Recent evidence demonstrates a deterioration of human rights violations committed by the National Forestry Authority against indigenous peoples in Nebbi and Zombo (NFA)

New evidence shows that the National Forest Authority of Uganda is involved in various abuse of Indigenous people’s rights to ownership and utilization of land and forest resources in the districts of Zombo and Nebbi in the Albertine region of Uganda. It’s alleged that in many places within the region, NFA continued to use lethal force to evict communities from their land. Mr.William Anyolitho, the executive director of Life Concerns said that NFA is using herbicides to spray people’s crops to plant trees yet at the same time the NFA is engaged in practices of deforestation by cutting down trees for timber to benefit themselves alone.

The National Forestry Authority NFA  was recommended to give first priority to the local people in communities to plant the trees in reserved government forest land such that the locals can own the forest as the immediate population and who can play a primary role in protecting such forests and environment instead of prioritizing foreign self-interested business-oriented investors.

This was during the public hearing by the Land Inquiry Commission held in Nebbi on August,7,2019.

The public hearing was organized to meet and interact with the people of the greater Nebbi region which also includes the Zombo and Pakwach districts.

The Land Inquiry Commission which is headed by Justice Catherine Bamugemereire was appointed by the President of Uganda Y.K Museveni on 8 December 2016  as the commission of inquiry into the effectiveness of the law, policies, and processes of land acquisition, land administration, land management, and land registration in Uganda. The establishment of this commission followed the high levels of mismanagement within the lands sector in the whole country and abuse of people’s rights to land ownership, utilization, and acquisition hence one of its purpose is to investigate and inquire into the effectiveness of the laws and systems in the land sector and thereafter submit its final findings and recommendations.

The terms of reference under which the commission is conducting its work  include the following;

Investigate and inquire into the law, processes, and procedures by which land is administered and registered in Uganda.

Investigate and inquire into the role and effectiveness of the Uganda Land Commission in administering public land and the land fund.

Investigate, inquire into and review the effectiveness of the relevant bodies in the preservation of wetlands, forests and game reserves and examine ways in which the challenge of human habitation in those areas can be resolved.

To investigate, inquire and solicit views on the role of traditional, cultural and religious institutions who own large tracts of land with occupants in a bid to enhance better landlord/tenant relationships.

To assess the legal and policy framework for government land acquisition.

To identify, investigate and inquire into the effectiveness of the dispute resolution mechanisms available to persons involved in land disputes. To inquire into any other matter connected with or incidental to the matters aforesaid and make recommendations.

The commission shall make recommendations:-

For improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the law, policies, and processes of land acquisition, land administration, land management, and land registration in Uganda and proposing necessary reforms pertaining to civil, administrative, and criminal sanctions against persons found culpable for wrongdoing.

Justice Catherine Bamugemereire, the commissioner said that their visit to Nebbi was basically to listen to the people in the region about their concerns regarding land matters.

Other members of the commission that were present included Commissioner. Dr. Rose Nakayi, Com. Robert Ssebunya, Com. Mary Oduka Ochan Achan, Com. Joyce Gunze Habaasa, and Counsel Ebert Byenkya among others.

Justice Bamugemereire said that during the 1990s greater Nebbi region was such an interesting place which was covered by green with forests in most of the places. She expressed much concern and worries about the high levels of deforestation that are continuously taking place in the region in the presence of local leaders. She said that a lot of timber comes from Nebbi through Pakwach to Kampala for export, unfortunately, the trees that are being cut down are not replaced. She said that someone showed her a tree that was about one hundred years, “when shall our current generation ever plant a tree to grow for 100 years?” she claimed that when Nebbi got elevated from the Town Council status to Municipal Council, green bases started being given away by the Municipal Council leaders to self-interested investors who continuously abused the environment and its natural resources which are found in the region.

