Pay delays push Teso war claimants to the brink

Monday March 29 2021
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The outgoing Kapelebyong County MP, Mr Julius Ochen (left), addresses Teso war claimants after a court session in Soroti District in September 2019. PHOTO | FILE

By Frederic Musisi

In January, four days to the General Election, Ms Anna Ayaro’s neighbours told her about a list of Teso war claimants pinned at Asamuk Sub-county headquarters notice board in Amuria District.
Ms Ayaro was among the 208 people on the list titled; ‘verified claimants.’

In December 2020, President Museveni while campaigning in the Teso-Sub region said government would fulfil the promise first announced in 2005 to compensate communities affected by insurgencies that broke out after 1986.
This came after a series of demands from elders in the sub-region.

“Address expeditiously the compensation of the people of Teso for cattle, property and lives lost during the insurgency and cattle rustling as per your presidential pledge and directive in 2011, supported by court consent judgement of November 4, 2014, and followed up by verification of claims by the government verification team in 2015,” the elders told Mr Museveni in a memorandum read to him at Soroti University on November 19.

Promises pay in manifesto
The elders also told the President  that the sub-region would vote for him if he includes compensation in the NRM manifesto.

In response, Mr Museveni said the compensation would also extend to Acholi and Lango  sub-regions.
After National Resistance Army (NRA)rebels led by Mr Museveni came into power in 1986, several rebel groups sprouted in Acholi, Lango and Teso, which were offshoots of the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLA) government forces.

Specifically in Teso, was the Uganda People’s Army (UPA) coordinated by the former state minister for defence under Obote II government, Peter Otai.
During Obote II’s government, the Iteso had influence in government and hundreds were enrolled in the paramilitary police, called Special Forces.

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Upon taking power, the NRA handed senior ranks and coveted positions to its own forces and began a process to purge several Special Forces officers many of whom were driven in the hands of the UPA.
There were also small militias in Teso which the Obote II government allowed to guard against the marauding Karimojong cattle rustlers.

While fighting these groups, the NRA committed human rights violations  between 1987 and 1992,  including the Mukura massacre when hundreds of people were burnt in train wagons while the Karimojong rustlers exploited the situation to sow mayhem in Teso.  
Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) struck later.

It is estimated that between 1987 and 1992, almost 93 percent of the castle stock in Teso was wiped out; either rustled or stolen by the NRA commanders.
Mr Francis Akorikin, the Kapelebyong District chairperson-elect, said the Karimojong obtained guns in the 1970s and bands of warriors often raided Teso for cattle. The raids intensified over the years and escalated after the NRA took power.

 “The emergency of the several armed groups provided cover for a lot of transgressions,” Mr Akorikin narrated.
While on his campaign trail in Teso last December, the President’s message on fulfilling the reparations pledge was relayed on radio across the 10 districts of  the sub-region.
And although Ms Ayaro’s name was on the list of beneficairies, she was not excited.  

“They did the same in the 2016 elections; people came here quickly, said they were following up on compensation, registered those who were eligible and told us payments would follow but that was it. When the 2021 elections were nearing, they came back and pinned a list, so I had no hope,” the 52-year-old said.

She said her family lost cattle in three phases; in 1983 to Karimojong rustlers; after 1986 to the NRA soldiers and in 2002 when LRA struck.

“So, I don’t know for which phase they were/are going to compensate me. I lost relatives, land and even my house was bombed. That is why I was less enthusiastic about the excitement those people tried to bring here; I knew they wanted votes,” she added.

The elders from Amuria, Kapelebyong, Soroti Katakwi and Bukedea districts do not have much expecation either.
When they listened to the reparations message, they believed it was a repeated gimmick to placate the communities ahead of voting.  

As a result,  several groups have sued government. In one court ruling in 2018, Justice David Batema awarded Shs110b as reparations to the plaintiffs and further guided on property rates such as Shs900,000 as the price per head of cattle—but the process of payment has taken a snail space.

