Thought and Ideas
Oil and land: Acholi struggles with an uncertain future
Posted Sunday, March 10 2013 at 02:00
Why Acholi land? Hardly a day passes without authorities in Acholi registering a land-related case. This has been the situation for the past several couple of years, only to be escalated by national players showing interest to allegedly invest in Acholi region. But as Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi writes, the discovery of oil in the region seems to have created more hunger for land in Acholi.
The simmering conflict over land in Acholi sub-region has been presented as a matter of politics with some individuals saying that President Museveni’s government and some members of the ruling party want to grab Acholi land.
On the other hand, those in government accuse their opponents of blocking development for a people that suffered so much through the two decades of civil strife partly brought by the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency. Hundreds of thousands were displaced from their land and have since found difficulty in resettling as disputes over boundaries persist amidst the widespread poverty.
Speaking at the wedding of Deputy Speaker of Parliament Jacob Oulanyah in Kampala in January, President Museveni blamed the “reactionary” thinking of some of the leaders in Acholi for the relatively slower progress in Acholi during his rule. “They had what is called megwa,” said Mr Museveni, “megwa is like ebyaffe (the demand in Buganda for the kingdom to have its property that was confiscated by the central government in 1966 returned).”
Mr Museveni said he had been fighting this thinking in Acholi using “progressive” leaders like Mr Oulanyah. To the group of Acholi leaders that Mr Museveni calls progressive, belongs Mr Richard Todwong, who was formerly Special Presidential Adviser on northern Uganda and is now minister without portfolio in charge of Political Mobilisation.
Oil and suspicions
Mr Todwong and many leaders from Acholi spend considerable time listening to complaints regarding land. As we interviewed Mr Todwong in his office at the new President’s Office building near Parliament, he received yet another phone call. The caller, from Nwoya District, wanted help because land he claimed to be his had allegedly been sold by someone from the neighbouring Nebbi District. While Nwoya is predominantly Acholi, Nebbi is dominated by the Alur.
The recent discovery of oil in Nwoya has significantly increased demand for land and raised its value in the district, sparking off serious wrangles. Oil companies have contracted service companies like Civicon and MSL Logistics to do ground work in preparation for oil drilling and these companies now form the major buyers of land in Nwoya. In some cases, such companies have been known to pay for land claimed by two different owners in case wrangles cannot be resolved.
Speculators, not dissimilar from the sort who grabbed chunks of land in Bunyoro sub-region when commercially viable quantities of oil were proven in the Albertine Graben, are also said to be hiding behind the government to grab Acholi land for future selfish gain.
As such, several politicians from the sub-region have called for a freeze on all discussions about investments on Acholi land until the exploration for oil in the sub-region is concluded. Much of the discussion has centred around the wish by the Madhvani Group to set up a sugar plantation on 40,000 hectares in Amuru.
To Uganda Peoples Congress party leader Olara Otunnu, “Madhvani is just a front for (Mr) Museveni (and) the interest in the land is driven more by what is beneath the surface (oil) than the top soil.”
But to Mr Todwong, the oil debate is being overstretched. He argues that they can agree with Madhvani that should oil or any other minerals be found beneath the surface after he has leased the particular tract of land he favours, the resulting royalties would revert to the original owners. But such suggestions do little to reassure skeptics. Suspicion regarding what President Museveni and his officials want to do with Acholi land date way back.
In the 1990s, Acholi MPs who were in the 6th Parliament accused Mr Museveni’s brother, Gen. Salim Saleh, of attempting to grab Acholi land using a company called Divinity Union Ltd. Gen. Saleh had suggested that Acholi land could be turned into the food basket of the region.
Acholi leaders accused the government of keeping the people in Internally Displaced Peoples camps as a prelude to confiscating their land. This suspicion was fuelled by suggestions by some people that the camps could be developed into urban centres for the people to live in so that the rich and vast land could be used for commercial farming. But Acholi leaders argued against any talk about land until the war was over and the people were back on their land.
After the war
Struggling to resettle on their land, the people have returned but nothing is the same anymore. Disputes abound. Brothers are fighting brothers, families are fighting families and clans are fighting clans over land, leaders from the area say.
Mr Livingstone Okello-Okello, who was a long-serving opposition MP for Chua in Kitgum District and leader of the Acholi Parliamentary Group (APG), says he has been approached by people who accuse neighbours and other people of uprooting fruit trees to blur boundaries and encroach on their land.
For long periods during the war, many people in Acholi were forced out of their land and sent to camps, a situation Mr Okello-Okello and others say was used by “land grabbers” to blur boundaries. To worsen matters, Mr Okello-Okello says, many of the older people died during the war and the younger ones do not know the boundaries of their land.
But to Justice Alfonse Chigamoi Owiny-Dollo, to say the Acholi are wrangling over land because the boundaries have been lost is to miss the point. He gives Agago, his home district, as an example.
Justice Owiny-Dollo, who is a judge sitting in the International Crimes Division of the High Court, says the people of Agago spent five years in the camps between 2001 and 2006, which he says is not long enough for the boundaries to be lost completely.