Rwamutonga land wrangle and the spectre of violence

By Emmanuel Mutaizibwa

A conflict over a deal to lease at least a 700-hectare piece of land to a firm owned by Americans and a Ugandan to build an oil waste treatment plant in Hoima District typifies the jockeying for property rights in the Albertine sub-region, which sits on 6.5 billion barrels of crude oil.
Rwamutonga was once a remote outpost near Buseruka, with tall savannah grass that provided the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) a safe haven. It is here in the late 1990s where ideologue Jamil Mukulu, currently facing terrorism, murder and treason charges in the High Court, gathered his acolytes to launch a jihad against the Uganda government.
Rwamutonga may no longer be a backwater but for the locals who have tasted abrupt change, they believe they were better off in a rudimentary setting.

When oil exploration commenced, there was a scramble for land as oligarchs and speculators began to eye these lucrative deals to the detriment of the local community.
In a sub-region historically marginalised, local vigilante groups emerged to fight for their interests.
Once an oasis of peace, Rwamutonga has embraced conflict, in the land tainted with blood of those who paid the price in the treacherous slaughter fields during the colonial era. In 2014, Enock Darakarim Buchali and his wife Yunis Akumu, who were residing on the land, were burnt to death. It is not clear under what circumstances their hut was torched.

Forceful eviction
“At night, unknown people came and set the house ablaze and he died alongside his wife. We opened up a case of murder. At that time, we suspected two people, a watchman and somebody else, who were arrested and taken to court; they also advised us to drop the charges,” reveals deputy police spokesperson Patrick Onyango.
In the same year, more than 200 families were violently evicted when gunshots rang out and their huts were torched.
They fled to an internally displaced people’s camp. Here, they lived a destitute life and their children died of preventable diseases such as cholera.

“When the eviction took place, the local administration decided to cut off the media so that the story is not told. We had to sneak in with media from Kampala. So, that made the story go out and it attracted a lot of attention from civil society and also from other development partners. So we started investigating and tried to help the communities to access justice through court,” says Ms Winfred Ngabiirwe, the executive director of Global Rights Alert.
Some daring women, who returned to Rwamutonga to look for food to feed their starving families, were raped by the guards who kept watch at the land.

“On September 5, my sister Anna Munguriek was going to harvest cassava. The security guards caught my sister and raped her. We were denied access to police. She got sick and died in the IDP camp where we buried her,” says James Owechi.
However, Mr Onyango says there is no case of rape that was recorded with police.
“People were in a camp; they had no shelter and food. Children were not going to school, so as an organisation, we had to look at those very basic things; construct a temporary school in the camp but also to give them food and clothing to sustain them,” Ms Ngabiirwe says.
Others claim to have been detained on trumped-up charges, including murder and aggravated robbery.

“I have finished one year and two months in jail. In prison you fall sick, you get beaten and food is very bad. When I got home, I found out that my wife and kids had fled. I do not have any money. I feel like I am still in prison,” reveals Mr Joseph Anegonga.
“When you would come up to explain as a leader, you would be framed. One time I was arrested on charges of murder of people who died here after the eviction. They died in the land, which was fenced. The security guards were about half a kilometre at the site where they died but instead we were arrested. I stayed in the police cell for a week. Later I was released,” says Mr Nelson Atich, the Rwamutonga Sub-county chairperson.

There is also fear that the oil waste treatment plant, an investment worth millions of dollars, could be scuttled. The conflict has roped in State House officials, district leaders, MPs and community leaders.
Several lawsuits have been filed but the delay to dispense justice has left the rivals with their own set of facts and each one an arbiter. The genesis to the crisis began in 2013 when Mr Joshua Tibagwa entered into a lease with McAlester Energy Resources Ltd to build a waste treatment plant.

Violence. Women break down at the grave of a

Violence. Women break down at the grave of a child who was killed during the violent eviction from the land in Rwamutonga, Hoima District.

Company ownership
According to records at the registrar of companies, which Daily Monitor has accessed, the owners of the company are Chris Burden, Leonard Durst, Rochelle M. Gibbles, who are all American, and Abu Mukasa, a Ugandan, who has a knack to break barriers and secure deals for investors.
When I telephoned Mr Durst, one of the shareholders, seeking an interview, he revealed that he was reluctant to speak to the media, which has in the past given their firm a negative image.
The details of the lease agreement reveal that $300,000 (about Shs1.1 billion) would be spent on paying off bonafide occupants and Mr Robert Basingaraho who also had an interest on the land.
McAlester would then pay the rest of the fee worth $1.35m (about Shs5.12 billion) to Mr Tibagwa once those with an interest on the land vacated.
However, after paying the money, the land remained occupied. On July 14, 2014, court issued a warrant to give vacant possession of the land to Mr Tibagwa and his daughter, Ms Robinah Kusiima.

