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{UAH} Allan/Gook/Pojim: Government treads slippery path in Madhvani-Amuru land saga

Kololo Village in Amuru district has a rather intriguing reminder of Kololo, an upscale suburb in the capital, Kampala, occupied by the moneyed class which makes decisions that affect the people of Kololo, hundreds of miles away, here in Kololo, Amuru.
On the day this writer visited, the host was a trading centre that brings out Uganda's archetypal village setting. In grass thatched houses are bars with blaring music from rag tag speakers and the scent of crude local liquor crackling nostrils as the sight of local food that whets appetite completes the cycle of what appears happiness in the air. But speak to the locals and the agony over the land conflict comes ripe.

A month before we visited, Ms Betty Amongi, the Lands minister, had appeared at the same spot and held marathon outreach meetings with these residents to explain the project and the government's viewpoint. Minister Amongi read to the residents a deed settlement between the government of Uganda and former MP Michael Ocula and others who were representatives of other land owners and the Amuru community dated January 6, 2015. Four of the others are Mr Concy Aciro, Mr David Penytoo, Mr Uma Zakeo and Mr Jack Obalim Weleya.
The substance of that deed settlement is by far the latest attempt at diffusing the tension and finding a lasting solution and Ms Amongi's delivery of the project that has stalled for 10 years will be hinged on and shaped by that settlement.
The settlement says in part: "The parties support the establishment of the sugar project by M/S Amuru Sugar Works Ltd in which Madhvani Group is proposed to acquire 49% shareholding (and) the appellants and the communities in the areas of Kololo, Lakang, Bana, Omee, Lujoro, LwakObito and Pailyech accept the grant of 10,000 hectares of part of their land to Amuru Sugar Works Ltd to establish a sugar factory."

The rest of the land in these places shall be protected for the communities in Amuru Sub County under customary land tenure system and a design and implementation caused of a special project to issue certificates of customary ownership.
Dismissing this settlement as 'fake', MP Oulanyah says: "If you read the settlement it all stinks of corruption. The President invited members of the community to his country home, got them to sign that deed settlement allowing for the land to go, and the whole thing leaves out local people who actually own the land. One of the former MPs, Ocula, who were with the community, were bribed to turn against them and he was even appointed ambassador. At the end of the day the poor people are stuck with these land grabbers paying our leaders off to keep quiet."

According to the deed settlement, the commissioner Mappings and Surveys in the ministry of Lands shall identify, open and survey the boundaries of the land granted to the company with the occupants of the land compensated taking into account the principle of displacement and loss of land rights with government paying prior, prompt, and adequate compensation for those directly affected.
Under Section 4 of the settlement, "the government of Uganda will acquire shares in the factory and communities in these areas shall identify and set up a legal entity to which some of government's shares shall be allocated."
At face value the settlement reads like a fairy take until one dives into the misgivings by the politicians and locals.
Museveni's intervention
To get this settlement, President Museveni had to personally engage land owners, local politicians and community representatives. He met several delegations from Acholi that included a former MP and critic of the proposed land giveaway, Mr Ocula, at his country home in Rwakitura, Western Uganda.
Mr Ocula, like many others who attended those meetings, returned and changed his stance before crossing from the Opposition Forum for Democratic Change to the ruling National Resistance Movement, running for and losing the MP seat, and later being appointed deputy ambassador.

Delegations of people purporting to own land in the disputed area have since solicited money from State House under the guise of getting that settlement accepted by the residents with fictitious land owners transported from northern Uganda to Kampala to meet the President.
MP Olanya uses Mr Ovhula's change of political sides as "a case in point of politicians here cutting deals to help the government and Madhvani grab land."
"If the government can come and negotiate with the people, the better. We shall not allow to be manipulated to give 10,000 hectares for free to Madhvani. The conflict started in 2006 and when Madhvani failed to acquire the land he started using local businessmen. We don't know of public land. This is communal land. We know the government has capacity to do anything including bribing MPs to keep changing their stance and support the project but we are not opposed to development. We want fairness," Mr Robert Okello, a resident, says.
MP Olanya, whose Kilak South Constituency is at the heart of the land crisis, was born here.

He says: "Madhvani started to acquire land in 2008, applied for 10,000 hectares and was advised that people are still in internally displaced people's camps so return when they return."
The period between 2009 and 2010 saw people return from camps where they had been plunged by the war to their homesteads.
"Instead of negotiating with the people the Madhvani Group goes to State House, comes with operatives and tells people to leave the land. In 2011 Museveni met us thrice over this issue but since then all we hear is that Madhvani has been given land. They have no land here. He connived with the district land board that gave him 10,000 hectares but they don't know where that land is. It was on paper," Mr Olanya says. The High Court has, however, ruled in Madhvani's favour, holding that his acquisition of the land was legitimate.

