Sunday June 1 2014

Tale of a 7-year fight with government officials over land

Ssebandeke at the court house in Mpigi

Ssebandeke at the court house in Mpigi 

By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi

Mr Francis Ssebandeke, 47, a peasant farmer in Kitagobwa, Butambala District, looks older than his age. Leaning backwards on a veranda at the court house in Mpigi, he looks absent-minded, sometimes forgets what he wants to say and looks visibly tired. He says he is hungry.
This Thursday afternoon, May 29, he has just come out of court, where he was answering to the alleged crime of trespassing on a piece of land.
He says he woke up a few minutes to five o’clock in the morning to catch a taxi from Kitagobwa to Mpigi, a distance of about 40 kilometres.

Ssebandeke has been doing this for at least three times a month since 2011 when his troubles over land turned into protracted legal battles.

He has had to face three criminal cases, of which he has won one and lost the other. The third is the one to which he was answering on Thursday.

The battle is about a piece of land Mr Ssebandeke bought and improved considerably before someone turned up to claim it and the people who sold him the land seemed to side with the new claimant. Mr Ssebandeke has since sued the duo who sold him the land for more than Shs44m. The court has set the ruling date for next Thursday, June 5.
The legal troubles
Mr Ssebandeke looks forward to the ruling with anticipation, not least because a week ago, on May 22, he lost the criminal case involving trespass and malicious damage. He was sentenced to serve three years in jail or pay a fine of Shs800,000 and pay a further Shs500,000 in damages and costs to the people whose property he is said to have damaged.

Mr Ssebandeke asked his brother-in-law, Mr Musa Katende, to borrow the money from whoever would help, saying he would, once free, sell off his coffee harvest and clear the debt.

Mr Katende managed to effect the payment just in time for Mr Ssebandeke to be pulled off the truck that was taking him to Kigo prison. He says he has since managed to clear the debt. But more challenges lie in wait.

On Thursday, Mr Ssebandeke, on the insistence of the trial magistrate, managed to start answering to the third case about criminal trespass. The details of the case appear to be similar to the one he won. Prosecution alleges that he, in June 2012, trespassed on the contested piece of land and sprayed weeds and planted crops.

The police officer who arrested him before he was charged on this particular occasion, Mr Aziiz Mukasa, told the court that he did not find Mr Ssebandeke on the contested land but that he had to execute the arrest because the directive had come from the District Police Commander for Butambala, Mr Musa Kayongo.
This testimony, which was the last real activity in the case, took place over a year ago.

After that, Mr Ssebandeke was expected to defend himself, and he has been going to court to do so whenever the case was set for hearing. But, for over a year now, the prosecution has been claiming that their case file is missing and that they are therefore unable to proceed with the case. They have been asking for adjournments.

On Thursday, however, the trial magistrate refused to just adjourn the case when the prosecution said the case file was still missing and that they needed an adjournment.

The magistrate cross-examined Mr Ssebandeke himself and later adjourned the case to July 7, 2014. Mr Ssebandeke hopes that the case will be dismissed on that day if the prosecution won’t be ready to proceed with it.

The beginning
In 2002, Mr Ssebandeke bought, in two separate transactions, land totalling to seven acres from Mr Robert Kiwanuka for a total sum of Shs 800,000. The land, Mr Ssebandeke says, lay fallow following years of neglect after the death of its owner, Maimuna Nakimwero.

Nakimwero, who died in the 1990s, did not have known relatives in the area, with her only known brother living about 10km away, in Bukandula Village, Gomba District. This relative of the late Nakimwero, Mr Livingstone Buyondo, is the father of Mr Robert Kiwanuka, the man who sold the land to Mr Ssebandeke.

Mr Ssebandeke has told the court that before agreeing to buy the land from Mr Kiwanuka, Mr Buyondo, Mr Kiwanuka’s father, the area LCI chairperson and the land title holder that the seller was the rightful owner of the kibanja (untitled land).
After he made considerable investment on the land, planting coffee and banana.
“I applied fertiliser and a lot of labour on the land; I would virtually spend the whole day working on the land. Within about a year, the place was fully transformed and my crops were doing very well. The developments I made on the land must be what made those people to come for me.”

