State House sucked in Bakonzo, Basongora six-year land conflict

Tuesday July 3 2018

Jubilation   Members of the Rwehingo and Bukangar

Jubilation Members of the Rwehingo and Bukangara Farmers Association jubilate after High Court in Fort Portal ruled in their favour in 2012. PHOTO BY MISAIRI THEMBO KAHUNGU 

By Misairi Thembo Kahungu

Government tried to steal land from them but they petitioned court and won. But government is using other means including State House officials to get back the land.

Rwehingo and Bukangara Cultivators Association in Kasese is comprised of 289 members. They won the case for 2050 acres against government in 2012.

However, there appears a sinister scheme by some State House officials plotting to buy the same land before it has even been handed back to the rightful and original owners.

The land lies in Rwehingo village, Nyakiyumbu Sub-county in Kasese. It was forcibly taken over by government to resettle hundreds of Basongora pastoralists/nomadic cattle keepers in 2007 when they were repatriated from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The land owners who live in the hilly areas of Bwera, Karambi, Kitholhu, Ihandiro and Nyakiyumbu sub- counties were not living on the land at that time but were using it for growing cotton and food crops such as maize, beans and groundnuts.

The resettlement of the Basongora on the land sparked wrangles with the owners that culminated in loss of lives during the ensuing clashes.

Court case
In the aftermath, 289 owners of the dispute land sued government in the High Court in Fort Portal through their lawyers Masereka and Company Advocates.

On April 25, 2012, the resident High Court judge in Fort Portal, Alfonse Owiny Dollo, now the Deputy Chief Justice, ruled in favour of the cultivators. He ordered that they be reinstated onto the land with compensation for general damages of Shs2.9 billion. He also ordered government to pay them punitive damages of Shs578m plus Shs22m as costs of the suit.

Court also ordered the government or its clients from trespassing on the same land and directed the Commissioner of Surveys to open the boundaries so that the rightful owners freely reoccupy it.

“Owing to my finding that the plaintiffs are the rightful owners of the suit land; and since I have found that their eviction from the suit land was an unlawful high-handed act by the State, it follows that they are entitled to redress. Accordingly, I direct that the Lokeris Line in the terms settled by Peter Lokeris must be located on the ground in accordance with the survey reports of Mr David Langoya tendered in evidence,” Justice Dollo ordered.

However, six years later, the government has never handed back land to the owners. Instead new attempts are being made to reclaim the land. In 2013 the tension between the land owners and the Basongora settlers erupted into violence. Scores of people were injured in the clashes.

However, police that had been deployed on the controversial land on order of the then Inspector General of Police Gen Kale Kayihura intervened and quelled the violence before it degenerated into fatalities.

Current status
Mr Paul Byakatonda, one of the owners of the land, said it is currently being used as a grazing land by the Basongora pastoralists though they have never settled there as was the initial plan by the government. The police post has since 2014 been withdrawn from the said land but the owners fear going back because the Basongora are still grazing on it.

“The land is bushy and the Basongora are enjoying it for grazing their animals. We have no chance of going back because we fear a fight can erupt again and we are tired of violence,” Mr Byakatonda said.

He said efforts to engage the government on amicable settlement of the impasse have hit a dead end as the Commissioner for Surveys has never opened the boundaries as ordered by the court in April 2012.

The cultivators say they have endured more than 10 years buying food for their families after government drove them off the land in 2007.

They hoped that after more than four years of the legal battle in court, they would be relieved to resume farming on their land.

Government has paid Shs1.5b of the Shs3.4b court awarded the petitioners as general and punitive damages.

Daily Monitor has learnt the Shs1.5b was paid in two installments and this created confusion in the sharing since court had ordered that the each member gets Shs10m on general damages and Shs2m in punitive damages.

State House interference
Cracks have now developed among the members. They are sharply divided after their lawyer Mr Chan Masereka told them that government was interested in buying off the land.