Justice Catherine Bamugemereire said that among the things the commission wanted to know from the people of the greater Nebbi region was; to understand how the issue of land is being handled, to understand whether local cultural leaders have powers in the region to execute land disputes since most of the land in Nebbi region is under customary land tenure system.

A lot of issues were raised by the community during the public hearing. These included among others;

The first complainant was a cultural elder from the kingdom who raised about three issues before the commission;

One of the lands given to our late fathers to use by the government for example in Abanga Zombo district is not properly being handled and used. Recently, it was transferred to an individual in the names of “Rwenzori Commodities” under the custody of Mukwano in just one week. Its mot clear how Rwenzori Commodities under Mukwano came to acquire that land, there was tension that arose from the public in protest of the land transfer and due to much pressure from the people, Mukwano withdrew from the land which is now under the protection of King Obimo.

The second issue he raised was about the land that was given for afforestation administered by National Forest Authority ion Kalowa between Nebbi and Zombo. The National Forest Authority is busy chasing away people from the land and when the survey exercise took place, some places and community land was left.

Another issue was about the registration of land titles. The process of registering land titles has never been completed and does not work properly. There is devaluation of land which is being titled under customary tenure system. If the land title is given to a customary land, it should have the same value like any other free-hold land.

His last issue was about conflict resolution. He said that conflict resolution due to land disputes is not clear in the region. Cultural institutions are being hindered to resolve land issues and conflicts that involve land with titles which ends up bringing gaps in the process of resolving such disputes. Under this issue, Justice Catherine said that many cultural institutions in the country have got weaker structures that could not be entrusted with resolving issues pertaining land disputes in communities, however, she inquired from the elder about what recommendations he would give to government regarding the issue. His response was “the government should just ensure that the cultural institutions are strengthened enough through capacity development in resolving such issue that arise due to land disputes in communities because they are the immediate responsible institutions.

One of the women representatives at the district council said that women are so vulnerable and going through many challenges as regards land issues. She said that there is no clear policy that guides the ownership of land to women. When for example a woman from Zombo gets married in Panyimur, her family members will tell her that she does not own any property there. Hers is what they have with her husband. And in the case when the husband dies, his family will tell her that she does not own any property and that everything belongs to their son. In that scenario, the woman has always been left alone with nothing from both families and in some instances with the children. She asked that policymakers should critically look into this issue. However, in reaction to her concern, Com. Mary Oduka Ochan told her that the constitution provides for the right to ownership of property by any person women inclusive and that women also have equal rights to own property including land just like any other person. In addition to that, Com. Robert Ssebunya commended her for being bold enough to speak for the rest of the voiceless women in communities and he tasked her that since the constitution provides for the right to own property by any person, she should take initiative of sensitizing her fellow women in communities who are ignorant of the law. It was also from here where Com. Robert Ssebunya said that according to their findings, “the law concerning land is generally not understood in many areas of the country” which calls for more sensitization of the communities.

The land evaluation problem. In many cases, government valuers tend to give less value to people’s lands in places where the government wants to implement its projects. This brings conflicts between the people in communities and the government arising from compensation rates. It is recommended that there should be a uniform payment for any piece of land that the government is interested in for its projects and compensation should be made complete before the commencement of the project at a price agreed upon and accepted by the owner of the land.

It was claimed that the National Forest Authority has been involved in various abuse of people’s rights to ownership and utilization of land in many places within the region.

Ongiertho Emmanuel who is the Member of Parliament for the Jonam constituency was also present during the meeting. Speaking on behalf of the people he represents he said that; People have lost trust in the whole system. Land cases brought before the court take too long to be handled which ends up causing a lot of chaos due to delays. There are high levels of threats of bloodshed among people in communities as a result of access to justice and clear systems to settle land disputes in communities. Families are selling all that they have got, their pieces of land, animals, and other things to be able to raise fees for court cases that do not even yield any results. He said that this is so painful to see what local poor people are going through at the cost of the big and well-connected officials in the government. He mentioned one UPDF officer in the name of Gen. Otema in the Nwoya district who has done all it takes to abuse the rights of the local people to the land. Many people have gone through difficult situations, he chased people out of their homes and burnt down their houses. Here, Justice C. Bamugemereire was able to recognize one of the victims present during the hearing whose house was burnt while inside. She said he was a town clerk during the time Nebbi was a Town council and she reacted in sympathy with him and all other victims present and absent, she promised to follow the actions of Gen. Otema and said that local people will get justice from all means. She also applauded the Member of Parliament Jonam Hon. Emmanuel for being able to stand for his people without fear or favor.

