Govt accused of aiding land grab

Ms Damalie Nachuha (right), the Aswa region police commander, leads a team of senior police officers to inspect a disputed land in Purongo Sub-county Nwoya District on June 19, 2021. There are several land wrangles in Acholi Sub-region. PHOTO/TOBBIAS JOLLY OWINY

What you need to know:

  • A Maaif technical team arrived in sub-region, paying close attention to a purportedly available 100,000 hectares of community-owned land.
  • On September 14, 2021, OWC and Maaif officials held a meeting chaired by Maj Gen David Kasura Kyomukama, the ministry permanent secretary. Top on the agenda was the 328,000 acres of prime land.

Details of a plan in which 320,000 acres of open but idle land would be secured for commercial farming in Acholi Sub-region by private companies has been leaked, revealing fears of a suspected plot to hijack and turn the project into a grand land-grabbing scheme.

When in February, President Museveni launched what was labelled as the Parish-to-Market Model (PMM) programme during a tour of the sub-region, it was touted as another post-conflict wealth creation venture.

At its unveiling, the government claimed that—through three companies—it had secured 328,000 acres or 132,000 hectares of community-owned land for large-scale commercial agriculture under a Public-Private-Community Partnership.

The community was said to have agreed to use their land for food, crops and animal feed production. The Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industries and Fisheries (Maaif) would promote avocado, macadamia and oil seeds (soybeans and sunflower) cultivation.

But then, the programme quickly ran into headwinds.

The people’s quietly expressed fears about the meaning of this untested and unknown endeavour soon exploded into a full-blown storm of recriminations—that the scheme was actually designed to rob local communities of their very fertile and vast lands which the State claimed to be largely idle. 

Monitor learnt that a flurry of preparatory meetings were held in Kampala, Entebbe and at various places in Acholiland. At the centre of it all was Operation Wealth Creation (OWC), a government poverty alleviation initiative run by the President’s brother, Gen Salim Saleh.

On September 14, 2021, OWC and Maaif officials held a meeting chaired by Maj Gen David Kasura Kyomukama, the ministry permanent secretary. Top on the agenda was the 328,000 acres of prime land.

Mr Ronald Ssegawa Gyagenda and Mr Yahya Sentongo from Maaif; Ms Sylvia Owori (OWC operations director), and Prof Ogenga Otunnu were in attendance.

The professor would later feature prominently as PMM coordinator and team leader.

One month later, a Maaif technical team arrived in the sub-region and visited proposed sites, paying close attention to a purportedly available 100,000 hectares of community-owned land.

The proposal was to establish 12 rural farm service centres on this land.  

Another meeting held on December 21, 2021, resolved that the government should fund an entity known as Agromax Ltd to open up 200,000 acres of land allegedly offered by locals near the proposed farm service centres.

Drumming up support
Held miles away in the plush Katomi Kingdom Resort, Entebbe, the meeting was this time chaired by Vice President Jessica Alupo, a retired army major and regime insider. Ministers, MPs and elders from the greater north sub-regions of Acholi, Karamoja, Lango, West Nile and Teso were roped in. 

It was resolved that the government supports integration of smart agriculture, afforestation, and biodiversity conservation in Acholiland.

Four months down the road, on April 2, 2022, a separate meeting chaired by deputy chairperson of the National Planning Authority (NPA), Prof Sam Kinyera Obwoya, a son of the soil like Prof Otunnu, insisted on large scale commercial agriculture.

During the meeting reportedly attended by some Acholi MPs; clan leader Rwot Collins Atiko, and Prof Otunnu, it was revealed that NPA had received the PMM proposal in January.

Additional meetings on the same theme were convened at Trust Towers on February 24, 2022, with Agriculture minister Frank Tumwebaze leading proceedings. Also in attendance was a commissioner identified as Mr Fred Mayanja.

Between December 7 and December 8, 2022, NPA called a meeting attended by the junior Agriculture minister—Mr Fred Kyakulaga Bwino—where it was finally agreed that the PMM project would entail large scale food and animal feed production. 

Prof Otunnu had also written to Acholi MPs on October 17, 2022, whipping up support and urging the people’s leaders to mobilise the population.

“[PMM] will address many challenges facing the agricultural sector in the region and contribute to the transformation from subsistence agriculture to fully commercialised agriculture, it is anchored on active, inclusive participation for empowerment, self-reliance, shared prosperity, and positive mind-change,” he wrote.

At this point, OWC became actively involved. Gen Saleh was reported to be a regular visitor to Gulu at about the same time.

