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How officials looted Shs158 billion from Land Fund

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Probe. Justice Catherine Bamugemereire (left), the head of the Commission of Inquiry into Land Matters, and other members of the commission, listen to an official from the Nakaseke District land office at a public hearing in Nabbika Village, Nakaseke District, recently. PHOTO BY DAN WANDERA 

A potentially mega corruption scandal worth more than Shs158b threatens to shatter the country’s record of stealing public resources in a single scheme involving a web of government officials, lawyers and other private citizens.
The network is suspected to have carefully hatched and fuelled the ripping-off of public money from the “land fund” with impunity for at least 15 years.

It is a story that begins with the failure by government officials to establish proper procedures to run the Land Fund and ends with the same officials working with a carefully selected team with access to power to dig their fingers deeper into the government purse.

The tale of mega theft also involves the same team, using insider information, manipulating would-be or intended beneficiaries with paltry pay-offs and or forged documents.
To date, the Land Fund established under Section 41 of the Land Act as a “multi-purpose resource envelope meant to serve targeted beneficiaries, including tenants seeking to buy or own land, government seeking to buy land for redistribution to bonafide occupants or resettlement of the landless, among others” has never been operationalised but some government officials working with the “network” are using funds for the “support Uganda Land Commission” project to enrich themselves through shady reimbursements.

Through this and other avenues, taxpayer money has been channeled out ostensibly as compensation to absentee landlords in former lost counties of Buyaga and Bugangaizi in present day Kibaale District in Bunyoro. In 2002, government set up a land fund, among other things, to buy off the absentee landlords who hold land titles in Kibaale and other parts of the country.

In other cases payments have been made and are still being made in names of people who are already dead. The scandal has also put the role of some judicial officers in facilitating the theft of public resources in the spotlight.
For instance, some officers at Hoima Chief Magistrates’ Court issued letters of administration for property valued in billions of shillings yet the court has no jurisdiction to handle transactions worth Shs100m and above.

Sources privy to the dirt that is believed to have been kicked off in 2002 say the Commission of Inquiry into Land matters led by Justice Catherine Bamugemereire has only scratched the surface of the “land fund cash bonaza”. But the commission is still probing deeper with more people expected to be summoned as revelations of their greasy hands come to the fore.

“People who own the land didn’t get the money but it went to underserving people. At least 90 per cent of those who got the money are either middlemen or smart conmen in town,” a senior member of the commission told this newspaper in reference to what they have so far unearthed.
The official declined to be named and instead asked Saturday Monitor to quote their statements during the commission’s proceedings.

By the end of the ongoing investigations, the “land fund scandal” will share the same infamous podium with the 2012 Pension’s scandal in which taxpayers lost at least Sh169b and another at the Office of the Prime Minister where at least Shs50b was lost.
Similar corruption scandals that have raised eyebrows include one stemming from the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which is estimated to have cost the taxpayer in excess of Shs247b.

Another was Shs95b reportedly stolen in the Global Fund scandal in 2008, Shs19b under the National ID scandal of 2010, Shs4b under the local council Bicycle Scandal of 2011, and more than Shs60b under the Microfinance Scandal, and at least 169b in the controversial compensation to businessman Hassan Basajjabalaba in 2011.

Same old?
Corruption scandals in the country are a common occurrence and the aforementioned are just a tip of the iceberg, and many Ugandans will, most likely, not be surprised at a new one. However, many are likely to be baffled at the extent and length of time it took for some questions to be asked of those involved.

More importantly, it will be victims like, Teddy Nansubuga who was reportedly conned of more than Shs1.4b by her lawyer that will be left with more questions than answers.
Ms Nansubuga owned more than 200 hectares of land in Kibaale District. She inherited the land from her deceased parents.

In the course of the Bamugemereire commission hearings, it became apparent that Ms Nansubuga, who is illiterate, was taken advantage of by her lawyer, Mr Richard Buzibira, who convinced her to transfer her powers of attorney to him.

