Amuru, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | It has been close to three months of relative calm in Apaa township, a disputed fertile strip of land at the borders of Amuru and Adjumani districts in Northern Uganda. But Abraham Opiro, a resident of Lulai Parish in Apaa village is skeptical that this will last.
About a month ago, Opiro says a minor attack on residents in Kalacut village where some grass thatched huts were torched by unknown arsonists, sent locals in a panic of a looming attack.
“As I speak now, about 200 grass thatched huts are being erected by locals of Kalacut village who are opting to stay in a camp for protection fearing repeated attacks. This place has been calm since September but we are worried if this peace will last,” says Opiro.
Opiro who resides on the disputed land with his six children and wife returned to what he calls their ancestral land in 2007 after spending years in an Internally Displaced People’s Camp in Pabbo following the two-decade Lord’s Resistant Army-LRA insurgencies.
But in February 2012, Opiro along with close to 6,000 locals found themselves homeless following a forceful eviction by Uganda Wildlife Authority-UWA rangers under the guidance of the Ministry of Tourism. The government accused them of encroaching on a protected East Madi Game reserve. Although he returned to his land shortly, Opiro says numerous eviction threats by the government and attacks by unknown armed men have left him uncertain of peacefully living with his family.
Home to some 26,000 people according to an unofficial door-to-door census and measuring approximately 827 sq. miles, Apaa township has been at the centre of a dispute for nearly ten years now. Residents and leaders in Amuru and Adjumani districts both claim the disputed area is their ancestral land while UWA claims it’s a protected game reserve.
Brutal skirmishes over the land however intensified in October 2017, after the then Local Government Minister Tom Butime, annexed the land from Pabbo sub-county in Amuru district and officially handed it to Adjumani District Local government.
Sheikh Musa Khelil, the Acholi District Muslim Khadi, also the Vice-Chairperson of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI) attributes the genesis of the current bloodshed to the government’s forceful demarcation of the land. He alleges that despite the clear history that the disputed land belongs to the Acholi community, greedy individuals with ill motives went ahead and annexed the land at the expense of its vulnerable occupants.
But in May 2018, President Yoweri Museveni while speaking at a fundraising drive in Atiak sub-county in Amuru district defended the decision to demarcate the contentious land. He said that the government surveyors used British colonial maps which had the old district boundaries to locate the Apaa boundary which was found to be in Adjumani district. Whereas his statement was lauded by the Madi community, it received backlash from locals and leaders in Acholi sub-region.
Anthony Akol, the Kilak North legislator, also the Acholi Parliamentary Group Chairperson told Uganda Radio Network in an interview that the President was wrongly fed with details of the demarcation exercise. He accused the then Local Government Minister Tom Butime of siding with leaders from Adjumani to illegally erect a mark stone on the contentious land minus the involvement of Amuru leaders.
Despite the growing contention, the government has for all this period maintained its stand on evicting locals, alleging that they are illegally occupying the protected East Madi Game Reserve and Zoka Forest land all inside Itirikwa sub-county in Adjumani district.
But the several attempts have ended with bloodshed, destruction of houses and household properties, arrest, and illegal detention of people perceived to be defiant. For years, the President, religious, political, and traditional leaders from Acholi and Madi have held back-to-back dialogue meetings to end violence in Apaa but with minimal success. For instance, when the President visited Apaa land in August 2018, he made three key proposals aimed at solving the land dispute.
His proposals included the relocation of Acholi people to areas in Acholi land with compensation, cautioning locals already occupying Apaa Trading Centre from extending to Zoka Forest, and acquisition of land nearer the populated area of Adjumani to settle locals already residing in Adjumani district but inside Zoka Forest.
The President later in 2018 appointed the former Prime Minister Dr Ruhakana Rugunda to head a committee on finding lasting peace in Apaa before appointing Jacob Oulanyah, the Speaker of Parliament for the same role in 2019. But some leaders suggest that honesty, goodwill from the government, and political leaders would have helped to end the conflict much earlier.
