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Reinforce citizens’ land rights first, satisfy commercial interests after

President Museveni must reprioritize so that Uganda’s natural resource assets are developed for the benefit of Ugandan citizens—not in spite of them.

 By Kathleen Brophy

One of President Yoweri Museveni’s most poignant statements during his speech at this year’s Mineral Wealth Conference was also the most troubling.

“You just tell those villagers to get out. You cannot stop the State from accessing its assets.”

Of course Museveni’s controversial statement regarding respect for civilian land rights vis-à-vis investor interests in sub-surface mineral rights might be mere hot air, an empty claim to attract deep pocket investors. Or it might be more.

The President’s statement and subsequent promise to amend the Act to limit citizens’ rights draws attention to a significant weakness in the legislation.

According to the Mining Act of 2003, an applicant for mining rights must secure the surface rights to the land in interest before they can be granted a mining lease entitling them to the sub-surface mineral rights of the territory.  But, the Act provides almost no detailed protocol or procedures for how this process should be carried out or the legal relationship between the investor and the local community in terms of consent and compensation, land owner and user relations, as well as transferal of rights.

In other words, Ugandan citizens do not only possess land ownership rights. According to the Constitution, they are also the ultimate owners of the country’s natural resources with the government acting as a trustee mandated to manage the resources for their benefit.

Therefore, there is absolutely no justifiable reason why citizens’ rights should not be held paramount in the development of the extractive industries. But in practice, citizen land rights are instead being sidelined.

Lessons from Hoima

Museveni’s bold statement was taken very seriously by those working on similar issues in the oil region.

For civil society organizations with experience in the Albertine, protecting citizens’ land rights is a constant struggle particularly in the face of rapidly increasing land valuation in the oil-rich areas. Rights of customary landowners are continuously being compromised in the name of ‘national development.’

A meeting in Rwamutoga

Some of the displaced residents of Rwamutonga

Barely one week after Museveni’s Mineral Wealth Conference speech, two bibanja land holders, Enock Dara Karim and his wife Margaret Eunice, were burnt to death in their hut in what was seen as the climax of an especially grotesque land-grabbing case in Rwamutonga Village, Bugambe sub-county Hoima district.

About a month earlier, more than 150 households had been violently and forcibly evicted from their homes on the same plot of land by a group of hammer-wielding men, locally known as ‘kanyamas’. Armed with a court order allowing the eviction, the ‘enforcers’  were accompanied by policemen  led by the Hoima District Police Commander, Bernard Akankwasa; Deputy Resident District Commissioner (RDC), Ambrose Mwesigye and the Court Bailiff, Masindi High Court, Karaunta Tadeo.

The eviction order came from a consent judgment dated 17th September 2013 between two landowners in Hoima town—Tibagwa Joshua and Robert Bansigaraho, both of whom had unlawfully obtained land titles for two neighbouring land plots in Rwamutonga Village. After securing land titles for the encumbered land—the process by which this was made possible has yet to be justified by either the Area Land Committee or the Hoima District Land Board—the two landowners went into joint consent to consolidate their ownership.

A burnt house

Ruins of a house that was burnt during the evictions

As a prospective sight for a petroleum waste management plant, it appears that the financial gain to be made by the sale of the land overwhelmed Tibagwa and Bansigaraho as well as the local authorities considering that the parties involved proceeded to ignore all relevant legalities in order to carry out the eviction.

Now over a month later, more than 500 evicted individuals are stranded in a nearby village, putting up in temporary shelters. A number of them sustained injuries during the violent eviction that have gone untreated.

There are still a few individuals who have been missing since the day of the eviction including one elderly person and two children. Because the affected people had no prior notice of the eviction, they did not prepare any belongings or food to take with them. Many individuals have nothing left except the clothes they are wearing.

But it does not have to be this way. Rwamutonga can be the exception, not the rule, in respecting the rights of customary landowners as Uganda’s extractive sector matures.

During the ongoing mining legislation review, this issue should be given priority so that these details are stated explicitly in order to safeguard the rights of citizens.

One of the objectives of the Mineral Policy 2000 is “To develop the mineral sector for it to contribute significantly to sustainable national social and economic growth.”

The policy reinforces the importance of developing the mining sector for the citizens of Uganda, not in spite of them. The risks of not doing so are already evident in the oil region and must not be replicated throughout the country.

Kathleen Brophy Head ShotKathleen Brophy is the Extractive Industries Program Officer at Transparency International Uganda.