In explaining to Ms Nansubuga what had happened to her, the commission’s deputy lead counsel, Mr John Bosco Suuza, perhaps summarised it best.
“These thugs, these thieves, they took advantage of you – a poor lady with limited education and exposure. They lied to you and they conned you out of all those millions that I have told you. Not only that, they used your name and went to the highest office in the land and claimed to be acting on your behalf. Somewhere along the way, a minister [Ms Betty Amongi] got involved. More money was paid in your name and you know nothing about it, which is tragic,” he said.

Mr Lawrence Semakula, the Accountant General, has already apologised for his office’s failure to detect and avert the theft of public resources. From his submissions before the commission, it appeared, he could only do so much given the powerful individuals involved.

“It is not true that we don’t have the guidelines and laws in place. The guidelines and laws are there, but they are abused by individuals,” he said before issuing an apology.
Out of the Shs1.4b Mr Buzibira and others picked on behalf of Ms Nansubuga without her knowledge, she was only paid Shs260m. The rest of the money ended in the pockets of Mr Buzibira and others. The sad tale of what befell Ms Nansubuga pales when compared to the case of “businessman” Warren Mwesigye who allegedly, fraudulently, received Shs13b from the Land Fund.

The scheme reportedly starts with Mwesigye purchasing five square miles of land in 2015 from different people at Shs500m only to claim payment shortly after from the Land Fund.
The alleged scheme by Mr Mwesigye is only an extension of the allegations against Mr Buzibira and his associates at Frank Katusiime and Company Advocates. It was a chain according to revelations from the Bamugemereire-led land commission.

Lawyer Buzibira would allegedly trick the “illiterate” owners to grant him powers of attorney, he would then transfer ownership to Mwesigye who would then whip government bureaucracy into an unusual efficiency.
In the end, at least Shs13b was released from the Land Fund to Mr Mwesigye. That, however, was not the end of the string.

The actual beneficiaries of what now appears to be a fraudulent scheme were watching and waiting in Mr Mwesigye’s account for their share, at least by Mr Mwesigye’s confession.
He told the commission that money went directly to his creditors including Legacy Group owned by businessman Ben Kavuya. Mr Mwesigye did not name the other beneficiaries.
But Kavuya in an Interview with Saturday Monitor dismissed Mr Mwesigye’s claims.
“I absolutely disassociate myself from that fellow. We’re a legitimate business company and he has never even tried to borrow from us. What he did is very bad and he did it under oath,” Mr Kavuya said. He had also in an earlier interview with this newspaper asserted that his company had no records of ever lending to Mr Mwesigye.

Commission’s lead counsel Ebert Byenkya told Saturday Monitor, in an interview, that it was becoming clear each day that the people who benefitted were not entitled. He, however, explained that they would summon more people in the coming days over the fraudulent scheme.

Those accused of involvement in scam

Richard Buzibira, an associate at Frank Tumusiime and Company Advocates, is accused by the Commission of Inquiry into Land Matters of being the face of a scheme that fraudulently acquired more than Shs16 billion meant to compensate 20 claimants from the Land Fund since 2013.
Mr Buzibira and others, it is alleged, fraudulently acquired letters of attorney from their clients and working with senior government officials processed and received billions of shillings.
He stands accused of conspiracy and involvement in the questionable dealings, failure to act professionally, and other criminal acts.
“We began receiving instructions for Land Fund in 2013 and I acted as an agent and advocate. The clients came on referral basing on the number of cases I had handled. The money was paid quarterly in instalments and the vouchers show that Shs13.3 billion has since been paid and balances in the range of Shs5 billion is still pending,” Mr Buzibira testified.

Pr Daniel Walugembe, who doubles as a land dealer, is accused of defrauding government of more than Shs2.5b. He was arrested and detained after being quizzed by the commission.
Pr Walugembe of Internal Gospel Church in Kampala was dragged to the land commission by Elisabeth Musoke, a clinical psychologist, for allegedly selling land belonging to her family to the Uganda Land Commission (ULC) without consent. The land in dispute measures approximately 507 acres. Pr Walugembe denies the fraud charges. He says he paid Shs500m for the land he later sold to government at the amount.

