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LAND: Widows in northern Uganda hope Bill on marriage and divorce can save them


A woman pounding millet  which was her first harvest after 21 years of dispute over land ownership. ALL PHOTOS BY SIMON WOKORACH
The multiple tragedy of land violence on rehabilitation of the survivors in Opara

SPECIAL FEATURE | Simon Wokorach in Amuru |  Opara village, derives its name from the nearby stream (Opara) that provides its residents with drinking water and also feeds them with mudfish. It stands in the highlands, approximately 6 kilometers off Gulu- Nimule road to South Sudan.

The roads into the villages are generally impassable but the harvest from the crops attracts people from near and far. September is a busy month with villagers harvesting, others planting crops while some were battling the wild birds seeking food in their rice gardens.

One of the villagers is Paska Aketo,70, who is seen cleaning up, as she prepares to receive visitors. The last time she had received a visitor was decades back when investigators from court had come for fact finding on her lawsuit over land violence.

Her solitary grass-thatched house is surrounded with approximately a quarter of a garden of simsim  and sweet potatoes. It unfortunately has no single sanitation facility.

“I prepared the garden late this year and this will be the first harvest in my own land after so many years when I couldn’t step here”  the mother of 6 wistfully looks back, as she puts down the plastic chairs she had borrowed from the neighborhood to host guests that included journalists.

September 1996

September 1996 brings sad memories to Aketo. While the government forces battled the rebels of the Lord Resistance Army, Aketo lost her herd of 26 cattle to suspected Karamojong rustlers. Up to 71 others were lost earlier when the National Resistance Army invaded the area pursuing rebels.

Soon after everyone was asked to leave their ancestral land, with all their harvest abandoned in the gardens, and settle for a new life in gazetted areas for internally displaced people. Aketo ended up in Pabo which turned out to be the largest protected area.

Aketo taking back the plastic chairs she had borrowed from the neighbourhood to host her visitors with. Her solitary grass-thatched house is in the background.

By 2006, the guns had fallen silent and everyone was seeking to resettle in their ancestral land. It was good news to everyone who survived and there was no delay.

Aketo’s husband, who had been tortuned after being suspected of being a rebel in the early years, died soon after the guns fell silent, but not before he showed her the boundaries of their ancestoral land.

In March 2006 as the departed husband was still being mourned, the land he left  was quickly occupied by his half-brothers. Trouble ensued and Aketo had to halt her resettlement plans from the very land she once toured and was reportedly directed to shelter her children in.

She explored several options to reclaim her land ranging from the local council courts to mediation. A decade later, the Sub County land tribunal Court  in 2017 ruled in her favour, but it created more trouble for her despite the fact she temporarily gained the legal rights of ownership.

In the early hours of  June 4, 2017, her in-laws mobilized to evict her. Forty of of them, each with at lesat a machete and a spear invaded the family. Having lost the Sub County land tribunal Court they sought to avenge the decision that had forcefully resettled her in the contested land.

The attackers burnt down two of her grass-thatched houses, looting 6 of her cows and she lost sh1.5 million she had saved for supporting her already struggling family as she and her children fled home for their lives.

The close to 500 acres of land which houses more than 500 occupants was taken and Aketo was charged with ‘purported murder’ of a juvenile and remanded to Gulu Central Prisons for nearly two years.

Prosecution later discovered that the child died from spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when spine and the spinal cord do not form properly, she was then acquitted and embarked on her long resettlement plans.

Aketo’s first born and his relatively young family preparing garden for planting soybean in the second season of the rain. PHOTO SIMON WOKORACH

Effectively, the conflict had escalated in the area engulfing hundred others along with Aketo.

They were all homeless when the local leaders in the area referred her situation to private investigators who examined the case and filed a suit to the court for legal protection from the contested land in Amuru.

Peace returns

The court was convinced by the outcome of the investigations and finally by March 2022, with much pressure from the human rights activists, the accused opted for mediation, the consent judgement was then passed by the Amuru Grade One Magistrate Court which later ushered in tranquility in the area.

“Peace has returned and we have forgiven one another. We also took an oath and signed agreement that our children will never again enter into any conflict even when we die” Aketo cheerfully told The Independent as  new hopes for rehabilitation and resettlement emerged.

Despite the constitutional and legislative guarantee to land in Uganda, critics say, the customary land tenure system still suffers from inadequate legal protection, a situation that has denied thousands of widows in Amuru District access to agricultural production, which is their main economic mainstay.

A history of land violence affecting families

The Program Manager Redeem International James Komakech described the trends of land violence in the District affecting the widows as worrying. It hampers their means of survival, something he said should concern stakeholders who shkould seek equal opportunity for both men and women on land rights.

Records from Redeemed International, a non- governmental organization advocating for land rights protection in the District had documented 1,038 widows who were diplaced off the land between 2020 and June 2022 by their in-laws which deprived them from agricultural production, their only primary means of survival and economic empowerment.

Jacob Olum Gerision aged 52 still remembers the devastated impact of land violence which did not only deny them economic recovery but turned the entire village into an illiterate population due to lack of economic means to put children in school.

Of the more than 500 occupants of the area, only 7 of them were able to complete primary school and joined post primary education but subsequently dropped out from senior one and two respectively.

Olum had seen his 9 grandchildren but none of his biological 7 children had studied beyond primary five as the family alongside others got entangled in land conflict. Not surprising, Aketo’s first born in his 20s already had 5 children with two wives and is yet expecting more children.