Mr K P Eswar, the corporate affairs director of the Group, however, says: "We cannot negotiate with the people because the district land board told us it owns the land and so we paid Shs 230 million to the right owner of the land. If it clarifies and says the land belongs to the people we shall return and talk to them."
MP Oulanyah, in a rejoinder to this, says: "You can clearly see that to get the land cheaply, the company went through the government, bribed the district land board to arrogate itself rights over the land and has continued to bribe people to ensure that the fake decision holds but we shall not allow (it)."
Mr Olanya adds: "In 2015 Museveni called the plaintiffs (Mr Ocula and group) to Rwakitura and came up with a document saying the community agrees to give the land. But the people on the ground are not involved. After signing that agreement (deed settlement) Ocula joined NRM."
In one of the meetings, the president proposed 49 percent shares to Madhvani and 51 percent to government, which the latter would share with the community.
Contrasting fortunes
At the point of entry to Amuru on your way from Gulu, en route these contested areas, the sight of neat plantations is hard to miss. Business people such as real estate entrepreneur Amina Hersi Moghe and Australians in Omee have their plantations flourishing.
One then wonders why these were hosted by the local people without as much resistance as the Madhvani Group has encountered.
"They are renting from the community and negotiated their way into the community. That was two years ago. Madhvani came eight years ago. The issue is the approach because it appears the company wants free land using the government to grab it. Even if they use force to grab our land the investor will get hard time here," Mr Olanya said.

After Minister Amongi's visit, security operatives would later go on an intimidation spree, preaching violence if the community resisted the deed settlement.
n an interview with this newspaper, Ms Amongi cut the poise of an official at ease and on top of the situation. She reveals she has initiated and is in advanced negotiations with land owners who have since agreed to surrender their land for development.
Prof Ogenga Latigo, the MP of Agago County also in Acholi, says: "Our poverty wagon is so heavy that we need a huge engine. The problem is that Gilbert's (Oulanya) opposition to the project is not a process but barrier to moving beyond the original conflict. Some people attach value to emotions. The driver of the Madhvani conflict is not land ownership but politics of acquisition."
Prof Latigo adds: "The district legitimately gave him (Madhvani) land but the locals think he is an outsider and part of the NRM regime so he must be fought. But we have a huge youth population cut off from the formal education chain who need such jobs where they won't be asked for a certificate. It is not true he (Madhvani) is grabbing land. Who are the land owners? None of those people can tell you where their grandparents are buried."
Is oil driving the conflict?
The other narrative is that the despair by businesspeople and the State to get this land is a veiled fortune hunt for minerals, particularly oil.
Aswa County MP Reagan Okumu says: "Amuru is an oil belt. Those who want its land wrongly assume the local people don't know. Well they do and they shall not be pushovers."
In December 2008 oil companies Tullow and Heritage revealed they had discovered commercially viable deposits of oil in Amuru District, particularly in Murchison Falls National Park. The Madhvani area of interest is several kilometres, as is Apaa where women undressed, away from Murchison Falls.

This reality casts doubt on the narrative but creates another conspiracy theory that leans towards the suggestion that perhaps more deposits are yet to be revealed, hence the rush for land in Amuru by senior army and political leaders. This proposition is backed not by hard fact but circumstantial evidence.
In the book "Oil Conflict-Livelihoods Nexus: A case of Amuru District, Uganda" published in 2012, Caxton Etii writes, "Soon after discovery of a world class oil deposit in Amuru District in Northern Uganda, the black gold discovery has quickly proved its unpleasant consequences on the already war affected population." He then asks, "Is the discovery oiling conflict or development in Amuru?"
Mr Eswar scoffs at the claims that they want the land because of oil. "Let's make educated arguments. Even if there were minerals there those minerals under the law remain the property of government of Uganda. So what is the point?"

As the decision makers driven by economic and political interests continue to find a magic bullet to the 10 year standoff, the local population in Amuru is resolute and more united by a cocktail of fear, suspicion and conspiracy fuelled by politicians.
With each side stuck to its guns, some political voices opposed to the project bought off and Ms Amongi determined to push through the project, the contest over this land remains a bubble only a storm will burst. That would come with dire repercussions.

Government treads slippery path in Madhvani-Amuru land saga - Daily Monitor

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