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Amuru women’s naked power

By Joseph Were

As big money grows bigger, the poor must undress or else the powerful will undress them

On April 14, a group of elderly women stripped before a huge gathering called over a government plan to re-demarcate land for a national game park in Apaa village, Labala parish, in Pabbo Sub-county, Amuru District.

Government officials who had travelled there to explain that the government did not plan to take land away from the poor people included the Lands Minister, Daudi Migereko, and Internal Affairs Minister, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima. Seeing the women naked brought tears in the minister’s eyes. Gen. Aronda and many in the crowd focused their gaze away from the nakedness.

The government officials acted like they were surprised by the women stripping. They should not have. This was the second time these women were stripping in protest against government’s plans for that land.

On April 9, 2012 over 60 women undressed before a group comprising officials from the powerful sugar company; the Madhvani Group, and local administration officials at a place called Kololo in the same area. The Madhvanis want land in Apaa to grow sugarcane. But they sped away when the naked women were joined by angry residents who pelted them with stones, arrows, and sticks.

When President Yoweri Museveni heard of the incident, he decided to head there and enforce the government plans personally. He went there on April 23, 2012.

The women had prepared to undress as soon as Museveni started his speech but they did not because the function at Lakang was interrupted by a heavy storm which blew away the tents and forced Museveni to scamper to his helicopter and take off.

Museveni insists that Lakang and Kololo land in Pabbo-Sub-County is government land, designated as a game park. But Museveni’s position does not explain why there is a boundary conflict over the land in Pabbo between the Madi and Acholi. There is also the knowledge that Museveni in the past has not hesitated to give away such land to sugar planters. His attempt to give away the Mabira Tropical forest to another sugar plantocracy, the Mehta Family, which runs the Sugar Corporation of Uganda Ltd in Lugazi, central Uganda, is a famous example. So he will most likely hand over the Amuru land to the Madhvanis.

If that happens, it will be a Madhvani consolidation. The Madhvanis already control the Murchison Falls National Park which, at 3840 Sq. Km, is bigger than Amuru District. The Madhvanis own the two exclusive lodges in the park; Chobe and Paraa.

Power of naked women

So far, area leaders, opinion leaders, and journalists have appeared to imply that the naked women’s protest is pointless. As former Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Prof. Ogenga Latigo, has arrogantly asserted, stripping naked women cannot stop government programmes. Even the Acholi paramount Chief has condemned them.

A writer from the region, Moses Odokonyero, in a published commentary also implied that the naked women protesters were poor, naive, old, and misled victims fed on toxic populism by their leaders.

Odokonyero said, as survivors of the 20-year terror of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, they are suffering from post-traumatic stress.

“No mother or grandmother in her right state of mind in this age would strip naked before, among others, school kids, however dire the situation,” Odokonyero wrote.

That is a mistaken view by short-term thinkers. For years, even centuries, some of the most powerful women all over the world have used nakedness as protest.

In June 2002, naked, unarmed women in the Nigerian Niger-Delta held 700 workers hostage for more than a week and blocked production of half a million barrels of oil a day. Semi-naked women jumped on former IMF boss Straus Kahn’s vehicle to protest against pimping and sex tourism. Naked women have protested against powerful banks in London. A model, Liana Klevtsova, walked naked for days to protest against the high cost of living in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In July 2014, the top model, Robyn Lawley, posted naked pictures on Instagram in protest against mining in Australia. Women have gone naked for animal rights. After 43 students were abducted by Mexican drug cartels, people took to naked protests. The governor of the region resigned.

Here at home, on April 23, 2012 over 15 women activists wearing only their bras staged a protest outside the Central Police Station in Kampala in protests against the mishandling of female opposition politicians. In 2012 a group went naked in Washington to protest against proposals to cut HIV/AIDS funding. In 2001 over 300 naked women protested against the Tana River project in Kenya. The list goes on.

The curse

Going naked in protest is called “Twacokir” in Amuru. As elsewhere, in the African context, the act of the Amuru women stripping in anger should be perceived as deploying their most effective weapon: a deeply rooted cultural threat known as the `curse of nakedness’, according to Terisa Turner, an anthropologist who has studied the curse and its use in oil protests over the last 30 years. Men too have used nakedness as a form of protest. But the female body is more powerful in the way it tells humanity that “I gave birth to you, and I am ashamed of you, and I curse you.”

Matter of fact, the curse element is superstition. But, for many Ugandans, there is something enigmatic about a woman’s body. Many people are indifferent to the naked male body. Naked mentally ill men and stripped delinquents roam the streets. But if a woman is seen naked, it will not be for long. Almost immediately, someone will offer a garment to cover her up. In extreme cases where this is not possible, almost everybody will look away. Nobody will jeer or laugh.

Naked protests are not just about the naked body, but the act of becoming naked. It is the removal of clothes, not just the absence of clothes.If you appear vulnerable, weak, and desperate when you undress in protest, you make the point that you would rather undress yourself than let a brutal oppression render you vulnerable.

