Wananchi land taken by Museveni for barracks ends in private hands

Esther Turyahebwa enters her hut in Kijayo IDP camp, Kikuube District, in 2018 after being evicted from her land. The discovery of oil deposits in Bunyoro Sub-region have led to many land conflicts in the area. Inset is President Museveni. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • According to the land owners, the President convinced them to part with their land, saying they would be compensated.
  • However, they say only Shs550,000 each, was received from UPDF and now another businessman is claiming ownership of the remaining piece of land. 

Until 2003, Ms Noora Kyecandya and her family lived peacefully on their plot of land in Booma village, Butiaba Sub-county in Buliisa District. For generations, the residents of the village have cultivated, and derived their livelihoods by tilling.

In 2003, President Museveni met the residents of the village and requested them to surrender part of a 1,700-acre community land to construct a military barracks.

After protracted back-and-forth meetings, the residents agreed to the President’s request on conditions that they be compensated to enable them relocate.

Ms Kyecandya says that is where their trouble started from. She says after agreeing with the President, they were hopeful that the community members would be paid off to start a new life.

“Initially, we didn’t want to lose our land, but the President convinced us to accept the military barracks and [he] said it would be good for our own security since a lot of people would be coming here. We accepted after he promised to compensate us,” Kyecandya says.

She said shortly after their engagements,  senior officers of Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), started frequenting the area and people who purported to be the president’s representatives appeared regularly in the area.

On December 8, 2006, a team of UPDF officials held meeting with the residents and agreed on a number of issues, including compensation. The army was represented by Lt Col Stephen Ebillu, Lt Col Isaac Kiyimba and Lt Col Francis Balmoi Abong.

“The UPDF people came here and we held meetings with them and other government officials including the resident district commissioner, the LC5 chairperson, and many others. We agreed that while they survey the land, the issue of compensation must be addressed. There was even government valuer who came to value the land, but up to now, we are waiting,” she said.

Shs550,000 pay
Mr Deo Ntakimanye, the Local Council I chairperson of Booma Village, Butiaba Sub-county in Buliisa District, said three days after agreeing with UPDF, a helicopter landed in the area and military officers handed each land owner Shs550,000. He says when they protested, they were told to accept the money and follow up on the actual compensation that was being worked out.

“They told us please accept this token. It is better to start from here as we work out the bigger money. This one is the starting point so that when the President comes and you demand for more, you will know that the process had already been instituted. After accepting the little money, they stopped any further communications with us,” he says.

He said a total of 134 families, each with an average 20 members, were affected. Mr Ntakimanye said when they tried to divide the money, each family member only received Shs27,500 or thereabout.

“What can this amount of money really do? We gave them land in peace, but they have now turned against us. Where do they expect us to go after taking away our land?” he asked.

This is not an isolated case. The entire community of Booma-Wantembo have been dispossessed by the combined forces of the army that is by law supposed to protect the people. Worse, residents say, powerful businessmen riding on the back of the men with the guns are harassing them.

Like in other places where the soldiers have always used guns to bulldoze their way through, Ms Kyecandya says the same has happened in their area where they have become squatters.

While the locals were battling to be compensated, another alleged land grabber was working with different entities in the army and the Lands ministry officials to dispossess the population of the remaining portion of the land.

Residents in the area had known Francis Kahwa, a wealthy businessman, but alleged they later discovered that he in cahoots with Maj Gen Fred Mugisa, a senior UPDF officer, in a scheme to take their land amid violent evictions.

Mr Kahwa denies any culpability and has won court cases against the residents over the impugned ownership of the land, with a third suit pending determination. He said he could not discuss the matter still in court while we were unable to reach Maj Gen Mugisa, whom residents name adversely in their petitions to President Museveni. Documents seen by this newspaper indicate that Mr Kahwa obtained 12 land titles from six different sub-counties in Buliisa District and evicted the lawful owners from their land.