However, in a revision application heard by then Masindi High Court judge Byabakama Mugenyi, a consent judgement was varied after it was revealed that Mr Basingaraho fraudulently entered into a consent judgement with Mr Tibagwa. The consent order required Mr Basingaraho to cause all occupants to vacate the land within 10 years.
Justice Byabakama, who is now the chairperson of the Electoral Commission, in his judgement last year, opined: “It was not for Basingaraho to determine that the occupants were trespassers but this was for the determination by a competent court.”

Judge Byabakama also ruled that the eviction was erroneous. However, he did not rule that the occupants be reinstated on the land because there was a pending suit yet to be determined in the High Court where the occupants claim a customary interest on the land.
In February 2017, these families forcibly returned to the land, which had been fenced off with barbed wire. This is after Mr Bansingaraho revealed that he erroneously parceled out land of the occupants.
According to a memorandum of understanding between Mr Bansingaraho and representatives of 53 families, he acknowledges that he wrongly included land belonging to the occupants when surveying his interests on the property.

Buhaguzi MP Daniel Muheirwe, says a court order to evict Mr Bansigaraho was being used to evict the whole village.
“He [Bansigaraho] is in jail on aggravated robbery charges that he stole maize using bows and arrows and I do not think that would have happened because they were armed private security guards. I think this is victimisation because he signed an MOU,” Mr Muheirwe says.
I recently travelled to Rwamutonga and found a few families on this large expanse of land.

Atich says whereas they acknowledge that Tibagwa has a claim, it is not true that he owns the entire land.
“We do not contest that Tibagwa has claim. However, part of the land here, which was leased to the investor, is our customary land because we were born here,” Atich says
However, Tibagwa’s daughter, Ms Kusiima, says apart from a few individuals who have a claim, the rest of the occupants were staged to grab their land.
“In the process of doing environmental impact assessment, they found 54 tenants who had tenants’ agreement for one year. Their agreements had expired in December 2011. They did not have a right and were tenants at suffrage,” says Ms Kusiima.

She accuses the occupants of relying on violence and killing their livestock. Ms Kusiima also presents Google maps to prove that the land was a ranch and largely unoccupied
“If someone says he has customary ownership, he might have been born there. But for a land we have occupied for more than 40 years and it has been grazing land, I do not know how some can claim customary ownership,” reveals Ms Kusiima.
“With technology we can have images as far as 1970. If you put the coordinates of that land, it will show you very clearly even where a stone was. Human occupation [on the google maps] is clearing showing in 2014 at the time of eviction,” she adds.

This is supported by Dr Balla Turyahumura, who carried out the Environmental Impact Assessment on the land.
“When we were doing the Environmental Impact Assessment, there were people who had rented on annual basis land for cultivating. They had contracts with Joshua Tibagwa but those contracts had ended in 2011. I said ‘okay fine; if these people say they were there, there is satellite technology.’ I arranged and I got satellite images from 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2014. They saw how the land looked before the invasion and after. It is very clear that they were no people,” says Dr Turyahumura.

A litany of complaints have been filed asking that a verdict is expeditiously delivered. Daily Monitor has since seen a letter authored by the Uganda Human Rights Commission to Principal Judge Yorakamu Bamwine, on April 12, 2016, asking for a quick and fair trial.
Daily Monitor has also seen a number of correspondences from the President’s office and State House officials whose attempts to arbitrate the dispute have been in vain.

“We can do election petitions within a month, and dispose them off. I do not see why we cannot handle big public interest cases utmost in a year,” argues Ngabiirwe.
The Masindi High court on April 4 last year issued an order signed by assistant registrar Acio Julia to give vacant possession of the land to Tibagwa and her daughter Kusiima and to demolish any illegal structures on the land.

“You are hereby directed to put Tibagwa Joshua and Kusiima Robinah in possession of the same and authorised to remove any property/persons bound by this decree that may refuse to vacate the same,” the order states.
McAlester officials have also filed a separate suit, seeking a refund of the $300,000, which was given to Tibagwa as part payment to compensate bonafide occupants who were residing on this land. As the land conflict totters from one crisis to another, the delay in dispensing justice only portends trouble.

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