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

The peasant farmer says he has to facilitate witnesses to testify in his defence and has spent “a lot of money” on lawyers with the hope of being compensated one day. He told his plight to Sunday Monitor’s Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi

Sunday June 1 2014

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.

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