Dennis Musinguzi

The former Kibaale District staff surveyor acquired more than 1,000 acres at Shs72,000 nominal fees and later sold the same land to ULC in 2014 at more than Shs1b.
He sold another portion of land to Hoima Sugar Ltd at Shs390m. He is also accused of aiding several government officials and other powerful individuals to acquire substantial pieces of land later sold to government through the scheme.
His role, it is alleged, was to check the accuracy of the survey files and also ensure the title was followed. He denied that he procured proprietorship of land occupied by other people to dupe government and acquire payment of Shs1b but admitted receiving the money and sharing it with other people whom he preferred revealing to the commission in a closed-door session. Mr Musinguzi, is currently a senior land management officer for Hoima District. He was arrested and released after recording a statement with the police.

James Sakka

The Executive Director of National Information Technology Authority-Uganda (NITA-U), is accused of selling a 640-acre piece of land at Bugangaizi, Kibaale District, at Shs928m obtained from the Land Fund. Part of his land is reportedly worthless. Mr James Sakka has since got a payment of Shs402m.
Mr Sakka was also faulted for selling land which did not qualify under the Land Fund, did not execute a sale agreement with ULC and did not qualify to be an absentee landlord as required by law.
The “worthless” land was valued at Shs480m while 70 per cent of the land that was occupied by squatters was valued at Shs448m.
In his testimony, Mr Sakka admitted receiving Shs402m in instalments out of total Shs927m. His land was valued at Shs15.2m.

Robert Mwesigwa Rukaari is accused of receiving Shs4.1b from the Land Fund in 2016 and 2017 for land on Plot 1 Block 123, Plot 2 Block 269 in Buyanda and Plot 3 Block 62 in Bugangaizi yet he neither owned land nor was an absentee landlord in the area.
“I first received Shs455m in 2016 and then in January 2017, I received Shs100m and in June I received Shs3.6b,” he told the commission.
He was accused of using his influence as chairman of NRM National Entrepreneur’s League and his American Procurement Company to receive the payments from government. Mwesigwa and Pr Walugembe used J.L. Oulanyah & Co Advocates owned by Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah to receive at least Shs8.6b from the Fund.

Rogers Kweezi is the principal human resource officer of Kibaale District. He is accused of, among other things, corruption, connivance, conflict of interest and abuse of office in regard to acquisition of the land. He was quizzed by the commission and later arrested for his role in regards to various plots of land he acquired and sold to ULC at Shs3.7b upon investing only Shs210,000. He disputed valuation reports but admitted receiving more than 50 per cent of the total sale price and that part of the money was paid to his wife Carolyn Kisembo, who applied for one of the portions of land.

Pius Bigirimana

The Ministry of Gender Permanent Secretary, Mr Pius Bigirimana is accused of having received under unclear circumstances compensation for land in Zirobwe from the Fund yet he did not qualify for compensation.
He reportedly demanded for Shs504m from the Fund in 2016 for 50.5 acres of land on Plot 5 Bulemeezi Block 103 that had been encroached on by squatters.
In line with the request, Lands minister Betty Amongi wrote to the commission in 2016 authorising the initial payment of Shs50m by the Uganda Land Commission to Mr Bigirimana. He later received Shs150m in 2017 for the same land.
Mr Bigirimana pleaded that he never got to know he did not qualify for the compensation but if the commission thinks he did not qualify, he is ready to follow their recommendation.

Kasirivu Atwooki

The State minister in-charge of Economic Monitoring in the Office of the President was at one time a State minister for Lands. He has been named as one of the people who acquired large tracts of an unsurveyed land belonging to the Kibaale District Land Board.
It is alleged Mr Kasirivu and other district officials paid Shs70,000 nominal fees to acquire certificates of titles for thousands of acres of land in various parts of the district so as to enrich themselves. The commission termed his alleged activities as constituting “conflict of interest and abuse of office”.