In 2010, the residents raised the issue to President Museveni ahead of the 2011 general elections. They accused the UPDF of failing to compensate them and Mr Kahwa of allegedly taking possession of their land with army backing.  Following numerous complaints by the residents, Mr Museveni dispatched a team led by his Principal Private Secretary Flora Kiconco and Phillip Okiror.

The team met different residents in the area to ascertain the status of what was going on and reported back to the President.

On March 5, 2011, the President wrote to the then Prime Minister, Prof Apollo Nsibambi, directing Lands officials to ensure all land titles issued irregularly be cancelled.

He accused the land boards of Masindi and Buliisa districts of conniving with local land committee who gave approvals without informing residents and other stakeholders contrary to the law.

“Therefore, many of these land titles may be fraudulent. By copy of this letter, I am, therefore, directing the Minister of Lands to cause the review of all land titles given out in Buliisa District to-date. He should cancel all titles that he finds to have been given out fraudulently,” Mr Museveni noted.

In February 2017, former Lands minister Betty Amongi, six years after Museveni’s directive, wrote to Buliisa District leaders, directing that the said land titles issued between 2010 and 2017 be cancelled because of the irregularities cited.

She wondered why the district land board officials continued to transact business irrespective of the presidential directive. However, despite all the directives, Mr Kahwa continued with his determination to evict residents from the land passed on to them from the previous generations.

Residents of Kyangwali Sub-county in Hoima after being displaced from their land in 2016. Most people say they are displaced from their land without any compensation. PHOTO /FILE

Failing to secure their land rights, the residents of Booma sought the help of different government officials, including the Lands ministry officials, the prime minister and the President.

Ten months later, the residents again petitioned the Lands ministry in a letter dated November 17, 2017, asking it to intervene and save them from evictions.

Those affected include Yosamu Okumu and the family, Luben, Gahwera and families, Balime clan members, Kataleba community, Kityanga community, Booma community, Buliisa Sub-county community Nyamasoga-Biso community and Badogimo clan.

Mr Kahwa, according to residents, allegedly continued to use both the services of the army to evict the residents, while also tiring them through protracted legal battles.

Kahwa responds
Mr Francis Kahwa, the man accused of grabbing the land, however said while he is being unfairly accused, the issues are already before the courts and that he will not be drawn into any discussions.

“Are we allowed to discuss on issues that are before the court? Did the petitioners tell you that there is an ongoing court case? I will only wait for the court case to proceed and end and, thereafter, I will be able to explain myself,” he said.

Asked about the residents’ repeated petition to the President, Mr Kahwa asked “between the President and the courts, who is bigger? Even if they petition the President, he will refer them back to the court. He is not bigger than the courts.”

In November 2017, the Chief Magistrate’s Court in Masindi ruled that the land in question belonged to Kahwa, to the chagrin of the locals. They wondered how a man who does not belong to that area had the powers to take possession of land residents owned for generation.

In April 2018, the residents again petitioned the President to intervene in the matter. The affected residents said in the said court proceedings, they were not invited to appear to defend themselves and were only surprised to hear that a court ruling had been passed without their knowledge.

“… we were shocked to receive court ruling … without any community representatives being summoned to court for any single case hearing,” they said.

Mr Simon Agaga Kinene, the then Buliisa District chairperson, accused Mr Kahwa of using the then Gombolola Internal Security Organisation officer, a one Rigongeza Hannigton, to intimidate and arrest the locals who opposed his actions.

He asked the President to save the people of the area from the hands of the mighty who use their resources to oppress and deprive the poor.

One last hope
It has emerged that after several directives, Mr Kahwa allegedly evicted more people. The affected residents in a petition to the President dated May 10, 2021 have requested for his intervention to save the situation.

President Museveni inspects a guard-of-honour at the UPDF pass-out ceremony in Nakaseke District in 2018. PPU/PHOTO

The petitioners say they have lived on the land at Booma-Wantembo for centuries and are not about to give up on it.

