Post conflict land grab adding salt to injury in war torn Northern Uganda

John Otim
John Otim: Editor of Nile Journal, Poet, Novelist, Critic.




John Otim

Many of the more turbulent conflicts the world has known are reducible to the land factor. European scramble for Africa at the end of 19th century was about land. The Middle East is about land. Current conflicts between India and China, between India and Pakistan, and between China and Japan are without exception land issues.

All over the world land and the resources on it remains a hot issue especially in Africa where a new scramble for the riches of the continent is just began. What is not so clear to some observers is the fact of the scramble within individual African countries, where the rich and the powerful, aligned with corrupt regimes in power are defrauding common folks of their land on alarming scales.

Africa is fast becoming a continent in which there are on the one hand, a few extremely rich individuals in power or linked to power who have cornered off vast quantities of land, and on the other hand a vast majority of desperately poor and landless people relegated to the margins.

Some African governments have deliberately manufactured insecurity and cultivated poverty among the people in order to go after the land in the ensuing crisis and climate of desperation.

Since the ascendency of the NRM (National Resistance Movement) government of President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda twenty seven years ago the problem of land grabbing has become perennial. No part of the country, including the President’s own region of Western Uganda has escaped the scourge. Notable cases of land grabs have occurred in the capital city of Kampala, in the pristine Forest of Mabira, and in the formerly rich and well watered Region of Busoga.

By far the worst cases of land grab have taken place in war ravaged Northern Uganda; where it now appears the government had provoked a war and ingeniously kept the war going for more than twenty years, frustrating every attempt and every opportunity at a resolution and reconciliation.

Finally of course the war had to end, mostly as a result of international pressures brought to bear on a government dependent on donor money.

In 1986 at the beginning of the conflict against the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) whose atrocities none can forget, the government could easily have defeated the rag tag rebels with a single blow if it wanted to. And there would have been no atrocities committed by anyone.

Instead the government turned its swords against the people it was its duty to protect and forcefully and violently evacuated the land and herded fully 90% of the population in the area into concentration camps. A move that was uncalled for since it served only to alienate the population rather than win them over.

Left without the means and without the liberty for gainful employment, absolute poverty ensured among the people of Northern Uganda. In the appalling condition of concentration camps, over the years, many perished on a daily basis. Meanwhile government and its agents were busy acquiring the land it had forcefully evacuated; claiming it was doing so for developmental purposes and in the interests of the people it was so mercilessly oppressing and exploiting.

In this way government took away large tracks of the best land from Otuke in the Lango Region. By far the worst affected areas were in the Acholi Region especially in Amuru District where government at one point gave away 40,000 hectors of some of the most fertile land to one Madhvani, the same Madhvani that was involved in land grab at the Mabira. It was a move that became a national scandal and caused riots and death in Kampala.

Ironically Madhvani or the company had once been a force for good in Uganda. Its name had been synonymous with progress and quality. Now clearly the company has turned a new leaf. Perhaps in revenge for the sins of Idi Amin who had in his days as the Dictator of Uganda expropriated the company.

As we write there are fresh attempts to grab vast tracks of land in Amuru District is ongoing; in areas known to be rich in minerals and known to lie within the oil belt in the Country. It would appear government wants these areas to be under its direct control before official explorations are launched.

From the beginning of its rule in Uganda the NRM government first cynically ensured the poverty of the population in Northern Uganda through a variety of means including whole sale cattle theft (alleged to be the work of rustlers) and the widespread retrenchment of Northerners from their jobs in the public and private sectors.

Now government wants to grab Northern land, the last remaining thing the peasants have going for them, through a combination of misrepresentation and naked force, using greedy local agents some of who bear the title of professors, a magic word in Africa.

In Amuru like in most parts of Northern Uganda land ownership is communal. Land belongs to the community whose fundamental unit is the clan. In theory and in practice it is the clan that owns the land and it is the clan that disburses the land. If there is going to be any transfer or sale of communal land it is the clan through its leadership that must decide.

Land grabbers want to take advantage of the fact of communal ownership to claim that the lands in question are ownerless and empty and therefore can be expropriated at will.

If history is anything to go by, the people of Amuru and the good folks throughout the affected area will resist this move, as they have in the past done again and again. No matter how powerful the vested interests are, victory will in the end belong to common folks united in a common goal.

In West Africa the campaign for freedom against colonial rule was wedged under the banner Our Land - Freedom