Betty Amongi

Lands, Housing and Urban Development minister Betty Amongi has been questioned about her role in handling of the Land Fund and failure to manage the same. She has also been cited for overstepping her mandate in making directives to pay from the Fund, some well-connected individuals.

Patrick Zikasangisa

By 2013, Patrick Zikasangisa, a local businessman in Kagadi, had invested Shs15m to acquire land yet he is claiming Shs904m from the Fund. With help allegedly from his area MP and friend, Finance minister Matia Kasaija, Lands minister Amongi and ULC boss Baguma Isoke, he has received more than Shs100m from the Fund and was due to be paid more when the commission of inquiry intervened. He has been accused of fraud, speculation to get money from government and telling lies, among other things.

Ms Molly Kamukama

The Principal Private Secretary to President Museveni, Ms Molly Kamukama, was questioned by the commission for allegedly directing payments from the Land Fund. She, however, said her letters were meant to address the Lands authorities on concerns raised before the President and did not in any way imply directives.

Albert Jethro Mugumya

The Uganda Land Commission (ULC) undersecretary was gilled for his role in the management of the Fund, including effecting payments based on “special requests” of minister Amongi.
On November 23, 2016, for example, he effected payment of Shs620m to nine people on the directives of Ms Amongi. He also effected payments of Shs100m for Ms Victoria Kakoko-Sebagereka, Shs50m to Mr Kuriash Barinda of Isingiro District, and Shs675.8m to Yisaka Lwakana for land at Kooki, Katete.

Source: Daily Monitor

Witness Radio Milestones

Canada’s Development Finance Institution and Land Grabbing in Africa

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On Wednesday, April 27th, 2022, we caught up with Devlin Kuyek, a researcher at GRAIN, a small international non-profit organization that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems, and Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala, the Director of Witness Radio Uganda, a not-for-profit national organization which combines both media approaches and legal aid support to mobilize, connect and empower small holder farmers to speak with one voice against land injustices and push for equitable access to opportunities and resources.

This interview is part of a series with the Blended Finance Project a group of unions, non-governmental organizations and academics who are concerned about the Canadian government’s embrace of what is called “blended finance.” We argue that blended finance is merely the latest iteration of the privatization and financialization of foreign aid and seek to engage others in Canada and around the world to propose more equitable public alternatives.

Adrian Murray (AM) and Susan Spronk (SS): In the Blended Finance Project, we have documented how blending uses public money to leverage private money and to shift the risk of investment from the private to the public sector by subsidizing commercial actors. Witness Radio and GRAIN have been supporting communities negatively affected by the very harmful role that unaccountable private equity firms are playing in land grabbing throughout the world, a process which is often facilitated by public development banks and development finance institutions (DFIs). How are blending and other so-called innovative finance mechanisms implicated in these land grabbing deals?

Devlin Kuyek (DK): GRAIN’s focus is on food and agriculture, but blending is a common trend unfolding in multiple sectors. In many countries in the global South, food systems are still largely in the hands of small-scale food producers: farmers, pastoralists, fisher folk. Markets are managed and controlled by small vendors. These food systems do a great job of providing people with nutritious food. They’re sustainable and they’re low emission. But they do not serve the interest of corporations because there’s no room there for corporations to profit. These are the kinds of growth areas where multinational food and agribusiness corporations and financial firms are looking to grow, that is, ‘frontier markets’. Some corporations call this initiative ‘digging into the pyramid;’ the bottom of the pyramid, where most people are.

