When Acholi farmers from Uganda’s Apaa region occupied a UN compound, they drew attention to a long-term conflict in which the community faced violent evictions from their ancestral homeland. While President Museveni’s new compensation schemes may seem like a viable fix they could, ultimately, exacerbate the region’s conflicts over land.
In recent years, rural communities throughout Africa have increasingly found their land rights under assault. Governments, investors and international agencies have deployed the rhetoric of wildlife conservation and economic development to justify large-scale land grabs. Because much of the land on the continent is held in customary tenure, communities facing eviction are often unable to prove their rights to the lands they inhabit. Such challenges are further exacerbated in post-conflict settings.
In Uganda, between 1996 and 2006, at the height of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) conflict, the government drove 90% of the population of the northern Acholi districts into internment camps. More than a decade after the war, many rural communities are still struggling to reestablish themselves in their former homes. Their precarious standing makes them especially vulnerable to land grabbing by powerful actors, such as their own government.
In July 2018, 234 Acholi farmers from the remote area of Apaa made national news by infiltrating the compound of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN OHCHR) in Gulu town. They began an occupation that would ultimately last five weeks. Their protest, examined in detail in a two-part post last October, grew out of an eight-year conflict in which the community has striven to defend what it considers their ancestral homeland against violent evictions by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) and other state agents alleging that Apaa belongs to a wildlife reserve.
The occupation of the OHCHR drew enough attention to Apaa’s plight that the government was compelled to engage with the community. Soon after the occupation concluded, President Yoweri Museveni travelled to Apaa to announce the creation of two committees that would solve the crisis – through either a partial degazettement of the area under dispute (to allow for human habitation), or an equitable resettlement plan for the community.
As the committees’ deliberations dragged on, however, public attention waned and the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the UPDF quietly resumed their attacks on Apaa. Now, more than half a year on from the occupation, the Ugandan government claims to have arrived at a solution. Yet the manner in which it proposes to address the community’s plight should be cause for considerable concern.
The compensation proposal
On 27 February 2019 an article in Uganda’s government-backed New Vision newspaper touted a supposed government solution to the crisis. Drawing on a memorandum issued by the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), it reported that a team had recently been deployed to Apaa to assess the size and needs of the local population. The team’s investigation yielded a resettlement package in which ‘the 374 families currently living in Apaa’ would be compelled to vacate their homes, but would each receive 20 bags of cement, 20 iron-roofing sheets and 10,000,000 Ugandan Shillings (roughly £2,000) in order to reestablish themselves on new plots of land.
Conspicuously absent from the New Vision’s reporting was any explanation of how the inhabitants of Apaa were to relocate – or where – given that they hope to acquire plots for new homes in a region rife with land conflict. The number of households (374) registered, moreover, bears no resemblance to local population counts which indicate that the area is home to thousands rather than hundreds of households. More disconcertingly, the article gave no indication as to how an area in which local leaders’ most recent door-to-door census returned a count of over 20,000 inhabitants could be home to only 374 families.
In the days after the Apaa compensation package was announced, politicians weighed in to both back and decry the proposal. But little effort was made to assess the reactions of those who call Apaa home.
Unable to partake in high-level political debates, Apaa residents are nevertheless eager to make their opinions known. A little over two weeks after the announcement of the resettlement package, some 60 members of the Apaa community assembled at the local trading center of Pwunu Dyang to share their views. The gathering would ultimately run for more than three hours, with the number of participants nearly doubling by the end of the meeting. During this time inhabitants of six of Apaa’s sub-villages voiced frustration and anxiety at a proposal they feared may rupture their community and permanently sever them from their only home.
Flawed communication, flawed registration
Emblematic of the wider shortcomings of the government’s proposed resettlement package is the manner in which the proposal reached the people of Apaa. When asked how they learned about the compensation plan, community members responded that they had first heard of it on the radio – through the same reports that any other resident of Uganda would have been privy to. This was on the day the package was announced.
The question of whether anyone from government had subsequently visited Apaa to discuss the plan drew wry laughter. The group erupted in a volley of ‘Pe, Pe, Pe,’ from all sides: ‘No, No, No.’ Far from being included in a dialogue, the very people most impacted by the OPM’s proposal had yet to receive any formal notification of a resettlement package that stands to utterly disrupt their way of life.
Perhaps accustomed to such exclusion, the community seemed less concerned with this injustice than with the proposal itself, which was based on what one person called ‘crooked information’. While the government claimed to have conducted a comprehensive count of the Apaa population, those gathered for the meeting in Pwunu Dyang insisted that the OPM had reached its count of 374 families through a deeply – and, they contended, willfully – flawed process.
According to locals, on 11 February 2019 UPDF soldiers began an unannounced counting exercise. Community members consistently explained that the soldiers tallied only homesteads located directly along the road, refusing to approach homes set back from the roadside even if they were beckoned by inhabitants. The soldiers then appeared to systematically skip large households and excluded four of Apaa’s villages from the count altogether. When asked who among them had actually had troops reach their homes, only 20% of those gathered at the community meeting raised their hands.
