Right to Say No: Fighting Land Grabbing in Uganda

 

On November 23 2018, over twenty community activists from Bukinda, and Katikara in Kyangwali Sub-county, Kikubo district in Uganda made their way to Kampala by bus. Their purpose? To demand the government take action on the land grabs and other violations taking place in their communities (Bukinda contains 28 villages while Katikara contains 7 villages). The activists, many of them women, are mobilizing together to defend their land rights against rich elites within government offices, including the Office of the Prime Minister and defence forces, who are grabbing their land.    

 

A history of forced displacement and conflict…

Since the 60s, the people in Bukinda and Katikara have been living in harmony with the refugees populations resettled there by the Ugandan government. In 1966, a portion of land was leased to the Ugandan government by the Bunyoro Kingdom to set up the Kyangwali Refugee settlement camp for the Banyarwanda refugees. This area provided settlements and gardens for the newly-located refugees who lived peacefully alongside the indigenous population. Problems began to flare up in 2013, when people from Bukinda were brutally evicted from their land by the police under the directives of the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) and the Region Desk Officer (RDO), after the government started claiming land beyond the refugee boundaries.  The people were given only three hours to vacate their homes, under siege from over 300 police and army officials with guns. Their homes were demolished, gardens destroyed and at least twenty-seven people lost their lives including men, women and children. Many of the refugees from a nearby camp were then settled on the land.  

The displaced communities fought back, sending a petition to the Prime Minister. Their actions resulted in the OPM ordering that the community be resettled back onto their land. However, only 23 villages were reinstated, while the remaining five were left at camp sites. Land titles were given to government representatives without consultation of any people. This illegal surveying of land and displacement of people would continue for several years despite the communities best efforts to stop it with repeated petitions sent to OPM and other government offices.

 

“modern villages…” or government-sanctioned land-grabbing?

This year, in September 2018, the minister of Relief and Disaster Preparedness announced that they wanted to expand settlement land for refugees from neighbouring countries. They would do this by relocating the communities living there, namely the twenty-eight villages of Bukinda and seven villages of Katikara. These people would be moved to three villages namely Kyeya, Bwizibwera and Nyamigisa. No compensation or consultation was offered.   

The community’s outcry resulted in a court order to halt the government evictions until May 2019 but this has largely gone ignored by government officials who have continued to evict and displace people into what they call “modern villages.” These “modern villages” have caused community conflicts and exacerbated tribal divisions and disputes.  

Each relocated family has been offered 1-1.5 acres of land, regardless of the size of land they owned previously. In order to be allocated any land at all, the families must register as refugees—a strategy used to strip the community of any rights to land title.  

The area has become increasingly militarized as police and army forces intimidate the community, shut down any sensitization activities and silence any attempts the community makes to engage with each other on these issues. Many are being arrested and beaten if they defy these orders.

Families have lost their land and livelihoods due to the displacements which has in turn caused an increase in food insecurity, school dropouts as many parents are failing to pay tuition and more. Women bear the heaviest burden of many of these challenges.

 

Women and communities fighting for the Right to Say No

Photo 1 Uganda women at peaceful demonstrationIn the face of this increasingly violent context, women have been creating space to educate one another and the community on land and property rights, especially as they pertain to women. This has inspired them to engage in demonstrations alongside their families in defence of their land.  

Since 15 November, 200 people from Bukinda and Katikara have been demonstrating to demand protection of their rights and land from the government. They first walked over 70 kilometres from their villages to occupy the premises of the Resident District Commissioner who is in charge of resolving disputes of this nature at this level. However, when this office failed to hear them – they decided to walk to Kampala, the capital city of Uganda to meet with the president.  

Their action was met with backlash from the police who detained forty-eight community leaders for one night.  

On November 22, twenty-seven of the community members reached Kampala to meet with the speaker of parliament and table their petition, determined that their voices be heard. The community activists are demanding that the government halt the eviction process, restore displaced people to their lands, compensate for lost property and lives, reassess the borders and boundaries that have been shifted due to government interventions, and hold those who have carried out the violent evictions accountable in the courts of law.  

The speaker of parliament ordered the second deputy prime minister to order the officials responsible for the evictions to be restrained until all the land issues have been dealt with. While this early victory brings the community hope, they are aware that the struggle is not over and are awaiting parliamentary committee reviews of their situation in order to engage further.   

 

Photo 2 Community representatives at parliament

Community representatives after meeting parliament representatives

The women and their communities plan to resist the evictions and to petition the president directly if their concerns are not addressed. They also hope to build an organization where they can organize together more formally, linking with other communities defending land rights and building solidarity nationally and beyond.

Written by Gloria Acayo, Centre for Economic Social Cultural Rights in Africa (CESCRA)