By Baluku Alex
The fight over access to land for farming or grazing in Kasese has become a major new threat to the region’s return to peace.
These conflicts involve farmers who are predominantly Bakonzo and the Basongora, the cattle keepers. Also, a section of leaders and individuals in the district have been cited to be some of the perpetuators of the conflicts on land. Some leaders are accused of taking sides during the negotiations with the conflicting parties and individuals accused of grabbing land belonging to the locals.
On 23rd May 2022, about 10 residents representing over 1000 families stormed the office of the Kasese Resident District Commissioner (RDC) demanding that government should expeditiously resolve the conflict over land in Butsumba-muro, Kihara Ward of Nyamwamba Division in Kasese Municipality.
The locals in this area have seen a series of conflicts over the ownership of over 1000 acres of land in the area; and more specifically wrangles over the administration of Bazira estate.
Ali Balikowa and Patrick Mwesige, some of the residents in the area who were part of the team that stormed the RDC’s office, accuse Kashagama the self-proclaimed King of the Basongora of intimidating them for their continued use of the land.
“Leaders connive with pastoralists to continue grazing their cattle from the land even when all activities were banned”, complained Gideon Bwambale, a farmer on the contested land of Butsumba-muro.
Jostus Sunday, the Local Council I Chairperson of the area says that there has been a long standing dispute over the land between a section of community members and Dan Kashagama.
Sunday alleges that the land wrangles have also posed a threat to food security in the area since people do not cultivate on the land because of uncertainty surrounding its ownership.
However, in an interview with this reporter, Kashagama dismissed the accusations and said that he was only waiting for court to pronounce itself on the matter.
Kasese district has experienced a series of land conflicts in the areas of Kabukero, Bigando in Karusandara, and Rwehingo in Nyakiyumbu Sub Counties including Butsumba-Muro in Nyamwamba Division of Kasese Municipality.
Last year, farmers from the areas of Mubuku in Rukoki sub-county also accused the office of the RDC for exacerbating land wrangles between the Basongora cattle keepers and Bakonzo cultivators.
The Kasese Resident District Commissioner (RDC) Lt. Joe Walusimbi halted all activities on the contested piece of land to prevent conflicts and fighting between the Bakonzo and Basongora communities.
This followed renewed clashes among the two groups that left at least nine people injured and more than 10 cows killed.
The two communities are feuding over the ownership of part of the 1,100 acres which were carved out of Mubuku prison farm in 2017 to resettle Basongora pastoralists and later a section of dispossessed Bakonzo. The group accused the RDC and the then deputy Mr. Joshua Kisembo Masereka of allowing ‘unknown people’ into the land and failing to intervene in the matter despite their repeated calls.
Gideon Bwambale, a farmer on the contested land accuses the leaders for conniving with pastoralists to continue grazing their cattle from the land even when all activities were banned.
Meanwhile, Richard Makune another farmer in the area also says they have witnessed a group of people erecting temporary structures on the land even when the area remains guarded by UPDF soldiers.
He feared that such acts have created distrust among persons who were legally settling on the land fearing that their plots could be grabbed.
“The slow response from the office of the RDC despite being aware that the affected persons have families to feed, is an indication that they could be harboring some interests in the matter”, says Scovia Kabugho, a resident of Kahokya.
Richard Asiimwe, the Kabukero LC 1 says after last year’s clashes, they sat with the district leaders and agreed that the land be left free until the matters are resolved. However, he says they are witnessing people who are already opening up new agricultural fields and new structures yet the President’s representative had halted any development on the said land.
Asiimwe adds that on 4th of March 2022, the RDC and his team reached the area and issued out verbal warnings to all those who were still on the land to vacate but to their surprise, the activities have since picked up.
“We have again informed the RDC’s office of this development but no action has been taken”, Asiimwe adds.
Speaking to this reporter at his offices, RDC Walusimbi refuted the allegations saying they have maintained the status quo for non-use of the land until the matter is resolved by court. He added that they have had an extraordinary security meeting and consulted the Chief Magistrate and State Attorney for legal guidance and that in a few months they will have made a decision.
In land conflict hotspots, like Kabukero, Rwehingo, Bigando, Kamruli, Ngoko, Butsumba-muro and many others around Kasese where land conflicts have stayed unresolved for many years, today the mere mention of the phrase “land” is almost followed by a question; who is encroaching and grabbing our land?