Now in these areas investment is not so easy: there are difficulties with infrastructure, land conflicts, etc. Expanding agribusiness there involves dispossessing people from their land. It’s risky from a corporate point of view, and they have more difficulties attracting finance to move into these areas. The development banks play a key role in providing that kind of investment, which is where they come in. They’ll provide loans or even equity investments in some of these companies that are operating in these ‘frontier areas’, that provides a bit of a guarantee to other investors who might come in via pension funds or other institutional investors. So, development banks actually play a major role in expanding agribusiness into these areas and that’s why they’re so involved in land grabbing, in the destruction of local markets and all kinds of other conflicts that we see.

Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala (GWS): This kind of development creates a lot of conflict. I’ve just returned from court in the countryside, Kiryandongo in Uganda. For the last two years we’ve been pushing and supporting civil court cases that were filed by communities that are being forcefully evicted by multinational agribusiness companies – American, Indian and many others. We are happy that the cases are finally being heard. It’s been a long struggle.

AM and SS: Canada established a development finance institution called FinDev in 2017 headquartered in Montreal, Quebec. What has been the track record of FinDev thus far?

DK: I’ve looked mainly at their investments in Africa in the food sector. This sort of ‘new’, innovative financing institution is, interestingly enough, involved in old colonial style projects: several of their investments are involved in plantations on large areas of land.

One of FinDev’s investments is in a company called Miro Forestry, which has large-scale industrial tree plantations on 21,000 hectares in Sierra Leone and 10,000 hectares in Ghana. In both instances there are land conflicts with local communities. In Sierra Leone, the contracts that they signed for the leases over the lands stipulate that the company pays the communities only two dollars per hectare, per year for this loss of their lands. With these deals, communities lose their ability to gain livelihoods from these areas. Miro Forestry establishes tree plantations, so there’s very little job creation. The communities are saying that the company has not lived up to even the meager promises they made: to build schools, to provide social services, decent jobs, etc. These areas are now fenced off so that communities have trouble accessing the water sources and other resources that they used to have access to. They have difficulty even accessing the road that cuts through the area. In Ghana, there are similar complaints: lack of consultation; people’s crops were destroyed when the company moved in and took over the lands, etc.

By building these tree plantations, the company is also selling carbon credits. These deals allow some of the worst polluters on the planet to purchase carbon credits so they can keep on polluting. It is part of their business model. This form of ‘development’ thus involves taking away the land and resources that people could have for local food production in countries that will be hardest hit by the climate crisis. The local communities become dependent on food imports. And the profits go mainly to foreign investors that are involved.

DFIs are also investing in private equity funds. This is a growing trend in Africa and elsewhere where you see private equity companies established through offshore structures, operating through tax havens, who charge huge management fees. One particular fund that FinDev is invested in is managed by Phatisa, a company based in Mauritius. They have these fee structures whereby a large portion of whatever profits come out of this end up with the fund managers. They also seek very high returns so the investments that are being made by these development banks through them are seeking high returns in food and agriculture in Africa, meaning they’re extracting a lot of the wealth that could be generated from food and agriculture on the continent and taking it out of the countries and the continent. They’re also invested in some large, multinational food and agribusiness corporations like the Export Trading Group. It’s hard to understand why the Canadian government is providing a subsidized form of finance to a multinational corporation in order for it to expand into Africa in this way.

AM and SS: Turning to the effects of blending on local communities, can you tell us why it’s been so difficult for communities that you work with and others to hold these development finance institutions accountable?

GWS: We have been trying to establish whether FinDev is active in Uganda, but we do not know.

It is difficult to get information about who is funding what never mind holding the companies and institutions involved accountable. Our experience is that neither the development finance institutions, nor the companies and private equity firms that they finance, engage with local communities from the word ‘go’. Local communities don’t decide which projects they should have. These institutions do not seek community consent regarding what projects take place on their land. It is a very violent process. People lose everything from their livelihoods to social well-being because of these investment projects.

In the Ugandan context, the field of investment is marred with a high level of corruption. Information about investment is hidden from communities until organizations like Witness Radio, GRAIN and a few others do background checks to establish where the money is coming from to evict these communities. And, of course, the journey to get a remedy, is not an easy journey. Internal accountability mechanisms, take a lot of time. Resorting to domestic courts is another horrible experience one can talk about. So, yeah, there is a lot that really needs to be done.