Nancy Oryema another participant in the public hearings told the gathering that she is a granddaughter to the Late. Inspector-General of Police (IGP) Erinayo Wilson Oryema who was murdered by former president Iddi Amin. Nancy’s story or complaint was also about the same person convicted above Gen. Otema who she said has made life so difficult for their family just because of the land they own from their fallen grandfather who died a serving citizen of this country. She said that Gen. Otema has encroached on their family land for which they have its title. The size of the land is 6,400 Acres located at Pabit Tangi in the Nwoya district. Among other people she mentioned who are also illegally occupying their land include; her Aunty Gertrude Auma Oryema, Beatrice Achola Odongo, Francis Gimara the former president of  Uganda Law Society, Major Alai a brother to Gen. Otema, and Richard Todwong.

She said;

“After our grandfather was killed during the war by Amin, they started to hunt down other members of the family and we left the country but we left some relatives on our land, we really don’t know what happened but what we know is that during the war soldiers came to our land and destroyed everything, he had about 4,000 cows, a home which was also brought down but Mr. President has promised compensation for that, he did a reburial for my grandfather which really brought us back and we are so much grateful to him. During that reburial he encouraged us, he did not know that there are so many of us ,so he encouraged us to come back home and he also said during the reburial that our land must returned to us. That did not happen because we have Gen. Otema and other powerful people on the land with soldiers. Just about a month ago a soldier with a tractor  were seen ploughing near our grandfather’s grave, they ploughed about 300 Acres of rice. We want to come but there is military, there is threats, now they are using local thugs to claim more and more of our land and the local police, the District Ppolice Commander of Nwoya and the Resident District Commisioner all have not helped us, we have complained about thugs coming on our land threatening us, they tell us to write statements we do that and the same thugs come back and say it is the District Police Commandor who told them to come on the land so it’s been frustrating really. And now when we come back to Uganda, we have to rent because we right now don’t have a home yet we have so much land and our grandfather served this country it is so painful. He had 11 children, 9 living, with so many grandchildren now who are wonderful people but they are all outside because obviously when they hear about the army on their land after the trauma we went through with Amin, nobody wants to come back. Am here to represent the rest of many family members who could not be able to be here today, am always moving under threats from people that some I don’t even know and my life is in danger just because of what belongs to me and my family.

You don’t have powers, nor guns, but if you have a voice and platform, utilize that opportunity. This is my case before the commission”.

In reaction to Nancy’s communication, Justice Bamugemereire got surprised that she was hearing again another case involving Gen. Otema abusing people’s rights over ownership of land, and for this, she vowed that the commission will critically deal with this issue with much urgency. She thanked Nancy for presenting this important matter that involves a powerful army official who acts in such a manner.

In her last words, Justice Bamugemereire tried to respond to some of the questions which were raised by the public. One person was complaining about the foreigners from Congo who have refused to return to their country and leave the local community’s land. This, the Justice said that a foreigner cannot own land in Uganda, they can only be given leases overland for a specific period of time like 18, 29, 39, 49, or 99 years. However, some people have stayed in for over 50 years and above in Uganda which has proven to be a challenging community to live in them.

At the enclosure of the meeting, she thanked the people of the greater Nebbi region for all the concerns they have raised and put before the commission as it will help to form better recommendations in their report to the president and all the necessary government departments responsible for any matter from the findings and the meeting came to an end with departure.

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