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Land grabbers hit Entebbe

By Stephen Kafeero

Developers fleeing crowded and expensive Kampala hit Museveni’s backyard

Who is Bob Kanabi? That is the question Vincent DePaul Kayanja, the mayor of the once quiet and cool Entebbe Municipal Council on the shores of Lake Victoria, has been asking a lot lately.

The mayor wants to locate Kanabi because it emerged recently that this elusive gentleman is laying a claim to 600 acres of a swamp on the edge of the municipality which is literally at the centre of the municipality’s fragile eco-system.

The trouble for the mayor is that the Wakiso District Land Board, which is in charge of all land allocation, should know Kanabi, but they are not telling. The question is why? What are they hiding?

Mathias Kato, a local council leader in the area, and residents like Maria, an elderly woman in her 50s and others, want answers because whatever Kanabi plans to use the 600 acres for could change their lives for worse.  For now all they are hearing is that Kanabi is to start a flower growing project in Namiro Swamp in Entebbe Municipality.

If that happens, over 400 people fear their lives may change for worse, and Mayor Kayanja believes it could ruin the eco-system of this once laid back Municipality which is home to the official residence of the head of state, President Yoweri Museveni and the only international airport, Entebbe, in Uganda.

“If this flower company comes,” Maria says, “all this will be gone.”  She is pointing at her family’s livelihood; a small patch of yams, potatoes, sugarcanes, and sprinklings of bananas. she farms on the edges of the swamp. Her garden is one many small fields; some as little as a football field, farmed by a different member of the group.

The swamp surrounds the East side of Entebbe International Airport about 3km from the State House and derives its name from a famous myth among the people in the area that a mysterious Namiro; who has the body of a woman and feet like the tail of a fish, protects it.

It is viewed by environmentalists as the last remaining buffer between the people’s settlements and the pollution of Lake Victoria. In Entebbe, as in all major towns in Uganda with sewerage lines, domestic sewage, industrial wastewater, and other effluents are discharged into swamps surrounding Lake Victoria. It is believed that the swamps filter out the dangerous substance before the effluent enters the lake.

It is perhaps for this reason that for a long time the only sewage treatment plant in Entebbe was located in Kiwafu West on the edge of Namiro Swamp.

When it rains in Entebbe, all the storm water and silt also ends up in Namiro Swamp where it is believed it is filtered before it is finally deposited in the lake. The wetland has also ensured that Entebbe, unlike most major urban centres in Uganda, suffers only minimal flooding.

Mad rush

Over the years, the swamp has been encroached on by brick makers and other people, especially women small croppers, who grow yams, sugarcane, and other crops.  Real estate developers have also filled up parts of the swamp; ferrying in truckloads of soil and debris especially from the airport and United Nations base which are in the vicinity.

Mansions and motels have sprung up on the crudely reclaimed ground like concrete leeches sucking life out of the fragile eco-system. It is lucrative real estate business that houses UN and airport staff of expatriates at top dollar rates.

Dawda Senyonga says he is the leader of 370 farmers and has been working on part of the wetland close to the airport for over a decade after losing his job. He considers the swamp as the source of his family’s livelihood and recalls how desperate he felt when the UN took a portion of the swamp where his group had been eking a living for years.

He says when his group complained, the municipal council officials told them the government had authorised the UN to encroach on the wetland. The farmers were never compensated because the officials at UN told them that they did not have any ownership of the property.

Now, Senyonga says, he has seen a blueprint of 140 plots and titles which are part of the wetland. Oddly, however, the owners of the properties are not indicated as is normally done on a land title. Senyonga fears that the plots are part of a major land grab underway in Entebbe that has sucked in the area MP, Mohammed Kawuma.

In a meeting on Aug.02 at the residence of the LCI chairman Kiwafu West, Kawuma declared that as a  person who built his home on the edges of the wetland, he feels threatened and demanded that the Municipal Council releases to the public all relevant documents to Kanabi’s claims.

In an apparent swipe at the mayor, Kawuma said he has evidence of Municipal officials grabbing land and that the impending grabbing of the swamp was their ploy.

