Wealth of sorrow for locals in oil-rich Albertine Graben

Some of the project-affected persons (PAPs) fetch water from a dirty stream in Nyairongo Village, Hoima District, on March 11. Many PAPs now live a miserable life after squandering their compensation money. PHOTO / ISAAC KASAMANI. 

What you need to know:

  • Many of the displaced locals are nostalgic of the good old days when they had a source of livelihood tilling their land. Thousands of PAPs now find themselves destitute, moving from one place to another in search of a livelihood.

The Hoima-Kaiso-Tonya 83km road is a major artery in the Albertine sub-region that snakes through Kabwoya Wildlife Reserve and navigates a steep escarpment before halting at the shores of Lake Albert.

For the communities here, these sleek roads have connected rural backwaters to civilisation, brought services closer and now serve as major supply routes for farmers’ produce.

Brick and mortar businesses, hotels and banks continue to sprout in Hoima Town.

The discovery of oil and gas in commercial quantities in Bunyoro brought hope to not just the sub-region but the nation.

The government was so emboldened to the point that it deemed reaching middle-income status by 2021 achievable.

The government isn’t the only one revising its targets.

Project-affected persons (PAPs) have also been forced to have reconsiderations. A published book titled ‘Before the First Drop: Oil Capitalists, and the Wretcheds of Western Uganda’ brings out their predicament.

When compensation commenced for PAPs, at least 2,437 property owners and 7,118 persons were identified to receive cash or the alternative of resettlement. In exchange, they would hand over large tracts of land measuring 29 square kilometres to investors for the construction of the oil refinery near the largest oil fields in Kaiso-Tonya.

Cash bonanza

Between 2013 and 2015, many families accepted cash payments and received millions of shillings as 13 villages were evicted.

The ethnicities of those displaced were Lugbara, Alur and Bunyoro.

The migrant communities from the neighbouring Zombo, Nebbi and Arua districts came to Bunyoro many decades ago to pluck tea at Bugambe tea plantation and permanently settled there.

They either grew food and cash-crops or rowed rickety canoes on Lake Albert. They would go on to have a sacred attachment to the land where their grandparents were buried.

“It is not only monetary, its psychological, cultural, burial grounds are being moved, burial grounds cannot be monetised, the problem with the capitalist order is that we have forgotten people’s psycho-social stability. Everything is monetised, this is why we have a scourge of bipolar disorders we are not taking care of,” Yusuf Sserunkuma, one of the book’s authors, opines.

The government envisaged that the compensation funds were meant to offer a financial war-chest to families to undertake business ventures that could morph into successful enterprises in their new settlements.

But how could illiterate families without any financial literacy and entrepreneurial rigour be able to sustain these businesses?

In sharp contrast, the compensation to some families has turned into a source of ruin, misery, mental illness, destitution and death.

Sserunkuma says the compensation turned the peasants into overnight millionaires’ and this was a recipe for disaster.

“When you visit western Uganda, you will be blown away by the amount of pain and ruin in the lives of people,” Sserunkuma says, adding: “These are not businessmen; these are men who live by tilling the land and engaging different networks of trade where they sell their surplus. They were on their own after the state compensated them.”

Many of those who were compensated acquired expensive tastes.

Nara Obimo Kadilo received a Shs250m windfall in 2013 as compensation for his land. 

A peasant farmer, he previously tilled his land to grow cassava and tobacco. He had two wives, but upon compensation, married five others.

He also purchased a second-hand lorry and a discotheque. He then bought beer, soda and livestock to entertain his guests every weekend.

“Villagers were treated to a feast as Kadilo slaughtered a goat everyday. There was a lot of soda to drink and villagers got tired of drinking soda. He had opened a depot of beer where he gave out beers for free,” revealed one of the respondents interviewed by the researchers.

Kadilo stopped his children from attending school, arguing that there was no need for them to study.

But by 2017, Kadilo was broke. Most of his wives had deserted him and he had resorted to tilling a piece of land to grow maize.

No financial literacy

Patrick Mungujasika, who received Shs31m for his land, took up a flamboyant lifestyle.

“[The Mungujasika family is] known for stopping to fetch water from the public borehole and buying bottled mineral water with which they bathed and cleaned their motorbike. Mungujasika is also renowned for forcing his dogs to join in the drinking of beer,” part of the book reads.

