More than 1,300 residents from the villages of Maisuka, Bubango and Kibyasi in Bubango Sub-county, Kibaale District, have abandoned their homesteads in fear of their lives.
The residents accuse their area Member of Parliament, Mr Matia Kasaija, who is also the Minister of Finance, of illegally evicting them from the land they have occupied for close to 30 years.
They allege that the minister conspired with Mr Michael Mugisa, the former executive director National Forestry Authority (NFA), to claim that the disputed land belongs to Kagombe Central Forest Reserve, yet the intention is to lease it out to a private investor.
The two, according to Mr Selestino Twesigye, the village chairperson of Maisuka, have used the army to terrorise the population through torture.
Mr Twesigye further alleges that Mr Kasaija has a personal claim to the land. The minister, however, says the complainants are non-Ugandans who have chosen to encroach on the forest area.
“We have had this problem of encroachment on the forest reserve for a long time, now is the time we either consider to surrender the environment to extinction or people vacate the forest land. Most of the encroachers are not Ugandans, so why do we leave them to destroy our forests?” Mr Kasaija says.
Minister denies allegations
The minister dismissed allegations of military brutality, saying the military presence in Maisuka is to protect the forest reserve.
Mr Twesigye told Sunday Monitor that they have petitioned all possible institutions for justice in vain. He says their only hope now rests in a yet-to-be scheduled meeting with President Museveni.
Sunday Monitor has seen several correspondences and court directives barring the eviction of these residents dating back to 2013.
The courts have also directed the forest authority to re-open and clearly indicate the Kagombe Forest reserve boundaries to no avail.
Efforts to reach Mr Mugisa were fruitless since his known phone contacts were unavailable.
The acting executive director, Mr Paul Buyerah Musamali, told Sunday Monitor that the said boundaries are currently being re-opened.
He however preferred not to delve into the details, and instead referred this reporter to Mr Levi Etwodu, the director natural forests. Mr Etwodu said the boundaries had been opened in 2016 but was contested by the locals.
“Fresh surveys are ongoing and we are not in a hurry. We cannot push the department of Land Surveys and mapping to do it as first as we wish,” Mr Etwodu said.
He further said it is a tendency by communities across the country to encroach on forest land and then cry foul. He insisted that as a body, they will not relent but ensure compliance.
Mr Etwodu added that the Kagombe Forest Reserve sits on about 10,000sq miles, and that none of it will be surrendered.
“We shall only carve out our land but not loss even one acre; all we want is a clear boundary as by court directive,” Mr Etwodu said.
Regarding the alleged conspiracy to lease off the land, Mr Etwodu said what is being done is an invitation by private players to aid tree planting and not outright sale. He, however, said this exercise is on hold, until the dispute is settled.
He also dismissed allegations that NFA had conspired with the minister over the Kagombe Forest Reserve.
“We have no relationship with Mr Kasaija as related to land, if the issue is private to the minister, they should be handled privately,” he said.
Sunday Monitor has obtained copies of court proceedings on the matter, in which the NFA has taken no action.
Mr Twesigye and 127 others through their lawyers of Ngaruye Ruhindi, Spencer & Co. Advocates have been at the forefront of these legal battles to save the villagers.
On October 18, 2013, the High Court Land Division in Kampala presided over by Justice Alex Ajiji issued an interim order restraining NFA from destroying the homes and crops of the residents.
To this, Justice Ajiji instructed the complainants to allow the Authority to “re-open the boundaries of the said forest by offering co-operation.” During the same ruling, he barred fresh human activity until the main matter is settled.
“For avoidance of doubt, the order should not be interpreted to allow the erecting of new structures or homes as well as opening new gardens on virgin land,” the judge ruled.
The judge directed that any breach of the order should be referred back to the same court.
With this directive lasting until January 2014, residents were only supposed to live on existing garden land and homesteads at the time.
When the deadline approached, the order was extended until the hearing of the main application or until the demarcation of Kagombe Central Forest Reserve is concluded.
The main application was fixed for hearing on February 12, 2014 but the matter was not heard as had been scheduled, leaving a vacuum created by the extension of order.
This prompted Mr Twesigye to seek a temporary injunction which was granted by then Justice Alphonse Owiny-Dollo on February 19, 2014 in the presence of Mr Ngaruye and Ms Ruth Kisakye, counsel to the applicant and respondent respectively.