Against this background, Civil Society Organizations, Opinion and Religious leaders have asked government to solve the land problem in the district in order to avert further conflicts and promote peace in the Rwenzori region.
Faruku Kibaba, the Executive Director for the Great Lakes Peace Center, acknowledges that a bigger percentage of the conflicts around the region, abuses and human rights violations in the district were as a result of land wrangles.
Now, he says that in an attempt to bring sanity and solve these land conflicts, there is need to implement the Land Use policy so that people do not fight over land for purposes of simply owning it but rather over usage.
Zepher Kameli a youth and Business Consultant says that the district’s great tourism potential and discovery of oil, add the need for sustained investments which could rehabilitate disadvantaged communities in the district and ensure it catches up with others in the region. But he says that the conflicts over land will stall realization of the economic and peace benefit of Rwenzori.
Jolly Mbambu, Coordinator of Programs at Center for Gender Equality a community based organization, also recommends that individual investors seeking land for investment in Kasese should adopt more conflict-sensitive approaches to community engagement.
Mbambu adds that investors and other people who want to buy land in Kasese, should always first carryout analysis about the pieces of land they have identified for investment in order to establish existing land ownership patterns/history, key actors, and any potential or actual conflicts. “This will help us to end further land wrangles” Mbambu says.
She adds that dialogue and wide community consultations should be carried out as part of the process of acquiring surface rights. Furthermore, individual persons owning big chunks of land should be transparent and accountable in the way they conduct business and relate to local communities.
Why land conflicts in Kasese?
Speaking to this reporter, Nelson Sunday Ndungo, a senior citizen and former Executive Director for Rwenzori Peace Bridge of Reconciliation-RPBR also partly blames a section of political and civic leaders for acting in slow motion towards resolving these conflicts related to land. He says some of the political leaders in Kasese, have had conflict of interest in land disputes and some of them have used it as stepping stones to win the hearts of electorate for political agenda.
Kasese district seats on 3,389.6 square kilometers of land of which 409.7 square kilometers (12.1 per cent) is permanent water bodies. The District is a home to fresh-water and salt lakes such as Edward, George and Katwe including a number of rivers and greater lakes.
Approximately 68.7 square miles of the land is covered by seasonal wetlands, something that leaves only 2,911.2 square kilometers as dry land, yet 65 per cent is government land housing national parks and game reserves.
Uganda’s second-largest national park Queen Elizabeth is located in the lowland areas of the district while Mt Rwenzori national park is located in the uplands. The land also houses several government farms like Mubuku and Ibuga prison farms, among others.
Furthermore, the district’s population growth rate has been skyrocketing, yet land remains static. Although the 2014 national population census puts the growth rate at 2.45 per cent (slightly below the national annual growth rate which is at three per cent), the current growth rate in the district is believed to be at 3.8 per cent, slightly above the country’s, which was then at 3.3 per cent.
This increase in population has exerted a lot of pressure on land, with many people encroaching on government land.
According to reports, the problem was exacerbated by the influx of pastoralists mainly of the Basongora ethnicity from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2007. The inter-ministerial committee that was charged with settling the pastoralists found out that over 8,000 people with 50,000 herds of cattle had illegally settled in Queen Elizabeth national park.
This encroachment encouraged the landless farmers, some of whom had been displaced when Mt Rwenzori national park was gazetted, to also settle on the same land.
Tensions brewed between these two groups as farmers accused pastoralists of grazing animals in their crop gardens, while the pastoralists accused them of killing their animals.
Attempts to evict these two communities were futile, as they demanded that part of the land be de-gazetted to provide them with enough space to graze their animals and plant crops.
In 2008, the inter-ministerial committee on these land tensions, led by the then agriculture minister Hilary Onek, resolved that some parts of Ibuga prison farm be de-gazetted and distributed to the communities in the ratio of 3:1 for pastoralists and farmers respectively.
Rev. Ezra Yongeza Mukonzo the Kasese District Inter-religious Council Chairperson says that the distribution done by then, only worsened the situation. Rev. Mukonzo said that it was a reason that cultivators, who are mostly Bakonzo, thought that government only favored the pastoralists who had just come into the country and subsequently advised that since the population is increasing daily, government should de-gazette part its land and give it to the people.
However, he said that when it is doing so, it ought to change the criteria of distribution saying that in this case, all the people regardless of any affiliation should be treated equally.
In contrast to given alternatives, the Basongora contend that they were forced into DRC when Queen Elizabeth national park was gazetted in 1952, and that all the land should be given to them.
Story to be continued