Why Balaalo risk tearing apart Museveni, northern Uganda new-found love

Combo: President Museveni (L) and his brother, Operation Wealth Creation boss Salim Saleh (R). PHOTOS/ FILE

What you need to know:

Dilemma. For a greater part of his decades’ hold on power, northern Uganda had given President Museveni a headache, but of recent it has turned into his bastion. But, the question of nomadic pastoralists known as Balaalo has put the President in a difficult situation as he faces pressure from his new allies who want the Balaalo kicked out of their sub-region. 

Article 237 of the Constitution of Uganda vests land in the citizens, with Section 2 of the Land Act providing that the said ownership shall be in accordance with the following land tenure systems; customary, freehold, mailo, and leasehold.

The aforementioned laws do expound on the different tenures. What is crucial, the Land Act says, is that whoever chooses to deal in land must do so in accordance with the requirement of the tenure in question. 
For instance, whereas the buyer of customary land may not be required to conduct a registry search, another individual dealing in mailo land would be expected to search the register to confirm ownership prior to purchase. 

Article 29(2) also makes it clear that every Ugandan has the right to reside and settle anywhere in Uganda; to have a passport or other travel documents and to travel in and out of Uganda. 
Although Uganda seems to have a laissez-faire approach to land acquisition, the steady influx of cattle herders in northern Uganda has put President Museveni in a position of bother, making him change positions within months.

In May, following pressure from leaders from Acholi sub-region, Museveni issued an Executive order barring Balaalo from the north on grounds of unruliness and land grabbing.
“By the authority of this Executive order, no Mulaalo (singular for Balaalo), should settle and bring cattle to northern Uganda except with the permission of the minister for Lands and the minister of Agriculture,” Museveni wrote.

Museveni asked Attorney General Kiwanuka Kiryowa to come up with a draft of a law criminalising nomadism and suggested that culprits could serve seven years in prison for bringing cattle into northern Uganda illegally. 
Yet at the beginning of October Museveni had a change of heart when he extended the deadline for the Balaalo to leave northern Uganda on the grounds that he had to internalise a report authored by leaders from the north about the activities of Balaalo.

No sooner had he said this than it emerged that when he met with leaders from Acholi over the same issue the President advised both parties to co-exist, sparking off anger from politicians from the region.
“The Balaalo have come here to stay, for us as the Acholi Parliamentary Group we are saying the Balaalo must go – all of them,” Ms Santa Okot, the Aruu North Member of Parliament, said.

It’s not the first time Museveni is grappling with the Balaalo question. In 2007, it was in Bunyoro sub-region where land wrangles deteriorated into violence when Bagungu cultivators accused the Balaalo of grabbing their communal land to graze their cattle.

It wasn’t clear where the Balaalo had originally come from, but in 2008 Museveni directed them to immediately leave Buliisa District.
The native inhabitants of Buliisa are Banyoro and Bagungu, who practice mixed farming, involving settled crop cultivation but also indulge in livestock rearing as a form of investment, in addition to fishing. 
Yet according to Frank Emmanuel Muhereza, a researcher on Ugandan nomadic pastoral communities, there exists a category of cattle-keeping tribes, collectively described as ‘Balaalo’ who include the Bahima of Ankole and Buganda (residents in Sembabule, Kabula, Buwekula and Ngoma); Batutsi either from Kisoro District and neighbouring Rwanda; the Basongora in Kasese District; and the Bahuma in Tooro and Bunyoro.
The Balaalo practice a subsistence system of livestock production that is based primarily on domesticated animals, usually but not always relying directly or indirectly on the communal or free-range grazing of the livestock on natural pastures. 

Among the Balaalo, livestock husbandry is both culturally and economically dominant (although may not be the only source of livelihood), and much of the time, involves mobility to track seasonally available pastoral resources. 
Since time immemorial, Balaalo pastoralists migrated into the rift valley plains of Buliisa during the dry season, with part of their families and/or herd, and left after rains returned. 

Cattle belonging to Balaalo that were driven away by locals in Obongi County, Moyo District in 2018. PHOTO/ FELIX WAROM OKELLO

Land tenure in most parts of Buliisa, according to Muhereza, was accessible to communities and was still predominantly customary, although there was an increase in the acquisition of leaseholds.
“Under customary tenure, distinction needs to be made between clan communal lands, where the entire clan can lay claim to either the land or the resources on the land; and customary private where individual households lay claim to the land or resources on the land to the exclusion of others, even without a title,” Muhereza says. 
At the commencement of 2000/ 2001 after exploration and prospecting for oil commenced in Buliisa, land speculators and land-grabbers started descending on the region to acquire land that was mainly under the customary clan communal/ private tenure system. 
“Land speculators took advantage of the poverty, of particular members of the communities or families, who stealthily sold off the land without the knowledge of all those concerned; although some unscrupulous local council leaders were involved,” he says.  

“With the commencement of oil exploration and prospecting, many areas previously used for either cultivation or grazing had become inaccessible to locals, as locals were excluded by different categories of claimants.” 
By 2006 – 2007, the Balaalo collectively laid claim to about 40 square miles of land, which they claimed to have acquired between 2001 and 2005. 

Some had processed land titles to the land they claimed ownership over. These claims were refuted by the indigenous inhabitants of Buliisa, who argued that all land in Buliisa was communally owned, and therefore could not have been legally sold to Balaalo by anyone acting in their individual capacities. 
It was either sold by some individuals in the community without the consent of the rest of the users or leased out by the District Land Board in Masindi before Buliisa became a district in July 2006, without any regard to communally governed common property regimes.