DK: Development banks like to portray themselves as being held to a higher level of environmental and social governance standards. Some of them even have grievance mechanisms in place. Our experience is that these do nothing to address the huge power imbalance that exists between the companies they invest in, who are very often closely aligned with local elites, and the marginalized communities where they operate and are taking land.

Take the case of Feronia. It’s a Canadian-based company traded on the public stock exchange – now bankrupt – but operating oil palm plantations on over 100,000 hectares of land in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For years and years, communities issued statements and memorandums, documented human rights abuses, environmental violations and egregious labor violations, thereby exposing many illegalities when it came to the land occupation. And the development banks, who actually had majority control of this corporation for several years, did nothing but parrot the words of the executives who were not even based locally. There was no serious effort to investigate the actual allegations that were being made.

It came to a point where a grievance was filed for a mediation process by 11 of the affected communities, which was accepted by the international complaints mechanism of the German and Dutch development banks (the French development bank is also now part of it). That process has dragged on for three years now. In the midst of that process the development banks exited entirely, handing the company over to a private equity fund. It was just completely unaccountable to anyone. The reports coming out of human rights abuses remain as egregious as ever, but this complaint mechanism now has very little teeth. So even in a best-case scenario where there is a grievance process, there is almost no accountability.

AM and SS: Given what you’ve told us about DFIs, including FinDev Canada, what would you argue: should these institutions be reformed or just abolished. And if abolished, what would you like to see in their place? What do we need?

DK: Well, our focus is on food and agriculture. Development finance is fundamentally about providing more investment and finance. It’s about channeling money, more money. A lot of it going toward the expansion of corporate agribusiness. It’s structured in a way that makes it impossible to imagine how that money could go towards funding agroecology, land redistribution, the functioning of smallholder markets and local food systems, farmer seed systems. FinDev is about creating the sort of corporate profit structures and industrial agricultural models of production that have nothing to do with the needs and interests of local communities, which is supposed to be what these funds are set up to do.

Development finance institutions like FinDev are, in a sense, a colonial holdover, and that’s why they fund things like plantations. After 300 years of experience with plantations, it’s very difficult to imagine how any institution concerned with development could think that that would be an appropriate investment and yet that’s what they’re committed to and doing. So, in our view, we don’t need more of these development banks. They should be abolished. That’s not where public money should be going.

If Canada and other countries are interested in supporting different systems that that are able to deal with the climate crisis, that are able to get over some of the systemic and structural issues that are the cause of poverty and that are plaguing local communities, so that their needs are actually met, we need a totally different mechanism. And those mechanisms should be in some way accountable to the people that they are supposed to be serving. At a minimum, such a mechanism requires a governance structure with a very strong voice and representation within the decision-making for the communities that they’re supposed to be serving. We are very far from that now.

GWS: I don’t know how best we can reverse this. First, we need development finance institutions and banks to accept the mistakes that they’ve made and then they need to come up with clear, straightforward plans on how they are going to fix these problems.

Second, there must be close supervision and monitoring of where the money has been pumped into, and what it’s doing. Institutions and investors must follow due process. Because they seem to claim that they follow environmental protections, human rights protections and many other things, they do not have a clear plan for monitoring where the money goes. Monitoring and enforcement needs to happen from day one.

Third, we need development banks to bring real development. If the majority of local communities continue to lose their land to investors, people will target those international investments with demonstrations and strikes. And therefore, there’s no sustainable future for these kinds of investments that operate in countries like Uganda. Doing meaningful, responsible business should be the starting point if they want to protect their investments and also their profits.

AM and SS: A statement that was signed by over 80 civil society organizations issued in October of 2021 in advance of the Finance in Common Conference on Agriculture that was being organized by the public development banks states the following: “we call for the creation of a fully public and accountable funding mechanisms that support people’s efforts to build food sovereignty realize the human rights of food, protect and restore ecosystems and address the climate emergency.” What does this funding mechanism look like? Can you provide an example?