Both parties consented to maintain the terms of the earlier court order.
The matter was finally heard on July 2, 2014 by Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo, in the presence of legal counsel and the following were consented to; respect the court order barring evictions; allow court visit the site and base at Bujogoro Primary School in Nyamarunda Sub-county.
Central to the undertakings was to fast track the boundary, which five years now, the process is yet to reach a logical conclusion as the people living in the contested land continue to suffer police and military brutality.
On October 12, 2016, the Land Division of the High Court presided over by Justice Godfrey Namundi made fresh orders on the matter.
Court ordered that an independent surveyor be appointed to re-open the boundaries of Kagombe Forest Reserve to enable court to determine whether the complainants were within the said reserve.
Court also instructed the Commissioner Surveys and Mapping, Ministry of Lands, to open the boundaries within two months and report back to court by December 12, 2016.
Relating to the “independent surveyor”, court directed the Inspector General of Police to ensure he or she (the surveyor) is provided with all the necessary security and maintain the status quo declared earlier by Justice Owiny-Dollo.
Another court case
The latest court process is a November 9, 2017 petition where Mr Twesigye dragged the NFA and others to court complaining of what they referred to as “disobedience of lawful orders in civil suits of 2013.”
“The court issued several orders … intended to preserve the status quo and prevent NFA staff, police and the UPDF from continuing to harass the plaintiffs and from evicting them from the suit land before the actual boundaries of Kagombe Forest Reserve are established,” the petition reads in part.
In the matter, the petitioners accused NFA for failure to finance the opening of boundaries by the Department of Surveys and Mapping.
“It has dragged its feet and does not want the exercise done so that its staff, police and UPDF can keep harassing the plaintiffs and extorting money from them,” the petition reads in part.
The lawyers asked court to instruct the Attorney General and NFA executive director to weigh in on the police and military against dehumanising their clients.
The petition added that, “we are trying to avoid the acrimonious situation of having to move court in contempt of court proceedings which will diver us instead of concentrating on and concluding the main suit.”
By press time, officers of court from the department of communication were not ready to avail information on the status of the matter.
With many people virtually living with nothing to call home, the applications by the complainants are pending hearing.
The residents fear to go closer to the contested land, and most of the households have since been deserted.
The people have opted to rent small units in Maisuka Trading centre which cost between Shs20,000 and Shs10,000 for spacious units, and as low as Shs5,000 for the smaller ones.
In September 2016, the Government returned 250 land titles to the people of Bunyoro and among the beneficiaries were people from Kibaale District.
Kibaale land question
Kibaale District, which is part of the oil-rich Albertine region, has for many years been a centre of land conflicts where the biggest chunk of land belongs to Baganda absentee landlords.
A 2003 study by Mr Eddie Nsamba-Gayiiya, a land policy consultant indicated that Mailo land makes up 70 per cent of Kibaale’s 3,681 square kilometers, while the remaining 30 per cent was rendered “customary land” by the Land Act of 1998. Whereas the district historically belongs to the Bunyoro establishment, it hosts a multitude of settlers, mostly Bakiga.
These settlers have in the recent past been referred to as “Bafuruki” (illegal immigrants) yet some of them have stayed in the sub-region from as early as the 1950s during the reign of Sir Tito Winyi, the Bunyoro king at the time. Some of the settlers are believed to have come from Rwanda.
On September 25, 2013, the Kibaale District land board, in a letter signed by Mr Xavier Joseph Kiiza, the board secretary addressed to Mr Edward Magara of Karuguuza, offered 40 acres of land on a freehold tenure to the settlers. This land neighbours the forest reserve.
“The district land board at its 3rd meeting held on 25/09/2013 considered your application seeking grant of freehold land title whereby the board hereby lets you have your land surveyed in accordance with section 13(3) of the Land Act Cap 227,” the offer letter reads in part.
Mr Kiiza however, stressed that the locals would seek their own surveyor to carry out the required survey at their own cost.
He also instructed that the surveyor should first liaise with the district staff surveyor of the board and obtain instructions to survey.
This however has not materialised due to disagreements “silently” mounted by NFA, forcing the residents to run to court.