“For six years now we have been asking the Commissioner of Surveys to open the boundaries so that we repossess our land but in vain. But our lawyer has since brought an idea that State House wants to buy the land and use it for developments, which are not yet clear to us,” said Mr Charles Mwigha, one of those opposed to reselling the land.

Mr Mwigha told Daily Monitor that he and Mr Byakatonda, Mr Ibrahim Kitalemire and Ms Beatrice Lozio Masika are leading 250 others to reject the sale of the land while one Mr Joseph Dugudugu Thembo has convinced the rest to accept the money from State House. The five were the lead complainants on behalf of the 289 members that took government to court.

Senior Presidential Advisor on legal matters, Ms Flora Kiconco, has been sucked into the new wrangle.
Mr Byakatonda said Ms Kiconco has been calling the lead petitioners asking them to accept negotiations with government.

“But most of us as saying no, because it is not clear what the government intends to use the land for. We treat these people as speculators using their chance of being close to the President to intimidate us in order to get huge compensations in case of any future discovery of oil. We suspect that it is a plan by Flora Kiconco to acquire our land cheaply,” Mr Byakatonda said.

However, Mr Thembo insisted he leads the majority of the members who want to sell their share of the land to State House but on condition that the balance of the money for the awarded damages is paid before any negotiations.
Mr Thembo said he and 260 others are ready to sell their land to State House if the payment is made at once to avoid waiting for balance.

“We are even ready to sell tomorrow if Kiconco comes to Kasese with the balance of the money government owes us in damages and we negotiate the price. This money has to be paid at once so that we know we are out of that land because government has refused to give it back to us,” Mr Thembo said.

He added he advised his friends to accept to sell their part after realising that government would not hand the land back to them it has interest in it.

Petitioning State House
Meanwhile, those opposed to the sale have petitioned State House to protest the manner in which the government is seeking to impose on them a consent agreement whose terms are not clear.

Daily Monitor has seen the petition to State House protesting the intended takeover of their land by the government.

“People holding out as government and State House officials have threatened to acquire our land in the name of government to our detriment and prejudice. Though the plaintiffs sued jointly and severally, it is worth noting that they have different interests and titles as observed in the judgment,” reads the petition dated May 28 and signed by Mr Byakatonda, Mr Kitalemire, Mr Mwigha and Ms Masika.

The petition is addressed to President Museveni’s Principal Private Secretary.
The petitioners say government has refused to comply with the court judgement to open the boundaries and pay them damages and costs of the suit.

“While mindful of how unpleasant, irritating, dehumanising, unfair, degrading and sectarian it would be for the government and the state to treat its own citizens as second class citizens for reasons best known to it against another group of citizens just because they are cattle keepers, we have been taken aback to establish that our land which falls in exploration Area 4 with rich mineral potential is being earmarked for parceling out to some privileged people who are speculators aiming at making a fortune out of our expense,” the petition further reads.

Heading negotiations
When contacted, Ms Kiconco denied the claims she was persuading the members to sell their land to government, but admitted she was leading negotiations for the owners to accept compensation and leave the area for Basongora cattle keepers.

Ms Kiconco said much as the Basongora were not party to the suit when the 289 Bakonzo farmers sued the government, after the court ruling they applied to be party and appealed Justice Owiny Dollo’s orders.

“That’s not true for those people to say that I am asking them to sell the land to the government. I am a lawyer to the President and I handle all complaints that come in. What interest would I have in that piece of land? I am not a Musongora and don’t come from that place,” Ms Kiconco said.

“What I was trying to do is to propose to the President to compensate the people who won the case in court so that government continues with its plan to resettle the other people [Basongora]. But these people [Bakonzo farmers] are divided from what I saw in the meetings held so far,” Ms Kiconco added.

However, the lawyer for the land owners, Mr Masereka said government wants to buy land from those who are willing to sell. He said his clients have waited in vain for the Commissioner of Surveys to open the boundaries as ordered by court. He said some of them are now willing to sell.
“The government will not force anyone to sell. For those who don’t want to sell, they will go back to their land because this is willing seller-willing buyer issue,” he said.