Mungujasika was too embarrassed to speak to the researchers about his fate. He had no money left and returned to farming in the refinery area. Some of his children missed school last year as he couldn’t afford fees.

Osacar Bedirworth received Shs165m for his compensation.

He spent Shs117m on vehicles. His son, who was still learning how to drive, crashed one of the cars.

He also married two other wives. Today, he is broke and can barely fend for his 14 children.

He plans to sell his house and return to the village.

Another PAP, whose name we shall not reveal to protect his privacy, suffered a mental breakdown upon receiving Shs340m. The victim had travelled to the manager’s office at Crane Bank, Hoima branch on December 9, 2013 to receive his compensation package.

As soon as he received the money, he became speechless and moments later stripped inside the banking hall. Married with three wives and 17 children, the family continues to search for a cure for the family patriarch. 

These stories saw the light of day because financial literacy training only lasted a fortnight.

In Rwamutonga, Bugambe Sub-county in Hoima District, funds were also distributed in a lump-sum. Some locals felt that this should have been done piecemeal.

The most affected persons were children and women.

For instance, out of 2,812 children in project-affected households, only 94 attended pre-primary school.

Out of 679 children who attended primary schools, only 118 made it to Primary Seven and 48 proceeded to secondary school.

Twenty-one made it to Senior Six, while only 13 made it to university.

Many schools in the displaced areas were razed, including Bukoni Nursery and Primary School, Kyapaloni Primary School, and Nyahaira Primary School. For instance, Kyapaloni—which started as a community school in 1983—had a headcount of 375 pupils.

Gendered dimension

In their new locations, learners spent about two hours and 24 minutes walking to a secondary school. Many children—disillusioned after being re-settled—dropped out of school.

According to the resettlement action plan, it was envisaged that schools would be rehabilitated and expanded and new teachers recruited at the new settlements. It was also stipulated that the schools would have sports fields. But the construction of a school at the relocation site in Kyakaboga is yet to be completed eight years after locals were resettled.

As the new schools were not ready for occupation at the time of relocation, many of the children were absorbed into Kabaale Public School, resulting in overcrowding.

Some of the girls who dropped out of school got married at a tender age.

Grace Ahalituma, 19, was only 16 when she was forced into marriage.

“I never thought of getting married early. My aim was to study and become a nurse, but my dream was not fulfilled. I was studying at Kyapaloni Primary School in Primary Four in 2014 and life was okay. When the school was closed, there was no money to continue with my studies. Ever since I got married, my husband has been subjecting me to beatings,” Ahalituma revealed.

Many of the displaced locals are nostalgic of the good old days when they had a source of livelihood tilling their land.

Thousands of PAPs now find themselves destitute, moving from one place to another in search of a livelihood.

“The danger is that this anger, which these persons have, is being directed towards the State. We were in Buliisa and one of the respondents said sometimes I wish this oil was discovered elsewhere, but not here because it ruined our lives. Some are threatening suicide, some have mental illnesses,” Sserunkuma reveals.

Sserunkuma says the funds ought to have been handed to the communities in piecemeal.

“The financial literacy education should have taken longer, should have been practical where experts could have occasionally returned to supervise and follow up, what are they doing with their money, how are they uplifting themselves, how are they carrying on with their new lives, the relationship they had with their land can’t be valued with a price-tag,” argues Sserunkuma.

Sserunkuma says the government should allocate at least five percent of funds from the oil revenues annually to PAPs.

“Ideally this was their land and their benefit was supposed to pass on to the next family as this was a customary tenure system of land ownership.”

Women more affected

Doreen Kobusingye, a development studies scholar, was among the researchers for this book. She revealed that among the most affected were women who were discriminated against. Many families disintegrated as men married more wives and women bore the brunt as they lost their source of livelihood.

“We conducted a study in Buliisa and Hoima…the women have become destitute and their expectations have been shattered. We all know that women are the primary users of the land. Women till the land and fend for their families,” Kobusingye said, adding: “When there are oil-related developments, they tend to take away this land from families and women…the compensations…mainly went to men because it’s the names of the men that appeared on these compensation forms.”

There was also a spike in alcohol consumption, which led to domestic violence.

“Women were battered. If money had come to the women, families would be better off. Women had children to look after when they were abandoned,” reveals Kobusingye, adding that there was a spike in prostitution targeting those who received funds.

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