Land disputes in western Uganda’s Lake Albertine region have become common in recent years. The discovery of oil and the building of refineries and waste facilities have raised the stakes in these disputes. Near the town of Hoima, allegations of illegal evictions and human rights abuses have underscored a need for governmental oversight in these land matters.
In a small village outside Hoima, known as Rwamutonga, more than 700 residents are crowded onto a small scrap of land. They say they have been unfairly evicted and brutalized after a land dispute with their neighbor, Joshua Tibagwa.
In August, a court awarded Tibagwa the title for the land after a drawn out legal battle.
Tibagwa’s land has attracted the interest of McAlester Energy Resources, an American company from Texas. He says the company fronted him money to secure the land so it can be used for a petroleum waste water facility. After the judgment, an eviction notice was quickly sent out.
Residents say they awoke to a hail of bullets and teargas on August 25th, followed by the burning and looting of their homes. The residents fled to the bush to escape. During the chaos they say three children went missing and are presumed dead.
A barbed wire fence, which Tibagwa says was set up McAlester, now cordons off 1,000 hectares of land – almost 10 times more than the court mandated. Armed private security guards, hired by Tibagwa, now patrol the area.
The displaced say the guards are a menace to them.
One former resident, Adriko Lino, described the consequences he faced when he went back to his old land.
“I tried to sneak back to my farm to get some food for my children, but was detected, detained and they set my house on fire with me locked inside. I was seriously burned, but was able to force my way out,” said Lino.
Two displaced women say they have been raped. One, who did not give her name but agreed to speak on tape, describes what happened when she went back to pick cassava from her old garden.
“The guards detained me when I was trying to get some fresh cassava. Four men pushed me to the ground and raped me. I did report it to the police, but could not afford to get treated by a doctor,” she said.
At the police station in nearby Katanga, there is a notation in the official logbook that a woman came in to report the rape, but her file could not be found.
Local community leaders say the displaced residents have zero access to medical aid and are suffering from malnutrition.
When McAlester Energy was contacted for comment they denied any knowledge of the evictions or the current situation in Rwamutonga.
The government has its own version of events.
District Commissioner Ambrose Mwesigye says these people were hostile squatters, who have repeatedly attacked police. He accuses the displaced residents of conspiring to drag Tibagwa and McAlester through the mud.
“We have received these complaints you are hearing about, all these allegations, not in writing. And we have said, bring us those facts, and we start from there. Police has not given us any feedback that people were mishandled. I can tell you, these people are being organized to raise public outcry because of the story behind the story. What I can tell you is the process of the eviction was peaceful,” said Mwesigye.
District police commander Bernard Akankwasa insists the evictions were handled peacefully and accused residents of burning down their own homes to make it appear as though a crime occurred.
Community leaders, local land commissioners, and security officials all agree something must be done to rectify this situation. But the government has not formulated any plans.