“We were born on this land, buried on this land right from our ancestral fathers, generation to generation up to the current generation. However, what shocks us most is that we have never received sufficient compensation in return to the land offered to UPDF except only Shs550,000 (ex gratia) given to each family head of the 134 families affected,” the petition reads in part.

The residents said they were surprised on February 13, 2007, when Mr Kahwa allegedly used armed soldiers in uniform to threaten them as his surveying team led by Mr John Babinge, a government surveyor from Masindi, surveyed part of remaining land illegally.

“We protested against this action and we reported this matter to UPDF. Your Excellency, we later discovered that Mr Kahwa Francis connived with Major General Mugisa Fred to share our remaining land,” they said.

We were unable to reach Maj Gen Fred Mugisa to respond to the allegations raised by the residents in their formal petition to the President, who is also the commander-in-chief of the UPDF.

According to the residents, Mr Kahwa signed on a general application form as the immediate neighbour to Maj Gen Mugisa.
“We also protested against this illegal acquisition of our only remaining customary land. We have written to several offices including UPDF, but we have never been helped,” the petition further reads.

The petitioners say they are demanding that President Museveni directs processing of land for the land in question for the affected members.

“We request you to intervene, investigate and help us return our land from these land grabbers. Through you, we demand government to compensate us sufficiently for the barracks land taken by UPDF,” the petition says.
They are also asking government to avail them another piece of land for settlement, cultivation, and cattle keeping should government fail to compensate them.

“We want your immediate interventions and follow keenly our case regarding the same piece of land in the Chief Magistrate‘s Court Masindi where Mr. Kahwa sued us (the community) together with Tullow Uganda’,” the petitioner say.
They say Mr Kahwa has continued to use court against the poor because he knows they don’t have resources to fight back legally.

Other issues
The petitioners also asked the President to investigate all government offices and public officials and others involved in land grabbing, follow keenly the case in the Magistrate’s Court in Masindi to avoid further errors and fraud.

They also want Mr Museveni to instruct the commandant of Wantembo Barracks to arrest any army officers who threaten and intimidate the community neighbouring the barracks by propagating that the customary land belongs to Mr Kahwa and Maj Gen Mugisa whereas not. We were not able to reach the latter, a senior military officer.

Brig Gen Flavia Byekwaso, the UPDF spokesperson, not respond to our text messages and telephone calls to seek an explanation on how land privately sourced from the community for barracks construction ended up in private hands.

 Bunyoro’s historical land problems have spilled over after the discovery of oil, throwing the locals into the throes of despair. Various investors are rushing to acquire land in the region to set up projects that can target the supply chain of the lucrative petroleum industry.

The land conflicts are threatening agriculture production and food security in the oil-rich Bunyoro Sub-region, leaders have said.

The disputes, some of which have turned bloody, have displaced thousands of people, leaving them with no land for cultivation. Thousands of residents in the villages of Kijayo, Ikoba, Muziranduuru, Kyabataka, Kadiki, Kyakasoro and Kabango in Kikuube District were displaced and scores killed after the violent eviction on February 20, 2015.

The appreciation in the value of land following the discovery of commercially viable oil and gas deposits has fuelled the land wrangles as wealthy individuals and companies move to set up oil-related infrastructural projects.

Several court injunctions have been slapped on many contested pieces of land, leaving squatters in uncertainty. Mr Harrison Magezi, the chairperson of Albertine Oil Reporters Network, says peasants in the sub-region may become poorer because of court injunctions on land.

He is part of a group of residents who have been engaged in a court battle with an investor since 1994 over about 50 acres of land in Kiryamba Vllage, Bugambe Sub-county in Kikuube District. 

Mr Sulaiman Byabazaire, a resident of Kihande-1 Cell in Masindi Municipality, says he lost his land after failing to pay legal fees after he was dragged to court by his neighbours.’ The land wrangles have also affected the completion of many government projects. In Kakumiro District, residents have threatened to block the construction of Mubende-Kakumiro-Kagadi road over delayed compensation and undervaluation of their properties.