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Land grabbing in oil region

By Haggai Matsiko

A Minister threatens to evict 2,000 as big-wigs scramble for public land in oil region

Somewhere in Hoima district the small sub county of Kyangwali is home to one of the Albertine’s biggest oil fields — Kingfisher – said to be one of the largest oil wells in the basin with over 300 million barrels of oil. Unfortunately Kyangwali is also the site of growing land disputes, with powerful politicians and military officials scrambling to take possession of huge tracts of public land and evicting locals.

Residents say that driven by the escalating values of land in the area and the prospect of earning huge compensation from contruction of oil infrastructure in future, powerful people who in the past obtained leases on huge chunks of public land at cheap rates, then sold it for profit, were now crawling out of the wood-work trying to reclaim it.

Minister for Security, Hon. Muruli Mukasa, is at the centre of one such dispute. The locals involved are crying foul.

“Hon. Muruli Mukasa wants to forcefully evict more than 1,000 people from their land which he sold to them so that he can re-possess it and sell afresh to new investors who can pay him much more money than the poor residents who paid him many years ago,” reads a petition by the Kyangwali sub county LCIII Chairman, Mazirane Rwemera, to the Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, dated March 2012.

The residents have also petitioned the Speaker of Parliament, seeking that a team of members of Parliament be dispatched to the sub-county to investigate the matter.

In turn, Muruli Mukasa has accused the community of being a “security threat” and has written several letters to government institutions like police, National Forestry Authority and the Ministry of Water and Environment, seeking to have the community evicted from the land.

The land in question is about 3,000 acres. The minister acquired it in 2001, under a company called Nguuse Ranchers Ltd, which he chairs and co-owns with nine other directors, according to records from the Registrar of Companies.

Under the company, the Minister (then an MP) acquired a 49-year lease at the cost of just Shs 1.8 million from the Hoima District Land Board. Dr. Charles Kajura, then District Veterinary Officer, recommended Nguuse Ranchers Ltd for the lease, noting that the company was going to set up a development project that would develop the area and create jobs.

In his letter to the chairman of the land board, Kajura noted that the company had already started preliminary work with 200 heads of cattle stocked on a 500-acre piece of land nearby and that two sites had been identified for valley dam excavation and construction. Kajura recommended that the Minister and his partners be offered the lease to continue with these capital developments.

However, 11 years down the road, Nguuse Ranchers has only about 60 heads of cattle and there are no dams or other capital developments on the land.

Instead, the Minister and his partners set about selling the land at a profit as soon as they got it.

Sale agreements that The Independent has seen, show that Nguuse Ranchers Ltd started selling the land even before paying lease fees. For instance, while on August 22, 2005, Muruli-Mukasa had sold half of the land (1,500 acres) to a new investor, he had not paid a cent in lease fees and had only covered the survey costs of Shs 1,001,000. He only paid the lease fees – of Shs 856,000 – a year later, on August 21, 2006.

“I have received UGX ten million (10,000,000) from Mr. Ruhambana F. as payment for the 1,500 acres agreed to be sold to him by Nguuse Ranchers Ltd at Nsozi…,” read the sale agreement, written on Uganda Parliament letter-headed paper, dated August 21, 2006.

This was one of the many agreements between Nguuse Ranchers and residents, some of which The Independent has seen. All the agreements have one thing in common—an acre of land was sold at Shs 250,000, where the Minister only bought it at a meager Shs 600.

Among the measures the Minister is said to have used to force people off the land is destruction of crops, burning of houses and arrest of people for “trespass”.

The residents insist that they bought the land legally from Nguuse Ranchers Limited. The Independent has seen some of the purchase agreements, copies of which are part of the evidence in the petition to the Speaker and Prime Minister’s Office.

Muruli-Mukasa on the other hand says that Nguuse Ranchers Ltd did not sell the entire chunk of land it acquired, but only sold to “a few” investors to raise capital to develop the land. However, documents attached to the petition to the speaker show that after the first sale of half the leased land to Ruhambana F., different directors of Nguuse Ranchers continued to call people to buy land.

“…please inform our people – the farmers and those who intend to buy the land that they can prepare and have their money ready so that we can allocate them land to do their work smoothly without any disturbance…,” said John Bahemuka, one of the Nguuse Ranchers Ltd directors, in a letter to Yohana Hakizimana, the LCI Chairperson of Wairagaza, Mandwiga village.

