Marginalization and the politics of intrigues in Amuru land grabs

Okot Nyormoi
Okot Nyormoi, University academic, outdoor enthusiast 




Land grabbing in Amuru District in Acholiland, northern Uganda, has become a chronic problem. Today land grabbers frame their case in terms of investments and development for what they say is a free and empty piece of real estate.

We will develop your land. We will bring you riches and employment for your sons and daughters.

This is disingenuous and outright fraudulent. It sidesteps the question of how land in northern Uganda may appear unoccupied. It conceals the manifest intent to illegally and criminally grab land from their rightful owners. Without understanding the history of the so-called free land, it is impossible to understand that there is no free land. In the Acholi tradition all land is clan land.

Acholi society, past and present, is based on clan or what in the local language is called Kaka. The clan is organized in a hierarchy that begins with the family or the oot, next is the extended family or the dogola. At the crown is the clan or super clan which is kaka madit. For example, Kaka Lamogi consists of Pagak, Parabongo, Palyec, Koc and others. Parabongo, is sub-divided into Parabongo Pajengo, Parabongo Parya and Parabongo Papee. Parabongo Pajengo is then further sub divided into extended families of Latyeng, Lawang and Oconga.

In Acholi tradition and practice, Clan land is allocated to each individual family and a portion is reserved for communal use and general use. Family land is used for building homes, cultivating food crops and grazing domestic herds. Natural resources on the land including wells, rivers, hills, forests, salt licks, are for the common use of the entire community. These include sources and reservoirs of drinking water, large areas set aside for recreation, grazing and hunting. Large hunting areas are normally shared between more than one clan. It is these areas that the land-grabbers are targeting and are claiming are empty and unoccupied.

Often on lands designated for common may be found entities like anthills, from which emerge the local delicacy of white ants. There may be found areas where such delicacies like mushrooms freely abound. It is common practice for individuals to stake their claims to these entities according the law of proximity. Normally these claims are respected and no one else may without permission from the owner gather these resources.

Although clan land is owned in common, its use is not permanently assigned. In the patrilineal society of Acholi, once a young man marries, the family allocates him a piece of land on which he may build a house and farm and settle with his new family. If a man decides to settle in a place other than his own village, he can ask for permission  to settle in the new community. Permission is granted upon recommendation and confirmation that the applicant is of good character. Should the applicant later decide to return to his own people, the land reverts back to those who gave it to him.

The intrusion of  British colonialism in the beginning of  20th century upset the land system in Acholiland. This was particularly the case in places where there was stiff resistance against colonialism. At Lamogi where the locals wedged a two year long war of anti colonial resistance (1910-1912), the people were driven off their land and had to move closer to Gulu.

Lamogi was the first major forced movement of population in Acholiland in modern times. Shortly afterwards  colonial authorities declared the land from which people had been expelled a game reserve. It represented large tracts of land between Murchison Falls and East Madi. In 1926, this became the Murchison Falls National Park.

The second forced displacement of population in Acholiland came in the 1940s when people were compelled to abandon their ancestral land because of sleeping sickness introduced into the area by European colonizers. In retrospect this eviction on account of sleeping sickness does not make sense. In other areas of Uganda where there were also outbreaks of sleeping sickness no one were required to leave their land. Moreover the same colonial officials who evicted people continued to hunt for animals in the same areas without fear of contracting sleeping sickness.

The third forced displacement of population in Acholiland came in the fifties when the colonial administration decided to declare the land previously vacated on account of sleeping sickness, a game reserve for hunting. Hunting was restricted to those who owned guns and were licenced to hunt, thus automatically eliminating the local people, who when caught hunting in the game reserve were branded poachers and criminals.

In all their expropriation of land, no matter how unjustified and cruel, colonialism never claimed that the land was free or even vacant. What they did was change the use of land from human settlement to one of animal conservation sanctuary and hunting grounds. If land in Acholiland was not free and vacant then, how can it be free and vacant today? Claims that there are free lands to be had in present day Nwoya and Amuru Districts are false and tinged with criminal intent.

It was not until the mid-fifties that some people in Acholiland were allowed to previously vacated land. I recall that in 1956, all able bodied students from Pagak Primary School were forced to spend about a week in Amuru building a new Primary School on a previously vacated land. I was in Primary 4 at that time. We were young and excited about the idea of going to visit the hot spring from which Amuru District derives its name. We even imagined and hoped that we would eat some food cooked in the hot spring. We did not mind the long distance we had to walk and the hard labor we had to endure. Anyhow, the return of the people to their ancestral land was piecemeal and is continuing up to this day.

