undercount the people. Thus, fulfilling the requirement for eviction.

Although the Apaa land grabbing problem is complex, it is not too difficult to see what is not driving it. The land wrangle is not driven by inter-ethnic conflict between the Madi and Acholi people because they have managed to live side by side peacefully. It is also not because elected or non-elected leaders are politicizing what the government says is not a political issue. Unfortunately, those who hold such a view are simply obfuscating the issue while they themselves are playing politics of land grabbing.

The real factor behind the land grabbing problem here and elsewhere is the “order from above”, in which the President of the country has decided to expropriate the so-called empty or idle land for his pet project of transforming the country into a middle-income level. Unfortunately, the overbearing strategy of land acquisition or reassignment of land functions without the consent of the landowners is producing unintended consequences.

Deception and bribery drives citizens to mistrust the government. Violent eviction with impunity elicits anger and hatred against the very security agencies and institutions which are supposed to protect citizens. In the end, people in Apaa and other areas in similar situations are not only becoming conscious of their human rights but are also determined to defend them. The silver lining of all the trouble is that the more conscious citizens become of their rights, the harder it will be for the government to impose its will on a reluctant citizenry.

 

Apaa land has been the center of local as well as international attention for decades. It has seen wars, changes in land utility, eviction and re-occupation and many other activities. The land is about 827 Sq. Km, (82,700 hectares) lying between Amuru and Adjumani Districts. Recently, the President of Uganda appointed a new committee chaired by the Deputy Speaker of Parliament to replace an old one to find a lasting solution to the land wrangle in Apaa. The previous one, chaired by the Prime Minister, Dr. Ruhakanna Rugunda apparently failed to resolve the problem. Meanwhile, a report of a Parliamentary Judicial Committee of Inquiry into the land question appointed by the Speaker of Parliament, Hon. Kadaga, is still pending.

The flurry of investigative activities was prompted by the chronic problems of land grabbing in this area dating back to the time of the two-year anti-colonial war of resistance (1910-1912), waged by the Lamogi people of the Acholi ethnic group of northern Uganda. When the Lamogi people lost the war, they, together with others living along River Nile were coerced to vacate their ancestral land and resettled closer to Gulu, the colonial administrative center. Contrary to the popular colonial narrative of moving people to protect them from wild animals, such forced displacement was done for the convenience of the colonial administration. as admitted in a memoir by Postlewaite, one of the colonial district administrators. Shortly thereafter, the colonial authority declared the vacated land between Murchison Falls and East Madi, a game reserve. In 1926, this became the Murchison Falls National Park.

After about 25 years, the people were permitted to return to some parts of their ancestral land. The return to the ancestral land was, however, short lived. The second forced displacement of the population in Acholiland came in the 1940s when people were compelled to abandon their ancestral land once more because of sleeping sickness introduced into the area by European colonizers traversing Africa from the Congo.

Meanwhile, a portion of the vacated land was gazetted as the Aswa-Lolim Wildlife reserve in 1959 and another section further north became the Kilak and East Madi Controlled Hunting Areas in 1960, respectively. The Kilak Controlled Hunting Area was degazetted for private ranching and agricultural development by General Amin in 1972 for his sycophants. People again moved and settled on their ancestral land after the war that ousted General Amin.

Due to insecurity during the 20-year war, the people were forced to evacuate the land and moved to internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps. While in the IDP camps, the new government decided to degazette the combined Kilak and East Madi Controlled Hunting Areas and immediately re-gazetted it as the East Madi Game Reserve in 2002. The goal was marketed by the government as part of the program of wealth creation for the people.

As it turned out, the newly expanded East Madi Game Reserve was offered as a concession to a South African recreational game hunting businessman, Bruce Martin, in 2006 game. He declined the offer then due to insecurity in the area though the war was already winding down. Meanwhile, people returned and resettled in their ancestral areas only to be ordered to vacate the land again. This time, the eviction order met with stiff resistance whereupon, the security agencies: police military and Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) used brutal force at least three times (2006, 2011 and 2012) to evict people from their now expropriated land.

Apaa land has always belonged to Acholi people, before colonialism, as part of Kilak County in Acholi District during colonialism and after Independence. Its evolution into Kilak Controlled Hunting Area was by connivance of the colonial administration and not with the people’s consent. Hence, government denial of this fact, even by Parliament, is a violation of the Ugandan Constitution and international law which it has been doing in evicting people from various locations besides Apaa, including Karamoja, Buganda, Bunyoro, Tororo and Lango.

Having failed to successfully evict people, the government through its agency, the UWA and the National Forest Authority (NFA) changed tactics by re-drawing the boundary, putting Apaa in Adjumani District where they marketed it as a program to not only create wealth but also conserve biodiversity. However, the people were not fooled because they had never agreed to or were sensitized about the alteration of the boundary as far back as 1998. Plus, the people objected to giving preference to animals and not people.

Most recently, the government tried to use soft tactics to evict people by denying the people of Apaa social services. In a shameless act of cruelty, the government closed the medical clinic, primary school, roads and even the market at Apaa village. The idea was to force the inhabitants to vacate the area without using physical force which had failed miserably.

In a last-ditch effort to evict people from the land, the government presented a false choice between leaving Apaa and be compensated if the number of people is small or degazetting the land if the number is large. To manipulate the process, the people were not consulted or informed properly. They also abused the counting process by using soldiers to intimidate or skip homes to undercount the people. Thus, fulfilling the requirement for eviction.

Although the Apaa land grabbing problem is complex, it is not too difficult to see what is not driving it. The land wrangle is not driven by inter-ethnic conflict between the Madi and Acholi people because they have managed to live side by side peacefully. It is also not because elected or non-elected leaders are politicizing what the government says is not a political issue. Unfortunately, those who hold such a view are simply obfuscating the issue while they themselves are playing politics of land grabbing.

The real factor behind the land grabbing problem here and elsewhere is the “order from above”, in which the President of the country has decided to expropriate the so-called empty or idle land for his pet project of transforming the country into a middle-income level. Unfortunately, the overbearing strategy of land acquisition or reassignment of land functions without the consent of the landowners is producing unintended consequences.

Deception and bribery drives citizens to mistrust the government. Violent eviction with impunity elicits anger and hatred against the very security agencies and institutions which are supposed to protect citizens. In the end, people in Apaa and other areas in similar situations are not only becoming conscious of their human rights but are also determined to defend them. The silver lining of all the trouble is that the more conscious citizens become of their rights, the harder it will be for the government to impose its will on a reluctant citizenry.