For two decades, Acholi sub-region was the theatre of a blistering bloodbath as Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) battled the national army. There was colossal loss of life, irreparable damage to property, disfigurement of the conscience of a people and the shattering of the economic spine, which has been the subject of numerous news reports.
But there is a new war in the sub region.
The theatre remains the same but the actors and context of the war has changed a bit. Amuru District, carved out of Gulu a few years ago, has for the last 10 years witnessed a contest pitting the wealthy and powerful against the poor. Fingers point at the government and politicians for aiding and abetting what for all intents and purposes is a war not of guns but money and political chess games against the marginalised.
One such conflict is the contestation over the proposed acquisition of chunks of land by the Madhvani Group for sugarcane growing. A similar conflict is the contest over land in Apaa, which came to prominence as mothers stripped naked before senior ministers with cameras flashing unto their sacred starkness. The golden thread interwoven in all these narratives is conspiracy after conspiracy, all pointing to corruption at different levels.
Is the Amuru land issue a case of government trying to grab poor people’s land using the Madhvani Group, who in that case would be a ruse? If that is the case what does the business empire of numerous decades gain by lending itself to such a process?
Aren’t there other options? Why would the wealthy Empire insist for 10 years over these 10,000 hectares of land in a country which boasts of the biggest arable land available in East Africa?
That means, one conspiracy goes, the issue is bigger than land. It is about oil lying under the theatre of this land war. Get the land; drill the oil, so goes the theory that is fairly popular in the villages. There is, of course, no evidence to back it up.
Thus is the complexity of the issue at hand. To get to the nerve of the land conflict in Amuru is like peeling an onion. As you get deeper into the layers, the eyes get teary. No narrative appears too flimsy to dismiss.
The facts and issues
The Madhvani sugarcane project in the North, according to Mr K P Eswar, the corporate affairs director of the Group, was first hatched in the 1960s before President Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda.
“We wanted to give back to the people of the North since the region provided us labour. Most of the workers at Kakira in Jinja (eastern Uganda) where we have our factory are from the North. When we returned to business in 1985 as Asians were allowed back to Uganda we identified that place considering things like rainfall and accessibility,” Mr Eswar says.
In 2006 the company expressed interest in the land. That land is close to the River Nile, which is a natural border between West Nile and Acholi.
Former Leader of the Opposition in parliament and legislator from the region, Prof Ogenga Latigo, says: “That area has a huge underlying lateric formation; you need deep clay but also where Madhvani easily irrigates. There is also a lot of room for people to adopt sugarcane growing there.”
Indeed the virginity of soil speaks to the heart with mushrooming plantations, suggesting viability of agricultural potential here. Amuru is a promising agricultural production hub.
After the blistering heat that roasts you from Gulu throughout the bumpy and dusty journey, the river breathes a freshness that makes you instantly appreciate its strategic importance. You have South Sudan, Uganda’s largest export market, a spitting distance away. Any investor would kill a lion for this land which the community is currently using for residential and subsistence farming.
As Madhvani insisted on acquiring the land, the community, resisted. Kilak County MP Gilbert Olanya claims the company offered bribes to members of the Amuru District Land Board to obtain what he calls ‘manufactured consent’.
“I am very sure since 2007 so far at least US $120,000 (about Shs 500 million) has changed hands between Madhvani and local politicians, the district land board of Amuru and security agencies, all to see to it that the land goes to the company without paying a higher price that negotiating with the local people would come with,” Mr Olanya says.
Mr Eswar disputes this claim. “That is not true. How can Madhvani do that? We don’t do such things. Around 2007 we approached then Gulu District before Amuru District was carved out of it and expressed interest in the land. We met the district council, took MPs from that region to our main plant in Kakira and told them we want to replicate it in Amuru.”
He adds: “They liked the idea and the district land board gave us a lease offer for 10,000 acres as opposed to 20,000 because they didn’t have mandate to give out such land beyond 10,000 hectares. We paid a premium of Shs 230 million in 2007 including ground rent. As we waited for the land title the residents and local politicians sued our company and the district land board challenging the transaction and the judge ruled in favour of the district land board. The community appealed and we await the decision of the Court of Appeal. We also await our land title from the ministry of Lands before we start the factory.”
Critics point to the decision by the Amuru district land board, which declined to give a comment for this story, as the start of bribery.