Early this year, on January 20, Prof Otunnu wrote to Agriculture minister Tumwebaze asking for money, including help in securing interest-free loans to roll out the programme. Money would be spent on opening of the 328,000 acres and the aforementioned service centres.

“Maaif should avoid excuses and reasons that frustrate immediate implementation of the programme, which is initiated and guided by the government. Maaif should work together with the programme team, Ker Kwaro Acholi, APG (Acholi Parliamentary Group) and Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative to help individual land owners and communities get their land registered and titled,” the letter said.

Things fall apart
On paper, the PMM looked revolutionary. Here was an opportunity to break new ground without relying on family labour and hand tools.

Production levels were expected to multiply once fertiliser, herbicides, high-yielding and fast-growing seeds adapted to the changing climate were introduced. 

Prof Otunnu had also canvassed the inhibiting factor of rural credit. Crop finance, where available, was tagged to very high interest rates and unrealistic repayment terms. Under PMM, this would become a thing of the past. 

But his vision soon came crumbling.

Within days of President Museveni’s February launch, Acholi cultural and political leaders sat down at an urgent meeting called by Paramount Chief Rwot David Onen Acana II. Their unanimous decision was to stop the programme. 

Rwot Acana II, who heads Ker Kwaro Acholi, the traditional Acholi cultural institution comprised of 54 clans and several sub-clans, reportedly announced that there had never been any consensus among the Acholi people around the project.

He also announced that the Ker Kwaro Acholi would assemble a technical team to evaluate PMM. 

The paramount chief is reported to have raised serious concerns about the speed with which the PMM was being pushed, which he said made it suspicious.

Rwot Acana II warned that it could result in the loss of huge chunks of communally owned real estate to land grabbers as had happened before. 

“The issue of land rights, the people behind the project… Who will run the project? [These] are sticky issues that need to be looked into, especially when people are very sceptical of some government programmes and projects,” he reportedly said.

He added: “Prof Otunnu, go slow, to give you and us time to study this paper and project well. We don’t want to direct our people to lose land in the name of productively using it with and by people we don’t clearly understand their interests”.

There were fears that complex financial arrangements proposed under PMM were inherently opaque and open to manipulation to the disadvantage of the community.

Three private companies—Agromax Ltd, Terra-Agri-Solutions Ltd, and AK-Purongo Ltd—had been proposed as partners in an envisaged Public-Private-Community Partnership with land owners.

Through this joint venture, grants and interest-free loans (from the government) would be disbursed. 

Terra-Agri Solutions Ltd had locked onto an estimated 56,000 acres—26,000 acres which belonged to a clan in Madi Opei Sub-county, Lamwo District. And another 20,000 acres was located in Padibe Sub-county, Okol Parish, and 10,000 acres at Agoro Sub-county.

A silence descends
Maize, beans, soybeans, sorghum, wheat, rice, palm oil, and macadamia nuts would be grown here. Its rural farm service centre would sit on about 40,000 acres of community land in Palabek Ogili and Paracele sub-counties (10,000 acres); Palabek Kal (Ayu Alali) Sub-county (50,000 acres) and at Palabek Gem, 60,000 acres. 

In Kitgum District, Agromax Ltd was allotted 20,000 acres of land at Orom Sub-county (Agoro Omin); 20,000 acres at Tiku; 10,000 acres at Okado-ojwat and 50,000 acres at Namokora (Kiteng).

In Layima and Pabbo sub-counties (Amuru District) and Ajulu Sub-county (Gulu District), Terra Agri Solutions Ltd failed to secure land due to local contestation over ownership. In Nwoya District, AK-Purongo Ltd also failed to secure thousands of acres of land for similar reasons.

The three companies were supposed to prepare more than 208,000 acres of land using equipment given to them by the government.

But following the Ker Kwaro Acholi meeting, things fell silent. OWC spokesperson, Capt WK Agaba, declined to comment.

“I need to consult about it so that I can give a response based on evidence since this is new and both the President and Gen Saleh were both involved. So, was it Gen Salim Saleh’s or the President’s initiative? I need to find that out. Right now as OWC, we cannot give you any response,” Capt Agaba told Saturday Monitor.

The management of AK-Purongo Ltd could not be reached through their known telephone contacts. Emails sent to Agromax Ltd three weeks ago had not been replied to by press time.

An official with Terra-Agri-Solutions Ltd only admitted that their company was involved but declined to comment any further. 

“Yes, the company is participating in the programme, but I cannot discuss this matter with you on the telephone, I don’t think it would be proper to speak on the telephone,” Ms Sarah Kasambi, an administrator in the company, said.