GWS: It’s very difficult right now to determine or define how best this should be done. Right now we are strategizing on how best to make the current financial actors accountable to communities. In Uganda we in communities can’t rely on the government. They have disappointed us. But nor can we trust the financiers, because they’ve taken away our land our livelihoods. It’s a mess.

DK: I don’t think there’s one existing case that would match with the ideal articulated in the statement. But, it is still a vision worth striving for. As Geoffrey notes, most governments do not seem interested.

Instead, governments are involved in the current push towards blended finance. Blended finance is all about ensuring that any state project is ultimately backed by people, so we have the final responsibility for it. But it’s our money. The risk is all taken by the government and the people. And the private sector has control and makes the profits.

With blended finance, development finance is making an already atrociously corrupt situation even worse. More money is not going to resolve this problem. So, there is certainly a need for international solidarity. Right now, the context is so toxic and corrupt that the real thing that we need to do as Canadians right now is to make sure that there is no way that any public money in our name goes to make matters worse for people on the ground.

There’s a great photo that Witness Radio took in Kiryandongo that captures what the development finance model is accomplishing right now. You see a tractor from the company which has received money from a development bank, after a forceful eviction of the people, plowing up their cassava crop, which is a very sustainable, important local crop. They’re destroying it in order to be able to plant corn or maize or soybeans for export.

Whatever shape this new, public, accountable finance mechanism takes, whether a government program, bilateral aid or some kind of small grant fund that is able to support communities, the fund needs to be accountable to the local people, be respectful of their control over their land, resources and territories. We need to build from these principles and demand that our governments create such mechanisms. •

Adrian Murray is a SSHRC post-doctoral fellow at the University of Johannesburg researching labour and social movement opposition to the neoliberal restructuring of public services.

Susan Spronk teaches international development and global studies at the University of Ottawa.

Original Source: Socialistproject.ca

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Livelihood, Land And Investment

Six community land rights defenders have been set free after spending three years on remand without trial on murder charges.

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By Witness Radio – Team

The Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) Ms. Jane Francis Abodo has withdrawn murder charges against six land rights defenders who were arrested, charged, and sent to prison in 2019. 

On Friday, the 24th of June, 2022, Mubende Grade one Magistrate Her Worship Atim Harriet Okello signed a release order to free the six defenders who have been on remand without trial.

Tumusiime Benjamin, Bagirana Innocent, Habana Domoro, Miyingo Gerald, Byangaramani Charles, and Byekwaso Fred were arrested in February 2019 by armed policemen attached to Mubende police on orders of one Naava Milly Namutebi. They were accused of empowering the community to resist forced evictions. 

The defenders were fighting to stop forced eviction on land measuring 3.5 square miles covering villages namely; Kirwanyi central, Kirwanyi East, Kirwanyi West, Nakasagazi, Kituule A, Kituule B, Kibalagazi A, Kibalagazi B, Kakkanembe, Bukyambuzi A, Bukyambuzi B, Kisende, Mulanda, Kituule central, Kirwanyi A, and Butayunja in Kirwanyi and Kituule parishes in Butoloogo Sub County in Mubende district.

The current update on the grabbed land indicates that it’s still raw land.

The defenders’ imprisonment was intended to eliminate them after they were framed for having killed one Mbabazi Samuel who was a casual laborer to a self-claimed landlord Naava Milly Namutebi.  

One of the imprisoned defenders Tumusiime Benjamin narrated that before they were detained on murder charges, Mubende police had earlier arrested and charged them with aggravated robbery, a case that was also land-related, and released them on police bond.

On March, 2nd, 2019 while reporting on bond, they were instead re-arrested taken to Mubende magistrate court to be charged with murder, and remanded to Kaweeri Prison. 

“One day while we were being taken to court for our case mention, a prison officer told us we don’t deserve to be free since we are killers, but some of us even did not know the worker they accused us of killing”, Tumusiime narrated. 

