Oil-rich Hoima struggles to solve the land question - Photo of Rwamutonga camp
Written by Edward Ssekika
“I used to hear of IDPs [internally displaced person’s camps] in northern Uganda during the Kony war. I never imagined the day I would also end up in a camp,” Grace Atuhura narrates.
For nearly a year, Atuhura together with four children have lived in an IDP camp in Rwamutonga, Bugambe sub-county, Hoima district. Her story is a tale of misery brought about by oil and gas discovery in her area — Hoima district.
In 2006, she recalls how people received the news of the discovery of oil in their district with joy. They were optimistic that oil would bring the much -needed ‘descent jobs’ and money to lift them out of poverty.
“I never imagined that oil would turn us into refugees in our country,” she says after a long pause.
Atuhura is one of the more than 200 families who were evicted from their customary land to pave way for the construction of an oil-waste treatment plant. She claims her family land was secretly registered without their [her and her husband’s] knowledge. Together with others, they have since petitioned court to cancel the title, alleging that it was issued fraudulently.
To many people in the remote areas of Rwamutonga, oil is yet to bring the anticipated prosperity; the oil story is now associated with land evictions, and ultimately misery.
In Hoima, one of the oil frontier districts, hundreds of people have been driven away from their customary land without compensation, in what is increasing becoming oil-influenced land grabs.
In addition to the infamous August 2014 Rwamutonga eviction, in which Atuhura was a victim, three months later, another 70 families were also thrown out from their land in Rwengabi village, Kabwoya sub-county Hoima district, by Bunyoro kingdom loyalties, claiming the kingdom wanted to repossess its land despite the fact that some people had lived on the land uninterrupted for more than 30 years.
The land is strategically located near Waraga, Nzizi and Mputa oil wells. In 2013, at least 7,000 people were also evicted in Kiziranfumbi sub-county after their land was allegedly secretly titled and leased to a sugarcane investor.
There is land in the area that government plans to utilize to set up an army barracks overlooking the oil wells. There have also been small-scale evictions and clashes over land in Kapaapi and Lenju in Kigorobya sub-county.
Rev Martin Ogeni, a respected clergyman in Hoima district, observes that the recent evictions and conflicts show a clear pattern of an upsurge of land grabbing in the area, which he attributes to the discovery of oil and gas.
“I came here in 1970 and we have been living in peace. But things are changing. If you don’t have a title, somebody could be having a title on your customary land,” he says.
According to the Albertine graben infrastructure plan, there are a lot of infrastructure projects that will definitely require land. For instance, the Central Processing Facilities (CPFs), waste treatment plans, internal crude pipelines, wayleaves for finished product pipeline from Hoima to Buloba, export crude pipeline, and other petrochemical industries, among others, will require land.
The rich and powerful are said to be processing titles on either public or customary land in anticipation for either compensation or selling expensively to investors.
“This is creating a situation of having IDPs as you have seen in Rwamutonga,” Rev Ogeni says.
A report titled 'Escalating land conflicts in Uganda: A review of evidence from recent studies and surveys' published in 2009, by Dr Margaret Rugadya noted: “There is a growing trend of individualization of customary land by creating large chunks registered in the form of freehold.
This rapid and extraordinary transition is driven by individual scramble to strategically reap from the demand for land anticipated in the region due to oil discovery,” the report reads. Rugadya emphasizes: “…in areas such as Hoima, land conflicts are beginning to fester, but are yet to translate into a full-blown conflict though the indicative signals are very strong.”
POOR LEFT OUT
In a recent report, 'Up Against Giants: Oil Influenced land injustices in the Albertine Graben in Uganda, authored by Transparency International Uganda notes that the Albertine graben is slowly moving towards a lawless oil frontier where rules don’t apply to those with power.
“What is happening doesn’t reflect on the government narrative that oil is going to be beneficial to all. Instead, these stories illuminate statements that oil could be a curse to many. It is pitting the rich and powerful against the poor,” the report reads.
The report quotes Godfrey Nnsi, the chairperson LCI Kiryamboga, saying that in 2012 Tullow Oil was exploring oil in Block 5 Waraga D site and approached the community leaders for consent to use the land for exploration purposes, which was granted.
However, later, a company known as M/S Gids Consult Limited, wrote to Tullow claiming to be the registered proprietors [title holders] of the land. The company demanded Shs 220m from Tullow for the use of its land. To the residents, this was the first time to hear that a company held a title for their customary land.