The fourth displacement occurred during the infamous rule of Dictator Idi Amin. In 1972, in the name of development, he abolished the Aswa/Lolim Game Reserve and the Kilak Game Hunting Area and declared the  land idle. This was preparation for his 1975 decree which declared that any idle land would be given to those with the capacity to develop it. As a result, large pieces of land in Amuru and Nwoya Districts were allocated to top Army officers and high government officials, many of them with no connection to the land in those areas.

When Amin fell in 1979,  the land grabbers abandoned their ill gotten loot and fled. The land again became seemingly ownerless. Some crafty officials in the new regime again acquired some of the land. The process was repeated when the Obote II government fell in 1985.

Finally came 1987. Under the pretext of security in the war against the Lord’s Resistance Army, the present regime of the NRM gave people 48 hours to vacate their land. It used planes to bomb villages and herded the population into concentration camps. In June 2003, General Salim Saleh as head of the Army proposed to use the forcefully vacated land for commercial agriculture in a scheme he called the Security & Production Programme. It was a cleverly concealed strategy for stealing land. It met with strong resistance and the plan never materialized.

This was not the end of the story however. In 2008 while 90% of  the people in Acholiland still languished in concentration camps, the government directed that land be allocated to Madhvani for growing sugar cane. Under pressure, the Amuru District Land Board allocated 40,000 hectares of land to the Madhvani Sugar Works Ltd. The allocation was challenged in court. In spite of  clear evidence of fraud, Justice Musene ruled  in favor of the land grabbers. His flawed judgment read as follows

I have evidence that the land in question is much needed for development, and those already pursuing the quest should continue with the investment.

Judge Musene claimed he found the land bushy and without settlement. In a move that put him on the side of the land grabbers he ignored the fact that for more than the last two decades the owners of the land languished in concentration camps against their will.

Acholi communities are generous with their land. Land had always been generously donated for educational, religious and government purposes. However, any attempt to take land by force, deception or in any unfair manner always met with their strong disapproval and fierce resistance. While it may be difficult in the present circumstances to successfully resist the rich,  the powerful and the corrupt land grabbers, victims are well aware that people who unfairly and criminally grab land will leave the land behind when circumstances change.

Presently, there is tremendous pressure on land at a time that the owners of the land are most vulnerable due to the grinding poverty produced by 26 years of war ravages and incarceration in concentration camps. Land sharks are aware of the situation and are ready to tempt poverty stricken land owning communities with money and false promises of quick development. Some of the land grabbers such as the government Wild Life Authority have used force to chase people off their ancestral land at Apaa in Amuru District.

Given the pressure on land, many people are asking about what should and can be done to save communal land. There are only two ways by which land ownership can change hands: voluntarily, or by coercion or force for the benefit of one side at the expense of the other. The present struggle for Amuru land is an example of the latter option. Government, investors and some unscrupulous locals are trying to use coercion, force, deception etc to deprive people of their land. However, the attempt to grab land is being resisted but because the problem is complex, it will remain an ongoing struggle for a long time.

History shows that from colonialism to post-independence governments, Amuru land grabbing was always justified in the name of development. Yet, the record shows that none of the promised development materialized. The people were always worse off as a result of the promises but were better off when they successfully rebuffed and resisted such promises. As a result, they now own premium land that today grabbers think it is free for them to have. Therefore, land owners should not allow themselves to be lured into giving up their land by promises of development. Real and sustainable development cannot occur by deception, imposition or without the consent and participation of those who own the land.

The Amuru land grab problem is the case of a deliberate government failure to implement land laws. The many fraudulent Kampala land give-away, the Mabira Forest give-away, the Bafuruki and Kibaale land disputes in Bunyoro, the Otuke land give-away in Lango, the Sabiny and Bagisu in the eastern region and the hundreds of cases of fraudulent land transactions that the State Minister of Lands recently admitted occur, show that the problem is nation-wide. Land grabbing is also a world wide problem as reported recently by the BBC or land disputes that led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Thus, those who assert that the Amuru land grab problem is a specific problem to be solved only by Amuru people are either short sighted or are trying to weaken the resistance to land grabbers.

The perception that Amuru people are not doing anything about land grabbing or that they are opposed to development is not true. History shows that the people of the area have always welcomed beneficial change, but they have also opposed deception, coercion and force to bring change. In their struggle, they have welcomed the support of others like the Pabbo people during the Lamogi war of resistance. In recent times, Amuru people have been struggling against fraudulent land allocations in various ways. They have a pending court appeal against the fraudulent allocation of 40,000 hectares of their land to the Madhvani Sugar Ltd. In this struggle, they welcome and are grateful for the support they enjoy from Acholi people in the Diaspora, the Acholi Parliamentary Group, Non-governmental Organizations and others. They are convinced that with such support, they will succeed in protecting their land rights.

Finally, land grabbers must know that previous land grabbers left Amuru land behind when they left and history is likely to repeat itself as surely as day follows night.