He says the crops, especially the coffee, were doing well and that the harvests were good.

In the valuation before the court, Mr Ssebandeke says he would be harvesting 90 bags of coffee per year from the land.

Soldier comes into the picture
The trouble started sometime in 2007, Mr Ssebandeke says, when a soldier he had not known before turned up with the area LCI chairperson.

The soldier, Major Moses Segujja, Mr Ssebandeke would soon learn, was the husband of the late Nakimwero’s daughter, Ms Hadija Namazzi.

Ms Namazzi, after a considerably long absence from the area, had resurfaced and faulted her uncle, Mr Livingstone Buyondo, for selling off or clearing the sale of her mother’s land. Mr Ssebandeke says this remained unknown to him until Ms Namazzi’s husband, Maj Segujja, confronted him.

Mr Ssebandeke says he was invited to a meeting with Maj Segujja and the area LCI chairman, Mr Kato Kyajjakuzimba, at Kitagobwa Church of Uganda Primary School.

The meeting, he says, was also attended by the area LCII and LCIII chairmen, the sub-county internal security officer and a policeman from the neighbouring police post. The other three individuals who had bought parts of the land and the two sellers, were also present.

Mr Ssebandeke says while at the meeting, Maj Segujja made a proposal which he disagreed with. He says the army officer suggested that the buyers and the sellers should agree that Ms Namazzi, Maj Segujja’s wife, takes over Mr Ssebandeke’s plot.
That to compensate Mr Ssebandeke for his land, he says Maj Segujja suggested that all the three individuals who had bought the other pieces of the land and the two sellers, plus Mr Ssebandeke himself, contribute equal installments to raise Shs650,000 for Mr Ssebandeke.

Mr Ssebandeke says he rejected the proposal, insisting on a total refund of the money he paid for the land and being fully compensated for the developments he had made on the land. Mr Ssebandeke refused to sign the document that had been drafted to embody Maj Segujja’s proposals.

In another meeting, which was also held at the same place and attended by the then Resident District Commissioner for Mpigi, Mr Katenda Luutu, the same proposals were made to Mr Ssebandeke. He says Mr Luutu threatened him with losing everything if he did not cooperate.

In a follow-up letter to what had been discussed in the meeting, Mr Luutu reiterated what he had said to Mr Ssebandeke and the contents of a judgement by the then Mpigi Chief Magistrate, Ms Irene Akankwasa.

“In this judgement the magistrate ordered that the lawful owner of that kibanja situated at Kitagobwa Ngando Sub-county, Mpigi, is Hadijja Namazzi. When this judgement was passed the defendants did not appeal and the time expired,” the letter, dated November 11, 2009, reads in part.

Mr Luutu directed Mr Ssebandeke and the other three individuals who had bought pieces of the land to vacate it within a period of seven days and warned that the “long arm of government” would “catch (up)” with them if they did not comply.
Mr Ssebandeke expresses surprise that government officials “sided with” Maj Segujja in the matter.

“Didn’t these people think that it was unreasonable for me to be repaid only the purchase price after a long time and when I had completely transformed the land? Was I expected to let them enjoy the profits of my labour when I languished in poverty?” Mr Ssebandeke queries.

“Maj Segujja threatened me with arrest and losing everything,” he says, “but I was not going to just let him take away what was rightfully mine for free,” Mr Ssebandeke says.

He says he suspects that the other three individuals who had bought pieces of the land gave in due to intimidation.

Maj Ssegujja, however, declined to respond to the allegations. He said the case was already in court and that Mr Ssebandeke had not taken up the opportunity to resolve the issue amicably when it was offered to him. The other three individuals who had bought pieces of the land but were later dispossessed also declined to comment. Mr Edward Ssempungu said he had already moved on.