With ethnic tensions going through the roof and with the government firmly fixed on drilling oil, Balaalo were evicted in an operation codenamed ‘Operation Justice’, which was spearheaded by then National Coordinator of Intelligence Services, Gen David Tinyefuza, now Sejusa.
Although the Masindi High Court had issued an order stopping the eviction, Sejusa said the order had no consequence since there were no more pastoralists to evict.

When it evicted the Balaalo, the State had diffused the potential for community violence in Buliisa, thus guaranteeing the safety of the large numbers of oil wells awaiting the commencement of oil production.  
“The Balaalo were evicted to prevent the likely outbreak of armed confrontations which would have negatively affected the development of oil and gas prospecting in Buliisa District, following threats by local Bagungu to forcefully evict the migrant pastoralists, who were equally well mobilised to resist their possible eviction,” Muhereza says. 

During the evictions, trucks were provided to transport the affected pastoralists to Kyankwanzi, in Buganda where they were also not welcome with Buganda Kingdom saying this was a ploy by the ruling party to steal land.  

Initially, the Buganda establishment supported the Balaalo to stand their ground and not leave Buliisa as they were also using it as an opportunity to resist attempts by the State to transfer the Balaalo to Kyankwanzi on land which Buganda Kingdom claimed was part of the 9,000 square miles they were still demanding from the central government.   
On its part, government reaffirmed the customary claims to the land of the indigenous communities and urged the Balaalo to leave whether or not they lawfully purchased the land they were claiming. 

While some Balaalo were dispatched to Kyankwanzi, others were stuck in the Bunyoro sub-region, relocating to Kyarusesa in the Kyangwali sub-county in Hoima, Kirayandongo, Masindi, where they were renting land.  
A huge chuck of Balaalo crossed into West Nile, and others went to Nwoya District.  

Members of the Acholi Parliamentary Group address journalists in Gulu City on the eviction of Balaalo earlier this month. Photo/ Tobbias Jolly Owiny

They have since expanded to West Nile (Packwach, Madi Okollo, Terego, Adjumani, Moyo, Obongi, and Yumbe), Acholi (Nwoya, Amuru, Gulu, Lamwo, and Pader), Lango (Otuke, Apac, Kwania and Amolatar), Teso (Soroti, Katakwi, and Kapelabyong), Karamoja (Amudat, Abim, Nakapiripit, Napak) and Sebei (Kween).

When the Balaalo crossed into Acholi, the region was emerging from the Lord’s Resistance Movement war lead by Joseph Kony, but it soon plunged into land conflicts, including those that involved nomadic pastoralists who had come with unvaccinated herds.
The post-conflict northern Uganda is being antagonised by ferocious land wrangles, compounded by the disturbing advance of nomadic Balaalo grazing thousands of livestock by free-range method thus destroying community gardens. 

One of the deadliest flashpoints is the 827 square kilometres of Apaa land that has been claimed by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), Adjumani, and Amuru districts since 2012.  
While he was on the campaign trail in Acholi ahead of the 2021 General Election, the President directed all Balaalo seeking to graze their animals in the region to acquire land and fence it so as to restrain their livestock from encroaching on customary land. 
That didn’t satisfy leaders from the region as demonstrated when on November 4, 2021, Chua West County MP Philip Okin Ojara presented the issue of Balaalo as a matter of national importance on the floor of Parliament to seek the attention of the Ministry of Agriculture Animal Industry and Fisheries to outlaw the movement of the Balaalo to Acholi- sub-region. 
Though political leaders from the region have been calling for the total eviction of Balaalo from the entire sub-region, there has been a lot of ambiguity from the First Family.

When Museveni issued the Executive order effectively kicking the Balaalo out of the region, Gen Salim Saleh, his brother, disagreed on grounds that the President’s order was based on undersupplied information.
Saleh told Museveni that his position on Balaalo land ownership is against the model of land ownership in the Acholi is incorrect since Balaalo herdsmen are settled, are titled, and belong to big individuals in the government.

“The President gave the order not knowing that people have titled land and transacted on that land willingly without disputes. It seems you don’t even know the people who are occupying land there, these are not Balaalo, these are big shots (in the government) as land owners,” Saleh said.  
Soon after Saleh made his views clear, Prof Jack Nyeko Pen-Mogi, who led what is termed as the Balaalo verification committee, released his report in October. 

Therein the committee asked government to evict the illegal herdsmen in the two regions of north and north-eastern Uganda.  
Official records show that in Amuru District, there are a record number of 86 illegal (non-compliant) Balaalo herdsmen (the highest number in the sub-region), Pader has 45; Gulu has 44 Nwoya has, and Lamwo has five - with a collective 2,700 heads of cattle. 
The verification committee asked government to revise all the land lease agreements for land acquisition to ensure locals whose land was hired or bought cheaply are revalued. 

“All illegal Balaalo in the northern and north-eastern parts of Uganda should be immediately evicted (those without land, those without water sources, those without fences), and all lease agreements should be revised to ascertain terms and conditions of these agreements,” the report said. 

“Where agreements are found to be unfair to the landowners, the terms and price should be renegotiated, there is also a need to transfer the current compromised security leadership who frustrate implementation of the Presidential Directives,” it added.