Given the UPDF’s long record of brutal attacks in Apaa, many residents were reluctant to interact with the military personnel conducting the count – particularly as several of the troops arrived in combat gear. Those who did engage the soldiers encountered varying degrees of hostility. None of the soldiers openly volunteered information about their assignment, and many reacted to questions with threats, insults and shouting. When probed why they had not involved local leaders in the counting process, the UPDF repeatedly responded that the community’s leaders were ‘all liars.’
According to a local teacher who confronted troops on this point, one soldier jeered that Apaa was ‘for animals,’ making the Uganda Wildlife Authority the only legitimate authority in the area. This rendered all local leaders illegitimate.
Yet in a few cases, when pressed, soldiers clarified that they had been sent to Apaa by the OPM. Strikingly, inhabitants of three different villages also reported soldiers explaining to them that if the count returned a large number of families living in Apaa, the OPM would consider the possibility of degazetting the area. On the other hand, if the population were found to be very small, locals would simply be removed from the land and compensated.
Overall, witnesses described a flawed and intimidating exercise and residents seem justified in their suspicions that the survey was designed to return a low population count. This would thereby allow the government to discard any possibility of degazettement. Yet the more than one hundred inhabitants of Apaa who gathered for the community discussion insisted that degazettement remains the only acceptable option for them.
Some objections to the resettlement proposal hinge on practical considerations. Even if every household in Apaa received the compensation package outlined by the OPM, residents explained, the vast majority of them would still have nowhere to go. One man pointed out that the proposed 10,000,000 shilling sum would prove woefully inadequate for relocating larger families. Another participant observed that families currently grazing large herds of cattle on communal pastures could never afford comparable tracts of land with the money the package offers.
Yet by and large the community’s opposition to the proposal stems from something deeper: an abiding connection to Apaa lands, a wish to live undisturbed after so much upheaval during the war, and an insistence on being accorded their full rights and dignity as Ugandans.
‘Why do they treat us like we are not citizens of this country?’ asked a man who said he had been born in Apaa, who had already been torn from his home once before, when the government forced the entire community into camps during the LRA conflict. ‘They chased us from here, and finally we were allowed to come back. Now they want to chase us again? Where would we go? How could we begin new lives?’
‘This is our ancestral land,’ added a woman sitting nearby. ‘We got it from our ancestors, and our children should take up that legacy. The government already took us from here once,’ she said, likewise referring to the wartime displacement policy. ‘They were not peaceful about it: they came with tanks in ‘96. They pushed us into camps for ten years and ruined a whole generation of our children there. Now they want to move us again, to destroy another generation.’
‘And for what? To give this land to animals?’ interjected a local leader from Pwunu Dyang. ‘Do we matter less than animals?’ For years now, he elaborated, the community has been told ‘kany tye ngom pa lee’ – ‘the land here is for animals.’ Yet Apaa, he clarified, is not home to any game whatsoever. ‘Kany tye ngom pa dano,’ he declared: ‘The land here is for humans … Ten million shillings times 374 families.’ He continued, ‘that is a lot of money. If they have so much money, why not give us schools to help build a peaceful future? Or build us new roads – this government that supposedly loves development? Or reopen our health center?’ He was referencing one of several social services the government shut down last year in an effort to render Apaa increasingly inhospitable to its inhabitants.
‘Cwinya cwer matek,’ another local leader chimed in, ‘My heart is very heavy. When we left the UN compound the President followed us, he came here and told us he would make amends, that he would pay for the devastation the government had caused. Instead, again, he sent the army. And now this. … Does he think that he can wear us down?’
The people of Apaa remain adamant about their attachment to, and dependence on, their lands. As one elder proclaimed toward the close of last month’s meeting, ‘We are in our ancestral home. We never asked the government for any deal! We never asked them to pay us for this land. Let the whole world know: no payment the government could offer will ever convince us to give up our land.’
After claiming to consider the possibility of degazettement, the government seems to have used skewed data to justify discarding the one solution the community considers acceptable. In exchange, it has proffered a resettlement package that is vastly insufficient to meet the needs of the affected population.
While compensation schemes may seem a viable fix to crises like the one unfolding in Apaa, they require close interrogation. Land conflicts between rural communities and governments encompass a profound imbalance of power. If allowed to unilaterally dictate terms, the more powerful party can easily produce something that bears the trappings of an equitable solution while actually further entrenching existing injustices.
Last July, the Apaa community used a remarkable civic action to draw the attention, admiration and concern of observers throughout Uganda, and beyond. As the Ugandan government begins to tout a supposed solution to the crisis, that attention must be renewed and refocused on the community and their needs. Now is not the time to look away.
Sara Weschler has been involved in a range of post-conflict recovery projects in northern Uganda since 2007. She holds a Master’s degree in African Studies from Columbia University and is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Conflict and Development Studies at Ghent University. Her research for this blog post was made possible by funding from the ESRC.
Tessa Laing is a doctoral researcher in Development Studies at the University of Cambridge and worked for five years in northern Uganda working with community groups and advising the local government. She holds a Master’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Canterbury.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog, the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa or the London School of Economics and Political Science.