Unaware of court cases
Mr Ssebandeke says court cases were instituted, heard and decided to his detriment without his knowledge.

The order by the Chief Magistrate that Mr Luutu refers to above, for instance, arose out of a “consent judgement” that was supposedly entered into by the two sellers and Ms Namazzi, who had taken them to court.

In Civil suit No 88 of 2007, Ms Hadijja Namazzi jointly sued the sellers of the land – her uncle Mr Buyondo and his son Mr Kiwanuka, together with the four individuals to whom they sold the land. The buyers were Mr Sebandeke, Mr Juma Mwanje, Mr Bosco Ssali and Edward Ssempungu.

In the consent judgement, which Mr Ssebandeke says was entered without his knowledge, the sellers agreed that the sale was illegal since they had no right to sell the land. They also agreed to “refund the purchase price to the buyers” and that any of the people to whom they had sold the land would cease to have any interest in the land.

Mr Ssebandeke disputes the said consent judgement, saying it was entered without his knowledge. He says he never got to know about the case in the High Court.
In an affidavit of service sworn in the High Court to explain the accused’s absence from the hearing, Mr Allan Kikwe, who says he is “an advocate of the High Court and subordinate courts,” said he went to Kitagobwa Village to serve the summons and hearing notice on the four individuals who had bought the land but all of them refused to acknowledge receipt of the papers and declined to attend the hearing.

In the case of Mr Ssebandeke, Mr Kikwe writes: “We first proceeded to the home of Francis Ssebandeke who we found at his home and I introduced myself to him and the purpose of my visit and tendered to him the original summons together with the pleadings which he read through and refused to acknowledge receipt saying he will not come to Kampala courts as there are courts in Mpigi as well where the case should have been filed. I then left a copy of the summons and pleadings accompanying for him and went away.”

Mr Kikwe says he then met Mr Sempungu at his shop but that he also declined to acknowledge receipt of the summons and pleadings, “saying we were intimidating him and that he too knows the law.”

When Mr Ssali and Mr Mwanje, the other two buyers, were each individually served with the summons and pleadings, Mr Kikwe wrote in the affidavit, they declined to acknowledge receipt of the papers, saying “it was no(t) necessary.”
Mr Kikwe said when he went to the sellers’ homes, however, they duly received and acknowledged receipt of the papers.
Whereas the two sellers and four buyers were jointly sued by Ms Namazzi, therefore, the “consent judgement” was entered by only the sellers and Ms Namazzi. The four buyers, who were deemed to have failed or refused to turn up in court or file a statement of defence within the mandatory 15 days, were taken to be bound by the terms of the “consent judgement.”
Mr Ssebandeke, however, queries the claim that he was served the summons. “How did I read and understand the court documents he says he served me with yet I don’t speak English?” He says he has never seen the said lawyer.

Mr Ssebandeke has his interpretation of what is happening: “She (Ms Namazzi) and her relatives (the sellers) connived to take away my land. The sellers accepted to work with the original owner of the land and cause me loss so that they would not be prosecuted for wrongfully selling the land. Because they have the backing of a soldier who can intimidate and influence government officials, they thought I would be intimidated into silence.”

Mr Ssebandeke says of the criminal cases he has been facing since he was evicted from the land in June 2011: “They were fabricated to drain me and force me to abandon the pursuit of my land.”

He has been off the land already for years and he doesn’t know whether and when he will ever get compensated for it. He will wait for Thursday to find that out. And, not to forget, he has one more criminal case to see off.
Financial burden
Mr Ssebandeke says the cases have drained him financially. He spends Shs 12,000 on public transport every day he goes to court, and about Shs 5,000 on food.
He, whenever necessary, has to facilitate witnesses to testify in his defence, and he says he has spent “a lot of money” on lawyers. He has since resorted to defending himself in the criminal cases, although he maintains a lawyer for the case in which he seeks to be compensated. He says he has all his hopes in being compensated.
“If these people don’t pay me back my money,” Mr Ssebandeke says, “I am finished.”