Sheikh Musa Khelil believes an easy way to end the conflict over the land is for the government to portray goodwill for the two communities instead of making rational decisions that pit the communities against others. He also notes that leaders from both sides should agree to listen to each other to come to a common ground.
Amuru Resident District Commissioner Geoffrey Osborn Oceng says the conflict over Apaa is political and therefore needs a political solution. Oceng says the mantle now lies with the committee of Parliament to degazette the area into a human settlement instead of a game reserve. Apaa land was reportedly gazetted as East Madi Wildlife Game Reserve in 2002 by the Parliament at the request of the Adjumani District Local Government.
He notes that Apaa being a “virgin” land endowed with natural resources, us attracting several actors whom he says are currently profiting from the lucrative trade in timber and charcoal production.
His counterpart the Adjumani Resident District Commissioner Peter Taban Data also reiterates that the greed by several actors over resources and vast chunks of land in Apaa is the driving force behind the conflict. He however maintained the land rightfully belongs to the Adjumani district local government as opposed to what the leaders from Amuru are claiming.
“It’s only land, people are crying for land, others want land so that they sell it to others, its economics. there is nothing there,” Taban told URN in a telephone interview on Wednesday. Rev. Geoffrey Loum, the Bishop of Northern Uganda Diocese says honesty on the parts of people settled in Apaa and the government will help resolve the land dispute.
Rev Loum says that as long as there is dishonesty among the actors in the Apaa land, no amount of dialogue will help to settle down the disputes.
In August last year, in one of the several attempts to find a solution to the Apaa land dispute, the President met with a team of nine eminent leaders from the Acholi Sub-region at Nakasero State Lodge. The leaders were led by Chief Justice Alphonse Owiny Dollo and included Gen. Charles Otema Awany, the UPDF Reserve Force Commander, and National Resistance Movement Secretary-General Richard Todwong.
Others in attendance were the Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness, and Refugees also Lamwo County legislator Hillary Onek, APG Chairperson Anthony Akol, Bardege-Layibi legislator Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, Amuru District Chairperson Michael Lakony, and Nwoya Woman Legislator Judith Achan.
The President, during the meeting, directed that a special judicial Commission of Inquiry headed by a senior judge be set up to find a lasting solution to the Apaa land woes. The President later in early September met with a section of leaders from the West Nile Sub-region headed by Grace Freedom Kwiyucwiny, the State Minister for Northern Uganda the same matter.
Akol told URN in an interview that whereas the Judicial Commission of Inquiry hasn’t yet been established, both the team from Acholi and West Nile sub-regions are expected to meet jointly with the President this month to forge a permanent solution.
With no solution in sight over the land dispute for a decade now, the provision of Health and Education services to residents of Apaa remains at a standstill. While learners across the country will next week return to school, parents in Apaa are uncertain whether their children will study. The majority of their community primary schools were demolished while others turned into army detaches.
Amuru District Education department also years ago withdrew its financial support to Apaa Community Primary school after the government annexed the land to Adjumani district. Joyce Lanyero, the Amuru District Education Officer told URN in an interview that they could not continue offering support to the school because it is in a contentious land. “We can’t go there when it’s a contentious area, but the community will give us another land that is considered in Amuru then we shall support them,” She said.
Equally, Apaa Health Center II, the only government health facility in the area has been non-functional for the last two years after UWA officials closed down alleging it’s on a game reserve. Dr Patrick Odong Olwedo, the Amuru District Health Officer acknowledges the closure of the health facility and notes that the government to date still allocates Primary Health Care funds and drugs. He however notes that the closure of the facility has affected thousands of patients and expectant mothers who trek long distances in search of health services.
About 20 people have been killed since 2012 and more than 840 homes were reportedly destroyed between late 2017 and June 2018 arising from forceful evictions and attacks by unknown people.