Uganda: the number of community environmental and land rights defenders targeted for challenging irresponsible business practices has reached more than 1500 victims as of June 31st, 2023
A mid-year update report by Witness Radio – Uganda
From the day the Kampala government embarked on a mission to make Uganda a middle-income nation by 2020 and passed a national policy on industrialization in 2018, land became a commercialized product. For years, there’s been a notable influx of ‘investors’ with different interests in mining, oil, and gas, carbon offset tree projects, industrial farming, infrastructure, energy, and others.
The increased use of land as a commodity and the increasing demand for land has resulted in more forced land evictions. In a week, through the land eviction portal, Witness Radio – Uganda, monitors and documents between 3 to 5 cases.
In every forced land eviction case documented, the majority of investors are against people raising concerns about their blatant disregard for land acquisition procedures as prescribed by the law, and respect for land rights, the environment, and the planet, thus subjecting activists and defenders to a range of attacks, such as threats, smear campaigns, arbitrary arrest, and targeting them with Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs).
According to Witness Radio – Uganda data, in 7 out of 10 cases of forced evictions, there are incidents where community activists and community environmental and land rights defenders are targeted with arbitrarily arrested and detention, falsely charged with limitless criminal offenses, and imprisoned.
These charges range from criminal trespass, inciting violence, threatening violence, aggravated robbery, and attempted murder to theft and others just because defenders and activists are speaking against practices that undermine the respect for human rights and projects that do not protect the environment and the planet.
Our data further reveal many incidences of judicial harassment through unfavorable bail conditions, pro-longed trials, and imprisonments that have pushed many defenders and activists to total silence.
In the Bukaleba sub-county where Green Resources established the Bukaleba forest reserve, communities reported that the project which grabbed their land is constantly causing arrests accusing them of trespass, theft, and others.
“I am right now from police to bargain the release of two of my community members. They have not been released because the police demanded some money that we did not have at the time. I feel this is too much because almost every day, police on behalf of the forest company arrest members of my community.” The Bukatube Sub-county Local Council III Chairman William Otube told our researchers in February this year.
Similarly, in the Nyairongo sub-county in Kikube district, a camp of over 100 community members reported that more than 30 community members have been arbitrarily arrested by Uganda People’s Defense Force Soldiers guarding Hoima Sugar Company, and the area police denying them access to their land and arresting whoever is founding cultivating their land. By 9 am, everyone was still in their makeshift houses.
“We cannot tend to our gardens because when you are found there, you are beaten and arrested. And to release you, the police demand huge sums of money which we don’t have, currently, we have some of us that have not been released yet.” One of the victims reported.
In Kiryandongo district, community land rights defender Fred Mwawula is one of those that have ta sted the wrath of multinational companies. He reveals that he has been arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned over 7 seven times, and slapped with different criminal charges by police on behalf of Great Seasons SMC Limited, one of the Multinational companies that have forcefully grabbed community land in Kiryandongo district.
Among the cases documented by Witness Radio include the 28 community land rights defenders in the Mubende district. Grace Nantubiro, Ronald Mugwabya, focus Mugisha, Sekamana Kalori, Mwikirize Keleti, and Sewanyana Kiiza John among others were arrested on 28th August 2017. The 28 were framed, arrested, and jailed because of their stiff resistance against an illegal and forceful eviction of over 3000 inhabitants off their 322.5-hectare piece of land in Mubende Municipality, Mubende district by one Kaweesi George.
Others are Atyaluk David Richard, Akiteng Stella, Sipiriano Baluma, Mwawula Fred, Ndahimana Ramu, Kusiima Samuel, Martin Munyansia and many others have faced multiple charges orchestrated by multinational companies in Kiryandongo district.
Environmental defenders include Sandra Atusinguza, Venex Watebawa, Joshua Mutale, Sam Kayiwa, Vincent Sekitto, Ismail Kashokwa, Joseph Mujuni, Moses Mukiibi, John Kibego. The 9 defenders were challenging the giveaway of Bugoma forest for sugarcane plantation.
In Kapapi and Kiganja sub-counties in Hoima district, 14 community environmental and land rights defenders were arbitrarily arrested, charged with multiple offenses, and imprisoned and other incidents.
Torture and kidnaps:
As the struggle to protect communities’ land, environment, and the planet continues, frontline community defenders in Uganda have tasted the wrath of people and institutions that are supposed to protect them just because of raising concerns about land grabbing. For many years, the portal has documented incidences where government soldiers and police officers raiding defenders’ homes in the wee hours severely beaten, kidnapped, and detained incommunicado and tortured.
Tears streamed and streaked Mr. Mbambali Fred, a community land rights defender and a landlord in Hoima district while narrating his ordeal. With an agonizing look, he revealed that he had repeatedly been arrested and tortured for defending his land.
On one of the arrests, Mbambali narrated that he was brutally arrested at noon, on 26th December 2015 by a group of 30 Katonga police officers and Uganda People’s Defense Forces soldiers allegedly accusing him and others of refusing to leave their land. These were acting on orders of senior officers from the office of the Prime Minister in the Kampala government.
The angry and armed officers with guns and batons came on 3 government cars, and a police patrol, they found him with some village mates at Katoma Center and rounded up the whole group of 36 people.
According to Mbambali, while the rest were being loaded into the police patrol, he was first held separately and severely beaten for almost thirty minutes, he was named as a land grabber who is resisting vacating government land before tightly holding him, forcing him to fit in the already waiting full police patrol.
Profusely bleeding, he revealed that he and others were driven to Katonga police where they recorded statements before later being transferred to Kikuube police station where they were locked up in a filthy, foul-smelling small room.
“All of us the 36, were locked in a cell meant to accommodate a maximum of 10 people, and sadly during the night, our torturers brought a big group of men which was used to beat and torture us.” He revealed, adding that in a blink of an eye, the officers closed the windows that could let air into the cell with old iron sheets, making it difficult for them to breathe.
“Many of us collapsed and remained half dead. Now like me, I needed to have treatment but this was not possible until I was again transferred to another torture chamber. I was tortured and my leg and an arm got broken. My entire body and the head were severely wounded,” the defender added while displaying to us torture marks and borne fractures damaged by agents of the evictors during the scuffles.
Getting off the hook;
Despite the challenging situations and hardships; community defenders and activists have registered some achievements in their efforts to defend their land, and protect the environment and the planet.
In mid of 2023, the eight land rights defenders, Mwawula Fred, Ramu Ndahimana, Samuel Kusiima, Martin Munyansia, Martin Haweka, Amos Wafula, Eliot Talemwa, and George Rwakabisha of Kiryandongo district were set free by Kiryandongo Magistrate court. This was after their case was dismissed for want of prosecution. They were facing a charge of threatening violence after being arrested on orders on Great Seasons SMC Limited, a Kiryandongo-based multinational company growing maize and soya beans.
Other cases include Otyaluk David Richard’s case, which was dismissed in August 2022 for want of prosecution among others. These successes have been possible due to the tireless efforts of Witness Radio’s legal team that have provided criminal defense without discrimination.
“We are concerned about the high level of impunity and failure of the criminal justice systems in Uganda to detect and accept to criminalize land matters which are supposed to be of a civil nature. This method will not deal with or solve the question of land injustices instead the situation with worsen, and people will continue to lose trust in state systems which is likely to breed insecurity or lawlessness.” Jeff Wokulira Ssebaggala, the team leader at Witness Radio – Uganda.