The occupants decided to take the matter to the ministry of Lands, only to find out that their land had been parceled out and registered, and that there were six title-holders, including the secretary, Hoima District Land Board, Edward Asiimwe. Unlike other land tenure systems like freehold, leasehold and mailo, customary has no written documents as proof of ownership of land.
Alfred Ongei, the secretary of Kiryamboga LC-I, says he was shocked to find out that the land they owned communally for decades had been parceled out and divided among some powerful individuals, including the secretary, Hoima district land board.
“We don’t know these [who hold titles in Kiryamboga]. We have never seen them, we don’t know them, but they have secretly processed land titles in our land,” he said.
In 2011, in a report authored by Uganda Land Alliance titled, Land grabbing and its effects on the communities in the oil-rich Albertine region of Uganda, noted an increasing trend of land registration from customary to freehold, mainly in Hoima and Buliisa districts.
For example, in 2005, Hoima received 14 applications to register land from customary to freehold. But in 2006, following the oil discovery, the district received 183 applications and this number of applications shot up to 1,235 in 2008. Buliisa district, on the other hand, received only one application for freehold in 2007 and this shot up to 60 in 2010.
Dr Julius Kiiza, an associate professor of political economy and development at Makerere University, in a paper titled, 'Righting the resource–curse wrongs in Uganda: The case of oil discovery and management of popular expectations, published by the Economic Policy Research Centre (Eprc), argues: “Practically, oil development in Uganda appears set to create winners and losers.” Therefore, locals being evicted are the first victims of losers, and this creates one of the key ingredients of an oil curse.
George Bagonza Tinkamanyire describes the recent oil-induced land wrangles as disturbing and attributes it to misguided expectations.
“Yes, government should support investment, but investment should be to uplift the ordinary person. We have a duty as government to plan for the people. We should have a resettlement plan because many people are going to be affected in the future, and, if not handled well, it can be a recipe for conflict,” he said, adding that “We can have factories but to serve who, people should be first, and factories later.”
ON BENDED KNEES
Apparently, the land wrangles have left the poor and marginalized people struggling to survive. Since land is the main asset which many of the people depend on, losing it has made life unbearable for some. For example, due to evictions like those in Rwamutonga and Rwengabi, many children have dropped out of school.
Stephen Mukitale Birahwa, the Member of Parliament for Buliisa, describes the land issues in the district as “a time bomb, simply waiting to explode.”
Explaining the plight of the people in the district, he said: “It is a big problem. In Buliisa, we didn’t have land issues until 2004. Today, I’m also becoming a squatter. At least 45 square miles of Buliisa land, formally customary, have been registered by individuals,” he told a conference organized by Acode recently.
BOARDS TO BLAME?
Godfrey Nyakahuma, the resident district commissioner for Hoima, attributes the land wrangles partly to the inefficiencies at the district land boards, which fail to follow the due process. Hoima district’s land board, he argues, has not sided with the poor.
“We have issues with the land board; it is the source of the problem and we are trying to streamline it, we want it sorted out," he explains.
Winfred Ngabiirwe, the executive director of Global Rights Alert (GRA), a civil society organisation working in the oil-rich Albertine graben, notes that the economically and politically powerful either use fraud or political connections to acquire land.
“It is more disappointing that local leaderships such as district land boards connive with the rich to deny the poor their most important source of livelihood – land,” she argues.
She explains: “The current land grabbing has been institutionalized. Customary landowners are too weak and disorganized to defend their land, giving investors and speculators a field day. Government’s actions or inactions are entrenching poverty, hunger and crime in the making,”
Yutasi Ireeba Mpazi, the chairperson of the Hoima District Land Board, agrees that there are issues with the land board, but they will be sorted out.
“I am only three months old in this office; I can assure you we shall investigate and sort out the problem,” he said. He pledges to conduct an audit to find out the problem and rectify it, such that the board can regain its trust. “I will not accept anybody taking land that is not his or hers. Going forward, regulations must be followed,” he said.
Dr Kiiza argues that institutions matter.
“When the domestic institutions are ‘grabber-friendly,’ the benefits of resource abundance are reaped by a few state elites in alliance with foreign (oil) companies,” he pointed out.
Ngabiirwe says the solution lies in stopping abuse of power and authority and enforcing land laws.
“I think there must be a major shakeup in the composition of Hoima and Buliisa land boards because the current boards are not capable of being fair and professional as it has been demonstrated,” she adds.
Nyakahuma concurs: “We can’t have a lasting solution without sorting out the district land boards,” he says. Some report and activists also want government to offer certificates of customary ownership to cushion illiterate locals from being evicted.
This article was first published in the observer newspaper