Tumusiime further narrated that after six months on remand, they were taken back to the same court, which committed them to the High court to be tried, and later, remanded to different prisons which include Muyinaina, Kaweeri, and Kitalya respectively, adding that they had never been brought back to court until their release.

“As soon as we were eliminated (arrested and imprisoned), Naava found ease in grabbing more land because the community was left in cold upon learning about our arrest and imprisonment. She deployed the army and private security guards that have been protecting the grabbed land.” Tumusiime added. 

Such tactics of weakening land rights defenders through abusive criminal charges are on the rise in Uganda. Not only in the Mubende district where such abusive charges are used to silence defenders but also in other areas that experience rampant land grabs namely; Kiryandongo, Kayunga, Hoima, Buliisa, Moroto, and other districts in Uganda.

“Take notice that government of Uganda intends to discontinue proceedings against 6 charged with murder” A legal notice seen by Witness Radio – Uganda and signed by the DPP on the 22nd of May 2022 reads in part

Since 2012, Naava with support from a senior officer of Uganda People Defense Forces Major Eric Kigamboha have displaced over 4000 people from their land without a court order and continues to perpetrate violence against families that are still staying on the land.

“We used to sleep in the bush to avoid being attacked at night by armed gangs employed by Naava. People were beaten, arbitrarily arrested, and accused of trumped-up charges. Since then, some have been forced to vacate the land for fear of their lives.” Mr. Ssesazi Christopher another defender told Witness Radio – Uganda.

Whereas Benjamin and others were released, their lives remain distorted, their land was grabbed by Naava and they now depend on well-wishers for their survival. “My family separated. I had two wives and 20 children but all separated looking for their means of survival. My children stopped going to school and the girls were married because ideally, they had nothing to feed on or where to go. In addition to that, all 40 acres of my land were grabbed. I remained with only my little house,” Benjamin revealed.

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Witness Radio Milestones

35,000 evicted residents in Kiryandongo district face starvation

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Families are living on one meal a day. File Photo

More than 35,000 people who were evicted from their land in Kiryandongo district are on the verge of starvation.

The victims mainly women, children, and the elderly from ten villages were evicted in 2020 from their land measuring approximately 9,300 acres. The residents have been feuding with three companies who are also claiming ownership of the land and are alleged to have fraudulently acquired land titles.

The companies are Kiryandongo Sugar Limited, Agilis Partners Limited, and Great seasons SMC limited. They have set up various investments on the land including sugarcane growing, soya beans, sunflower, maize, and coffee farming respectively.

The residents who had been settling on the land for generations have since dragged the three companies to Masindi High Court for illegal eviction.

Harriet Mbabazi, 60, who has settled on the land since her childhood says that life has not been the same. She says her family now depends on one meal a day and sometimes sleeps on an empty stomach. She wants the government to compel the companies to compensate them for the damages caused.

Joseph Walekula, 50 says the investors have blocked them from planting crops on the land. He adds that access to water, schools, and health services has equally become difficult to access.

Peninah Kansiime, a mother of 7 says women are struggling to fend for their families. She says all her children have been forced to drop out of school since she doesn’t have money to pay school fees.

Pascal Bataringaya, 60 says her semi-permanent house was demolished and his crops destroyed during the eviction.

Wilson Tugume, the Kiryandongo sub county LC3 chairperson says the current situation is beyond their control. He has however faulted some district leaders and some members of the district security committee for allegedly conniving with the investors to forcefully grab land and evict people.

Patrick Manyuru, the Muntunda sub county LC3 chairperson wants the government to intervene and save the lives of the people.

Emmanuel Onyango, the Public Relations Officer for Agilis Partners says they genuinely acquired the land and gave people enough time to vacate in vain.

Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala, the Country Director of Witness Radio says it is unfortunate that the people were evicted without being compensated by the companies.

Original Source: Uganda Radio Network(URN) Via The Independent

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