Conflict arose when Nguuse Ranchers Ltd told residents not to reveal that they had bought the land, but to tell whoever asked that they were workers of Nguuse Ranchers Ltd, and the rice they were growing was a ranch project. The rice plantations that stretch on as far as the eye can see are impressive, but are not without ecological cost; as thick forests have been cut down to plant them.

“I couldn’t accept that,” LCI Vice Chairman of Nyamigisha village, Joseph Tusingwire, told The Independent. “I told the minister that I had paid money for the land and there was no way I could accept to be treated by anyone as a worker.”

Relations fell apart as the minister tried to evict the residents forcefully.

Residents say that Muruli-Mukasa would deploy army officials to harass them. But they petitioned State House and the commandant officer Major Okolong and his team was reportedly replaced with a more friendly force.

Contrary to the ministers claims that the immigrants were destroying forests and were a potential harbinger of insecurity, one of the UPDF officials told The Independent that they hadn’t come across any rebels.

“That is why we are here to ensure security. We have walked those forests inch by inch and I can assure you we haven’t come across any rebels there,” the officer told The Independent.

Security threat?

The residents have sued the minister in Masindi High Court for damaging crops worth about Shs 400 million. The case is scheduled for hearing on May 30. They claim that with the aid of military officials and police authorities, Muruli-Mukasa had their crops and makeshift houses burnt in an effort to forcefully evict them.

The ‘minister’s men’ are said to have raided villages—sometimes driving cattle through plantations to eat and trample crops, sometimes using Police and army officials to beat up and arrest residents, other times burning homes.

Earlier this year, residents say the Minister’s men, with the aid of police, scorched a number of homes and had about four household heads arrested. One of the residents still in detention over trespass charges is 80-year old John Rukijakare, who other residents say had also bought the land from Nguuse Ranchers Limited.

Chris Baguma and his wife Salafina Nyinabaganda say they migrated from Kabale district and bought two acres of land here. They have seven children with four in school.

“One day we were in the house and there was noise all over the place and we came out. We realized houses were on fire so we run,” Baguma’s 15-year old son, Majuta Samuel, recalls of a raid which his parents say burnt their store-shed with 36 bags of rice and 20 of maize.

In turn, Muruli-Mukasa says the residents taking him on are mostly refugees and immigrants from Congo and Rwanda who want to grab his land.

“These people were not there before me. I challenge them and if they are Ugandans let them prove it… this really is a question of fraudulent people and they have taken money from unsuspecting people,” the minister said. “If I had wanted to grab land, I would not have bothered to acquire a lease, if they are customary land owners let them produce evidence…”

Being home to a refugee camp, 90 percent of Kyangwali’s population is non-Banyoro.

On March 9, 2012, Muruli-Mukasa wrote to Minister of Water and Environment, Maria Mutagamba, saying that he had information from the Kyangwali Collaborative Forest Management (CFM) committee that foreigners of Rwandese and Congolese origin had invaded and occupied part of the nearby Bugoma Forest in Mandwiga areas with the help of the LCIII Chairperson, Mazirane Rwemera.

“Mr. Mazirane has formed a committee which is forcefully allocating forest land belonging to government to individuals neighbouring the forest reserve,” the Minister wrote. “It is reported that the invaders have destroyed the forest and caused insecurity in the area.”

In response to Muruli-Mukasa’s letter, the Minister of State for Environment, Flavia Nabugere, on March 15 wrote to the executive director of National Forestry Authority:

“I suggest that you dispatch a team to confront the leaders concerned, particularly the Chairman LCIII Mr. Mazirane and those mentioned in the Kyangwali saga, and take remedial action,” she instructed.

Muruli-Mukasa had also written to Local Government Minister Adolf Mwesigye, alleging that Mazirane had created illegal villages of Nyamigisa, Rutuza, Kasozi, Mandwiga and Karongo – all located on the land in dispute.

In response, Mwesigye wrote to the Hoima District Chairperson: “I wish to state that I have not approved the new villages…The existence of those villages is therefore illegal. I advise you to communicate this position to the people concerned.”

Muruli-Mukasa had also sent Mazirane a warning message by mobile phone, which the local government official later printed out on permission of Buganda Road Court:

“Hullo chairman! Why are you taking our land? What did we do to you? We have been good people. Why are you hurting us? Kindly leave our land alone. Muluri Mukasa, Hon,” reads one message which Mazirane showed to The Independent. The number from which the message was sent is also the one on the minister’s business card.