Kayanja denies any wrong doing and blames Kawuma’s allegation of politicking ahead of the 2016 mayoral race. The two belong to the opposition Democratic Party and erstwhile allied who have recently fallen out.

Fights erupt

Entebbe has recently witnessed an unprecedented land grab spree. Just 30kms away from the capital, this Municipality appears to have just been discovered by investors fleeing the crowded Kampala city and its environs. The result is a conurbation of Kampala-Entebbe springing up, pushing real estate property prices up, and attracting dubious speculation. Many fear Kanabi could be of this ilk.

There have been fights between residents and real estate speculators in the municipality areas of Manyago, Katabi Estates, the Muslim land, and Kitubulu forest.

On July 03, unidentified people in an unprecedented show of brutality and vandalism destroyed three government buildings just a few metres from the municipal council offices on Plot 01 Hill Road.

The buildings housed some of the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries staff offices, Ministry of Gender Probation Office, Auditor General’s office and Geology Survey and Mines Department. The damaged will not be rebuilt and the vandals will grab the plots.

Last year there was a clash between an army Special Forces unit that guards President Museveni and the residents led by Wakiso District Chairman, MatiyaLwangaBwanika. The army wanted to take over a wing of the only government hospital in the area; the private wing of the Entebbe General Hospital. Located right next to the President’s official residence, the hospital serves the community and is a referral for complicated cases from the islands on Lake Victoria.

Flowers farmers and exporters are also attracted to Entebbe because of the closeness of water for irrigation, the proximity of the airport for export, and sadly sometimes, an easy route for releasing the effluent from the chemicals they use into the lake.

Rosebuds Farm, a leading exporter of stem roses, has recently been embroiled in a wrangle over another wetland at Lutembe that ended up on the floor of parliament. Rosebuds Farm, which was filling up a section of the Lutembe wetland, had authorisation from the National Environment Management Authority but residents, led by Chairman MatiyaLwangaBwanika, continued to resist its extension of its farmland.

Illegal titles?

The latest trouble started, according to Mayor Kayanja, when the local authorities asked the municipal physical planners to stop further encroachment by drawing a red-line in the wetland that could mark a buffer of the wetland.

As the physical planners went about their work; they discovered that the mysterious private investor; Kanabi, owns part of the public wetland; he has a title to it. It is, however, unclear who issued the title and speculation is that it could be a fake.

The only communication about it from Kanabi to the municipal officials and other area leaders arrived on July 23. It was a letter from a company called Geo Taxon Consult Ltd indicating that they had been contracted by Kanabi Bob of Entebbe to carry out an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) for a proposed Flower Farm.

Scared residents immediately convened village meetings in which they rejected the idea. Kanabi has not appeared in any of the meetings.

Mathias Kato, an LCI chairman, called two meetings of his village where residents agreed not to allow any person or company, especially flower growers, to encroach on the swamp. “The swamp is not only a water catchment area but also a source of livelihood to very many residents who grow crops from it,” he says.

“We are totally against the flower concept and I would like to urge the district land board if they indeed issued the title to consult with us before taking such decisions in the future,” Kayanja says.

Josephine who lives in the vicinity of the swamp is more worried of the effect on her family of the chemicals she knows are sprayed on the flowers.

Kayanja says as they continue to search for the true identity of the mysterious Bob Kanabi, the municipal council authorities have recruited an environment officer to ensure that the environment is protected.

“We need to change the mindset of the people to know permissible and non-permissible acts in areas such as wetlands,” he says.

He says although NEMA is charged with the protection of wetlands, it has no staff on ground and local governments take up this responsibility. He says Kanabi’s flower farm must seek clearance from his office as it has the final say on developments on land within the municipality.

“We are squarely responsible for development and we shall take to court anybody who flouts the law,” he says.

Meanwhile, Kanabi remains elusive. When The Independent tried to track him through Geo Taxon Consult, the company he contracted, officials claimed they got instructions from a broker and have not met him in person.

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