Repeated attempts to get a comment from Mr Tumwebaze were fruitless. Mr Fred Kyakulaga Bwino, the junior Agriculture minister, however told Saturday Monitor that he is “green about” the programme.

In an interview with our sister media house’s NTV Panorama magazine, Mr Ambrose Olaa, the prime minister of Ker Kwaro Acholi, observed that communally owned land is idle in Acholi largely because of limited finances to exploit this vast and immensely fertile resource.

“Many people, because they lack the financial muscle, are not fully utilising their huge chunks of land. Now, those with relatively smaller pieces of land are just too lazy to utilise them,” he said.

Prof Otunnu remains persuaded that PMM represents the future and holds a lot of promise. He also rejects suspicions of land-grabbing.

“There is a lot of lies, intimidation, propaganda and drama that have overshadowed the whole thing,” he told Saturday Monitor, adding, “I did not take any GPS machines into Palabek, and I have not sold any 40,000 acres of community land to anybody. A society cannot develop without involving the government, and if we are fighting to bring in a partnership for the Acholi people with the government, that is a very good way forward for our people, it is not about robbing land from the people.”

Prof Otunnu maintains that the community is “seeking harmonious solidarity and positive political support for the immediate and successful implementation of the programme.”

Red flags
While the professor remains optimistic, Mr Amos Okot—the APG secretary general—told Saturday Monitor that the Acholi lawmakers agreed to distance themselves from the project.

“We adopted a position that we can only embrace the programme once we understand it,” he revealed, adding, “We agreed that let Prof Otunnu be summoned before the entire Acholi leadership at the chiefdom’s palace and he explains everything afresh.”

According to Mr Okot, the project compels communities and farmer groups to lease and title their land to the government or private companies in order to be able to access loans and agro-inputs.

“We don’t want to take our people where somebody demands them to title and surrender their titles for loans for farming. Tomorrow, the usual bad weather will fail their farming and should they fail to pay the loan … their land is lost,” Mr Okot said.

Another red flag stemmed from Gen Saleh’s involvement, albeit via OWC. Ms Sharon Laker Balmoi, the Gulu District Woman lawmaker, said the project received a sluggish welcome because “roles to be played by the parties under the public, private and community partnership were not clear to the people [yet] land is a sensitive subject in this area.”

Mr Gilbert Olanya (Kilak County) told Monitor that APG “mobilised and sensitised our people not to be part of the development until the queries we raised are settled.” He stopped short of saying a land grab was in the offing.

“When we asked [Prof Otunnu] where that kind of land is, he was not clear,” Mr Olanya revealed, adding, “He is bringing conflicts into societies where people are already killing themselves over land, and that will worsen the problems we already have.”

Land wrangles in Acholi
Land wrangles in Acholiland are not new. For the past six years, a stand-off between the Jonam and Acholi communities has played out in the former Aswa-lolim game reserve in Got Apwoyo Sub-county, Nwoya District.

Elsewhere, in Pader District, locals of Akemokoc Village, Tyer Parish in Pader Sub-county, recently petitioned the government over an alleged encroachment by the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF). They accused the UPDF, whose Fifth Infantry Division is headquartered in the area, of illegally extending their land boundaries into community land by nearly 200 acres.   

In February, the Acholi Chiefdom and the APG sued the government over allegedly encroaching into and grabbing more than 38,446 hectares of land belonging to communities in Lamwo and Pader districts.

The chunks of land in question neighbour Aswa Ranch located between Pader, Gulu and Lamwo districts.

The chiefdom accused Uganda Livestock Industries Ltd (ULI) of creating a new freehold title over the Aswa Ranch for 15,930 hectares inside Lamwo District without the knowledge of the land owners, traditional and local leaders, including the Lamwo District Land Board.

In October 2022, Rwot Acana II wrote to President Museveni seeking to block a looming eviction of thousands of people from seven villages in Pader as the government starts massive grain farming.

On July 14, 2022, President Museveni had directed the Office of the Prime Minister and the Finance ministry to provide all that was required to kick-start the strategic interventions by the government to boost large-scale food production.

Mr Museveni’s directive was followed by an August 1, 2022, Cabinet sitting at State House Entebbe in which it adopted a paper on strategic interventions to boost food and animal feed security in the country.

According to the deal, Uganda Prisons (50,000 acres), UPDF (10,000 acres), NEC (5,280 acres), veterans (4,707 acres), NARO (10,000 acres), NAGRC & DB (30,000 acres), and private large scale farmers (a combined 314,000 acres) were all beneficiaries.