Mazirane says the minister had in the past asked him to help evict the people on the land, which he refused to do since he had witnessed many of the land purchases between the locals and Muruli-Mukasa’s company. Mazirane said he found the Minister’s messages threatening and feared for his life. . He added that he found it strange that the minister accused him of tampering with his land, yet he [Mazirane] owns about 9,000 acres not very far from the land in dispute.

However, according to the Minister, it is Mazirane and the residents he represents, that were hostile. He said they had threatened police and his herdsmen.

“These people [local leaders] keep getting money from these victims of theirs, promising them land, land is not coming,” Muruli-Mukasa told journalists at a press conference in March. “One time they are in court, they are in the press everywhere, they made appeals to the very highest office in the land [President’s Office], why can’t they wait for one process to be completed?”

Other disputes

But the Minister’s problems are not just with the locals. Muruli-Mukasa’s Nguuse Ranchers Ltd is fighting over the same land with Nsonzi Ranchers, owned by the commandant of Uganda Air Force, Liutenant General Jim Owoyesigyire.

Under his company Owoyesigyire acquired 2,000 acres of land in the area a few years after the Minister under a lease from the Hoima District Land Board. The Minister accuses Owoyesigyire of encroaching on part of his land, and documents from the land board confirm that Owoyesigyire’s title laps over a large chunk of the land originally leased to the Minister, hence the dispute.

Although Muruli-Mukasa was the first to acquire land in Kyangwali, Owoyesigire has processed a land title, while the Minister has not, partly because of the dispute. In some of the documents The Independent has seen, Muruli-Mukasa accuses land officials of favouring the Air force boss.

“The land board has a lot of issues,” a source privy to the operations of the Hoima District Land Board told this reporter recently. “One of the people processing land titles [District Cartographer Okonyi William] had recently been suspended for forging titles but was reinstated. That is partly why there is all this mess.” However, The Independent could not verify this.

In the same sub county, a Col. David Kaboyo, has also been accused by local residents of illicitly acquiring a title on land they had occupied since 1997, and now threatening to evict them.

Separately, another group of villagers in Kyangwali, including Kisoke John of Kyabalongo village is said to be on the run after powerful politicians boarded off land they had acquired from the land board and posted guards to prevent them from accessing it. One of the residents was arrested and Kisoke had his property, including about six goats and 14 chickens, confiscated by Police. These locals have written a complaint to the Director of Public Prosecutions about the loss of their belongings in Police hands.

The land conflicts in Hoima district, brewing 10 kms from the Kingfisher oil field, throw the lid off the manner in which the rise of land values in the region around Lake Albert following the discovery of an estimated 2.5 billion barrels of oil, has upset the balance of local relationships and threatened local livelihoods.

The disputes also expose how government, military officials and business people are using their clout to take advantage of Uganda’s land systems to acquire large tracts of public land at the expense of poor people who do not have land titles. It is also a testimony to how oil has transformed a previously valueless but peaceful wilderness left to baboons and refugees, into a Mecca for the greedy and ambitious.

Entering Kyangwali after a bumpy three-hour drive through the thick Bugoma Forest from Hoima town, one comes across a small town bustling with business. There are several passenger cars and a few trucks transporting merchandise. But it is Mazirane’s new 30-roomed building that is turning heads.

No wonder speculation is rife that he acquired it out of money from allocating land to the foreigners prospecting for oil.

“But that Mazirane also, how did he get that whole land he owns? Did you see the building he is erecting? Where is that money coming from?” a local civil society activist asked in a discussion of the issues of Kyangwali.

Mazirane owns about 1,000 acres of land, part of which he rents out to farmers. His building is intended to tap into the influx of people seeking oil fortunes.

But it is not just the oil that has fuelled the development here. Residents say the land in Kyangwali is so fertile and rice grows very well. It is said that the residents on the 3,000 acres Muruli-Mukasa claims alone, including the Vice Chairman LCI, Nyamigisha village, Joseph Tusingwire, produce one ton of rice per acre per season. Out of just 1,000 acres of land, these cultivators can produce about 20,000 bags of rice (2 tonnes) every three months. These figures might sound unrealistic on paper, especially considering that these are local farmers using rudimentary tools, but the sight of the vast plantations of rice and other crops here, shows the reality.

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