While campaigning in Soroti in 2016, President Museveni was booed for delivering empty promises.
During the 2021 elections, the Justice ministry placed advertisements in newspapers on January 7 about “receipt of Shs10b as initial payment for war debt claimants”, which was accompanied by lists of claimants pinned across villages.

Two months after the polls, officials have gone quiet again over the payment.
Mr Simon Jamba, the ministry’s spokesperson, said verification was done in by a team from Justice, Agriculture, Defence and Teso Affairs  ministries.
 
“The committee compiled a list of 33,664 persons. To complete the exercise, these are due to be validated within this FY 2020/2021 based on bio-data, including national ID’s and letters of administration to establish the genuine claimants and beneficiaries and at the same eliminate the ghosts, fictitious claims, multiple claim, exaggerated claims,” Mr Jamba said.

He said both Parliament and Cabinet directed that the claimants are paid directly on “the basis of what they lost” because some lawyers and an association embezzled funds provided for compensation of their clients and did not make the compensation payments as assessed and ordered by the court.

“On the other hand, the lawyers have inflated, exaggerated, falsified lists of claimants and beneficiaries. In one instance, a lawyer was paid Shs20b for the benefit of his clients who were livestock claimants and beneficiaries and even when the Auditor General requested that he accounts for persons paid, the law firm refused and sued the Auditor General and got orders that they should not be investigated,” he added.

However, Mr Richard Omongole, who has represented groups of claimants in court since 2002, described the ministry’s handling of the matter as dubious.
He described the using of lawyers as an excuse and insincere.

“Court ordered that we do a joint verification but none of that has ever been done.  All you hear is that the ministry is pinning its own lists on trees in the villages and then they disappear because they don’t want to be asked questions,” Mr Omongole said.
“They recently told the country that Shs10b was released but no one is talking about it; where is it?” he added.

The Justice ministry claims that the Shs10b is currently being held on an escrow account, a claim Daily Monitor couldn’t independently verify.
It says Cabinet is considering appropriation of Shs150b as reparations split among the Acholi, Lango, and Teso sub-regions.

It is also not clear yet who should be paid.  Analysis of documents indicates that there are more claimants than the ministry has.

Groups seeking compensation
Parallel claimant groups have also emerged. One group led by Kasilo County MP Elijah Okupa has been pursuing the reparations in court since 2002 while Teso Animal and Property Compensation (TAPCO) has been labelled as a ‘political pressure group’ by several claimants.

TAPCO has been pushing for reparations since 2010, around the same time another group of 205,000 led by the outgoing Kapelebyong County MP, Mr Julius Ochen, and three other groups led by John Oluka and nine others, Mr Elijah Okupa and 2020 others, and Mr Imodot Edim and 105 others jointly sued government at Soroti High Court.
A separate group led by Mr Jereson Eoutu and others sued government in 2010 for Shs35b through Kampala Associated Advocates.

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Teso Sub-region leaders meet President Museveni (right) during campaigns on November 21 last year. PHOTO | KELVIN ATUHAIRE

In January 2011, President Museveni wrote to the then Justice minister Khiddu Makubuya directing him to constitute a team to verify genuine claimants and pay them “in not more than two financial years.”  “No other claims of similar nature should be entertained in future from this region. An out of court settlement should be reached immediately,” Mr Museveni wrote.
It is not clear yet whether Mr Eoutu’s group was paid.

 “Whenever there is money, the Attorney General’s people keep quiet, and when you write to them they do not respond. Only to keep hearing that some money has been released but not sure to whom,” Mr Omongole said.

“I remember in 2015, the President called me and Mr Ochen to State House when the anxiety was very high and he feared losing in Teso. He said the money would be put in the budget of the next financial year but I never heard from him again. But Shs5b was released as initial payment which I learnt the Attorney General’s people had used to buy cars for us in the verification exercise, then they said government cannot pay because some claims were exaggerated,”  he added.

Mr Venanscio Omome, the former premier of the Iteso Cultural Union, told Daily Monitor that their demand for compensation is legitimate.