“They were bribed to give that land to Madhvani on lease because that was never public land. It is land owned by individual community members so the board had no powers to allocate it, except after receiving bribes,” Mr Olanya says.
Corruption of this nature would be hard to prove by hard fact documentary evidence. Some of the petitioners, such as Mr Mike Ocula, a former legislator from the area, later switched position after meeting President Museveni and would later be appointed deputy ambassador after he joined the crusade for the land to go to Madhvani.
The President, MP Olanya claims, “was now helping soften the ground for Madhvani by getting on board people previously opposed to the project.”
Article 237(a) (1) of the 1995 constitution provides, “The Government or a local government may, subject to article 26 of this Constitution, acquire land in the public interest; and the conditions governing such acquisition shall be as prescribed by Parliament.”
Article 241 spells out the functions of district land boards, which include holding and allocating land in the district which is not owned by any person or authority; and to facilitate the registration and transfer of interests in land.
The land in question is in the areas of Kololo, Lakang, Bana, Omee, Lujoro, Lwak Obito and Pailyech, which is the subject of civil appeal 123 of 2012. The judgment day remains unknown.
As the lawyers burn the midnight oil and justices of the appellate court come close to handing down their decision, Amuru is ensconced in tension, suspicion and fear of being driven out of their land that has gripped the ordinary man and woman.
Some members suspect others working for the interests of the government and Madhvani to be spying on them while segments of the population insisting on a fair deal say the rest have been bought off and have mortgaged their souls and community.
It is tense over there
On the day NTV and Daily Monitor reporters went to Lakang driving a sport utility vehicle (Landcruiser), the unease was ripe in the air. The team had to engage Kilak Mr Olanya in Gulu town in a bid to establish rapport and asked him to assign his trusted agents known to the community to introduce the team.
“If you had come alone we would have either run away or got our local weapons to fight back, we thought you were government people or Madhvani,” one of the residents opened up.
A few years ago, former Water minister and now director at the World Bank, Ms Betty Bigombe, had a near fatal experience here over the same subject. As politicians moved to these areas, Mr Olanya’s car was ahead and hers followed.
She encountered a roadblock, stopped her car and a barrier was erected behind and in front. Armed with spears, pangas and machetes, the residents, breathing fire and ready to spill blood of a person they accused of betraying them, charged. Her escort, a trained police officer, asked her to remain in the car. She did. He cocked his gun only to enrage them more. When he fired several times in the air they dispersed and the car was let go. There is speculation this was a planned assassination or scare tactic by one of the local politicians opposed to the land giveaway. Thus is how tense and war-like the atmosphere was five years ago and remains today.
On their part, the ordinary people have reported cases to the local police to no avail, as fresh as January 2017, of disappearance and in some instances deaths of community members seen by the authorities as opponents of the factory project.
“The biggest threat is that the government intends to evict us. We will die here. They say we are recruiting rebels but they don’t tell us who the rebels are and which rebel group it is; they have arrested Local council officials. How did we become rebels? We have hoes not guns,” says Mr Ochaka Lokrom, 34, a farmer in the area.
Mr Lokrom adds in a voice that gets dimmer as he speaks with bubbles of desperation stifling the flow of words: “If they want to bomb us, let them do it. God will help us.”
Two other residents, Charles Opio and Patrick Okullo, who peers suspect were arrested in December for criticism of the project, remain in detention over unclear offences.
For the about 11,000 people in these sparsely populated areas, life is on the edge. In July last year, Charles Olanya, 22 and father of two, drowned in the river as security officers pursued him. The raid is attributed to continuous cycles of intimidation by security agencies on the people.
The claim of residents here belonging to a rebel group is not a new tactic in a country where terrorism and treason are offences those who stand to the status quo are accustomed to answering in the docks.
Four-time presidential candidate and Opposition activist Kizza Besigye has had to answer a litany of terrorism and treason cases that always end in stillbirth prosecution.
“Some of our young people sleep in the bushes for fear of state harassment because of this project,” a local leader told this reporter.
To these people, this is a sad reminder, if any was ever needed, of the dark days camp life. They deplore having to relive it ten years after the war ended and they returned to their villages.
This reporting was supported by a Transparency International (South Africa) journalism grant as part of its Land and Corruption in Africa Programme
The second and last part that runs tomorrow focuses on how the government’s latest effort to settle the conflict has been in vain.