UPDF investigate officers owning plots of land in Bajjo Forest Reserve

Col. James Kasule addresses affected tenants during the meeting in Kayunga District. Photo by Fred Muzaale

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Led by Col. James Kasule, the UPDF 1st Infantry Division deputy commander, a team of UPDF officers met with a section of the over 5,000 affected tenants at Bajjo CFR on Wednesday.

Officers from the Uganda Peoples' Defence Forces (UPDF) have commenced an investigation into allegations that some of its officers, along with police who forcibly evicted tenants from their land in Bajjo Central Forest Reserve in Galilaaya sub-county, Kayunga District.

Led by Col. James Kasule, the UPDF 1st Infantry Division deputy commander, a team of UPDF officers met with a section of the over 5,000 affected tenants at Bajjo CFR on July 10.

Addressing the tenants, Col. Kasule stated that the investigations aim to verify claims that UPDF and police officers evicted sitting tenants and took over their land.

“Some people wear UPDF uniforms and commit atrocities that put the army in disrepute. We are here to find out who is using UPDF uniforms and guns to steal people’s land,” Col. Kasule said.

Acting on a directive from his superior, the 1st Infantry Division commander, Col. Kasule emphasized that the UPDF is a disciplined army that does not condone land grabbing. “We want you [tenants] to tell us which UPDF officers stole your land. If we get evidence that they evicted you and occupied your land, we shall deal with them. Even if he is a General, we shall discipline him,” he added.

Reliable sources indicated that President Museveni ordered the investigation following a meeting with a delegation of the affected tenants led by Mr Moses Karangwa, the district NRM chairman, last week at State House Nakasero.

The tenants, mainly cattle keepers, claimed that they had lived on the forest land for over 40 years with grazing licenses from the National Forestry Authority (NFA). They were evicted last year by soldiers who then occupied their land.

After their alleged eviction, State Minister for Lands Mr Sam Mayanja intervened and met the affected tenants in Kayunga District earlier this year. The minister ordered them to return to their land, but the NFA refused to comply and evicted them again.

Gazetted in 1967, Bajjo CFR measures 3,373 hectares. During the meeting, UPDF officers recorded statements from the affected tenants and took their photos. Col. Kasule mentioned that they would also inspect the different pieces of land that the tenants claim were grabbed from them by soldiers.

Col. Kasule criticized the NFA for allegedly allocating forest land to new people without considering the sitting tenants first.

Mr Charles Tebandeke, the Bbaale County MP, commended the UPDF for intervening, noting that some of the evictees had lived on the land for decades and had graveyards. “Why should the government protect thickets on the forest land when people are landless?” the MP asked.

Mr Karangwa urged tenants to remain united to achieve their goal of reclaiming their land. He also noted that some of the evicted tenants’ houses had been burnt.

Mr Moses Muhumuza, the NFA head of the legal department, defended the NFA’s actions, stating that the land had been allocated to people who applied for it to plant trees. He refused to comment on whether UPDF and police officers owned land in the forest reserve.

Kiira Motors purchased 2 square miles of Bajjo Forest Reserve in 2021 to construct an automobile assembly plant, but the project is now facing uncertainty after the NFA took the agency to court, sources indicate.

The Kayunga Resident District Commissioner, Mr Moses Dumba, and other local leaders also attended the heated meeting, which highlighted the ongoing dispute over the forest land.