“The worst started when Obote was overthrown in 1985. Our boys formed groups to fight back but that is when the situation worsened,” Mr Omome narrated.
“There were government soldiers who were not defending us; we would see lorries ferrying cows. It was as if there was collaboration,” he added.

The idea of compensation, Mr Omome, 81, says started in the mid-1990s through the Presidential Commission for Teso—that partly brokered a peace deal between the NRA and the Uganda People’s Army—to “improve livelihood of our people.”

“It is saddening now that the entire process was hijacked. People have died hopelessly, have walked long distances to each court session; they have been dehumanised. The honest position is government needs to come out clear whether they want to pay or not than making elderly people go through a lot of pain,” he said.

Mr Stephen Osigire,  68, has been chasing compensation for lost property and inhumane treatment since 1995.
Mr Osigire has tried all avenues, including court but failed. In 2001, the Defence ministry verified his claims and awarded him Shs60m for the cattle he lost. But he has not been paid.

 “Some of the people whose claims were verified by ministry of Defence were paid but I wonder why not me. Then came TAPCO, which claimed was trying to help; next thing we saw in the 2011 election campaigns, they were telling us to wear t-shirts with words ‘TAPCO for Museveni’, so some of us pulled out,”  he said.

Daily Monitor has established that in 2010, TAPCO entered into consent agreements with government.
A number of claimants were asked to open bank accounts in anticipation of the money. That was the last they heard about the compensation.

A claimant, who received his payment, and requested not to be named, told this newspaper how he was tossed around for years until an influential politician linked him up to some lawyers who knew officials in the offices concerned “where I was compelled to leave behind some of the money.”

“I forfeited 60 per cent of my verified claim of Shs1.2b to get this out of the way to get peace of mind. I would be dejected like everyone else,”  he said.
The Amuria District chairperson,  Mr Erisat Okitoi, said the payment process was “hijacked by some powerful invisible hands.”

“They use the RDCs to generate their own list of people to be paid. Some have been paid and others are used as a campaign trick,”  Mr Okitoi said.
“The NRM creates groups to receive money yet in actual sense they are paying themselves,”  he added.

Mr Okitoi and more than a dozen claimants described their MPs as traitors for abdicating their duties to petition the Executive over the plight of their communities.

Acknowledge claims
Mr Richard Oriebo, the Kibale County MP in Pallisa, and his Kumi Municipality counterpart Silas Aogon, told Daily Monitor that the Executive has cooperated by acknowledging the need to pay reparations.

“There are two sides of the story; the government initially insisted on restocking the region to replace the lost cattle, which they have done through OWC (Operation Wealth Creation) and the Ministry of Teso. It is on compensation that we need to push them more,” Mr Oriebo said.

The total reparations by groups which sued government stands at Shs3.5trillion, although this figure has not been verified.

In previous audit reports, the Auditor General, Mr John Muwanga, said the Internal Affairs ministry was instructed by the Prime Minister to develop a policy framework by September 1, 2003, to govern the management of compensation of properties destroyed by rebel activity.
In the absence of such a policy framework, Mr Muwanga said: “It becomes difficult to determine the eligible communities for compensation.”

LAWYERS ACCUSED OF EMBEZZLEMENT

The Ministry of Justice says Parliament and Cabinet directed that the claimants are paid directly on “the basis of what they lost” because some lawyers and an association embezzled funds provided for compensation of their clients and did not make the compensation payments as assessed and ordered by the court.

“In one instance, a lawyer was paid Shs20b for the benefit of his clients who were livestock claimants and beneficiaries and even when the Auditor General requested that he accounts for persons paid, the law firm refused and sued the Auditor General and got orders that they should not be investigated,” he added.

However, Mr Richard Omongole, who has represented groups of claimants in court since 2002, described the ministry’s handling of the matter as dubious. He described the using of lawyers as an excuse and insincere.

editorial@ug.nationmedia.com

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