Nighty Akumu, one of Aketo’s daughter in-law harvesting her rice from the garden which was her first harvest in 21 years after the land eviction. BELOW: Children who were roasting maize for lunch as they were engaged in the farm to chase away birds from the rice while children from other families were going school

The old tradition is yet to change. Like in the past, the children here will have to forgo school, learn farming and other domestic work with a bleak future as parents watch over. “I didn’t go to school because of the war but the land conflict has also denied me to look for money to educate my children and this is why none of us here has studied beyond primary level” Okumu told the Independent in a recent interview.

Land disputes continue

As recently as Wednesday September 7, 2022, several people had camped at Opara Sub County headquarters seeking for mediation arising from land conflict. “I have been out of the office for two days handling various land disputes which have overwhelmed us” Sub County Chair Peter Lukwiya noted.

On that same day, when other children were going to school, one Nighty Akumu aged 25 was harvesting her rice in about 2 hectares of land.

She had carried into the garden four of her children who were helping to chase away the swarm of wild birds from eating the rice which was ready for harvest. Their work is to shout and beat empty tins to make noises to repel the birds from landing on their crops and destroying them.

Whereas the Sub County is yet to enact a bylaw restricting the sale of land in the area, Lukwiya revealed that most of the land violence in the area are fueled by the local leaders (LCIs) who profiteer from the conflict gathering between sh100,000 shillings to sh200,000 from every land sale.

By June 27, 2022, there were 2, 362 cases before Gulu Court with 860 being criminal cases, however, as of Wednesday September 21, 2022, the records from the High Court Registry indicate that 772 of these cases are on land matters alone as the Court battles backlogs to dispose of amidst the resource constraints.

The records further indicate that, of 176 cases of land matters before the High Court, only two have been concluded pending judgement while 174 others are still committed for trial. The Court is also battling up with 307 appeals challenging the decision by the lower courts in the region with only 15 cases concluded pending judgement.

There were also 289 applications that the Court has received from the people whose land had been allegedly erroneously titled without their consents as they seek for injection on the disputed land which the High Court has started hearing, 5 have been concluded while others are still on for trial.

To dispose of a single case from the High Court, the government will have to invest sh1,150,000 in the Court and to expedite the overall cases would mean that, the Court needs to spend 2.7 billion which will require 2,362 days of persistent litigation if no more cases arise but the land conflict has continued to rage on as people declined mediation and other means of conflict resolutions.

The Deputy Gulu High Court Registrar Ntalo Nsulu Hussein revealed that the Court will have to spend 46 million to handle 40 cases in 40 days, the cost he said could have been avoided if the people had embraced mediation.

Hussein noted that most of the complaints registered involve widows and orphans who were allegedly evicted from their marital lands by in-laws and relatives and are battling up for justice.

“The Challenges we have is that the clans haven’t come to help the population which have just come out from the war. Someone will come and say this is my land but even these clan heads are at times directly involved in those conflict” Hussein told the Independent in a recent interview.He revealed that the Court has received two High Court Judges which are yet undergoing training on the culture, norms, tradition of the people from the region and the nature of land ownership before they are settled to handle the land cases expeditiously to ease the current backlog.

Acholi PM speaks out

Ambrose Olaa, the Prime Minister of the Acholi Kingdom says the violence on land is due to lack of re-settlement plan. Olaa explained that many of the elders who were knowledgeable about the land boundary died in the camps and so the people who returned did not know where to begin from.

“These children who are involved in the conflict were born in the camps. They didn’t know their ancestral home and they could have been guided by the elders but as you know, we buried them in the camps. This is the challenge we face which the resettlement plan didn’t even care about” Olaa observed.

He however noted that the different 55 chiefdoms have scheduled each Monday, Wednesday and Friday for land tribunal court to handle land related conflict and have been successfully mediating at lesat 7 cases of these conflict directly involving widows and orphans on a weekly basis.

New law in the offing

A new propped law that is in parliament has provisions on distribution of properties within a monogamous and polygamous marriage, separating matrimonial property from individual property.

It also guides that spouses should make an agreement on property owned by both and those individually owned.

The bill further proposes that if a spouse acquired property before or during marriage and the property does not fall within matrimonial property but his or her spouse makes a contribution towards the improvement of that property, be it monetary or in kind, the spouse without the interest shall acquire a beneficial interest equivalent to the contribution she or he made.

In case of a polygamous marriage, matrimonial property acquired by the husband and the first wife shall be owned in common, the subsequent wives will only take interest in the husband’s share of the matrimonial property.

Ugandan London based economist Walter Atiko in his argument points that, displacing the women from agricultural production means denying them their livelihood support but also stagnating the economic recovery of the region as the women are chained in the kitchen to do only domestic work.

“The poverty we are talking about in Acholi isn’t just poverty but it’s extreme poverty ,unfortunately these women who are denied production can drive the economic growth of this region by 6 percent annually if they could actively participate in the different agricultural value chain” Atiko explained.

Whereas the law only cares about a married woman in case of such eventuality, Samuel Openy, a legal consultant on land rights protection with Awino Law Firm, argues that many of the women have been victimized under the pretext of the law where thousands are evicted as they struggle for livelihoods.

“90 percent of the land in Acholi are customarily held and women who are mostly affected are those who aren’t married yet they have cohabited for long. Many have been evicted but some have survived on the interest of their children on that land. For now we can’t help such a mother but we hope that the current Bill on marriage and divorce shall address the legal gaps that we have” Openy explained.


Simon Wokorach is a Northern Uganda based freelance Journalist with 6 years experience in practicing Journalism with special focus on covering environmental science ,agriculture, biodiversity and health. He is currently pursuing Bachelor Degree in  International Relations and Security Studies at Gulu University. The story was supported by Northern Uganda Media Club on land justice 


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