One commentator, Dr Daniel Marques Sampaoi, has observed that through nakedness “power is opposed not simply by the presence of people, but by emphasising their corporeal fragility and contrasting it with mechanised brutality of war machines, or by juxtaposing the vulnerability of the individual against the might of an opposing army.”

The contrast between the oppressor and the oppressed could not have been starker; naked weak poor old women versus rich, powerful, strong armed men. Yet the naked message of the women appears more powerful than the arrogance in Ogenga Latigo’s claim that the women’s nakedness can change nothing.

Naked protests are very good for focusing media attention on an issue. In the Amuru case, Latigo would never have written about the plight of these women if they had not undressed. This creates a historical record. The Madhvanis might take Amuru land today, but 100 years later, a more civilised society will correct that wrong. For now, it is enough to highlight an injustice. The naked protest is not a matter about who is right or wrong about a boundary. It is about the oppressor and the oppressed.

The Madhvani Group are a powerful billion dollar family business which owns the biggest sugar plant and estate in East Africa. It has the backing of the government big guns.

The Madhvani Empire in Jinja sits on 9,700 hectares of land or 13% of the land in Jinja District, south- eastern Uganda. Another 18,000 hectares of land is used by out-growers who supply Kakira Sugar. The Kakira business, therefore, takes up 35% of all the land in Jinja District.  They alone put Uganda among the top sugar exporters on the African continent.

The Madhvani family acquired the Kakira estate in 1918. About 100 years later they are ready to expand. They have chosen Amuru District in northern Uganda as their target.

Madhvani and poverty

On the map, Amuru District in northern Uganda looks like a leg decapitated mid-calf with the truncated calf touching South Sudan in the North. Its stub rubs on Adjumani District to the West and Gulu to the East, and its sole rests on Nwoya to the South, while the big toe nudges Arua and bits of Nebbi to the South West.

Amuru District currently appears to have land conflicts with all its neighbours. The Census report lists its border conflict with Gulu and Adjumani districts. When the NGO; Legal Aid Service Providers Network (LASPNET), visited the district in August 2014, it registered over 300 land disputes over a five-day exercise.

Looking at Amuru District, one wonders why it was curved this elaborately when the old Gulu District was decapitated. What was the thought behind the boundary demarcation? Why is it bigger than Gulu in size when it has less than 200,000 people compared to Gulu’s 450,000 according to the 2014 census? Why was Nwoya curved out of Amuru in 2010? Recall that this is the location of the Block One oil exploration area called the Pakwach Basin. Huge oil deposits were discovered here in 2008 by the Irish oil explorer, Tullow.

In 2012, a researcher called Caxton Etii wrote an essay entitled: “Oil conflict-livelihood nexus: A case of Amuru District, Uganda”.

The Researcher wrote: Soon  after  the discovery of a ‘world class’ oil  deposit  in  Amuru District  in northern  Uganda,  the  ‘black  gold’ discovery  has quickly  proved  its  unpleasant consequences  on  the  already  war-affected  population,  just  emerging  from  a  two decade human instigated crisis into  the  recovery  mode. Widespread  land disputes, environmental damage,  illegal  land  acquisition,  population  displacement, suspicion over  oil  deal manoeuvring and  other  undesired  consequences  of  oil  activities  are already posing a  real  threat  to  the capabilities,  the  assets  base,  resilience  and copying  mechanism essential  for livelihood in  Amuru. Sooner or later this ever lingering question will be answered: “Is the discovery oiling conflict or development in Amuru?” It is becoming apparent that the discovery more likely portends doom than it heralds prosperity for host communities in Amuru”.

The Madhvani family has acquired 10,000 hectares in Amuru. The government has given them 40,000 hectares but the handover is encumbered by a court case. That is about 11% of all the land in Amuru. On January 12, 2015, some of the petitioners, during a meeting in President Museveni’s country home in Rwakitura withdrew their interest in the case and signed over the land to Madhvani. In a 2011 Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) report, up to 76.5% of all people in Amuru District were living below the poverty line. It could get worse because sugar growing Madhvani style comes at a price.

In Jinja District, it has meant that since most land is given to sugar plantations, almost all people are squeezed into one tiny corner. Here, the Madhvani’s grow their sugarcane in Butembe County and the people are squeezed into one sub-county, Mafubira, which has a density of over 2000 people per square kilometre.

The remaining three sub-counties; Kakira, Buyengo, and Busedde are Madhvani cane growing country. These are sparsely populated; with less than 100 people per square kilometre.  This area has the least number of schools, hospitals, electricity, and water connection. In other words; it is backward. Apart from the Madhvanis, almost everyone here is desperately poor. While most of Jinja has less than 20% of residents below the poverty line, up to 40-50% in Butembe County live below the poverty line.

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