From LRA conflicts to land conflicts

328By Rixt Vellenga. Acholi people have a profound relationship with the land; land is the epicenter of economic behavior in Acholiland, and is an indivisible part of the social fabric. It is essential for housing (most people reside in self-made mud-huts on their land) and it is the means of livelihood subsistence and food security. Spiritually, Acholi culture emphasized the importance of being buried on ancestral land; otherwise the deceased’s spirit will remain earthbound in an indeterminate state, unable to reach the afterlife, and forever haunting the deceased’s family.

Since 1986 the Acholi people in Northern Uganda have been heavily affected by the LRA rebel group of Joseph Kony and the NRA army of current President Museveni. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, tens of thousands children have been abducted. From the end of the 1990’s and beginning of 2000, all people in most parts of Acholi region were forced by the government to go to IDP camps (although most people already settled in trading centers, which became IDP camps later). People who refused, were killed by the NRA. The IDPs started to leave camps from 2008.

For the vast majority, the land is communual land. Historically, proof of ownership was demonstrated through occupation/possession, utilization, knowledge, natural landmarks and protection. The modes of ownership were safeguarded by the local clan. But because of many years of forced displacement, numerous concerns have arisen about regaining access to such land. Conflicts have arisen about regaining access to such land. Land conflicts have been a feature of the return process in many – even most – parts of Acholi. Often these conflicts centre on local issues between adjoining landholding clans, or even within households. Sometimes, these local-level disputes are actually proxy struggles instigated and famed by politicians and other powerful individuals. Most land-grabbers want to sell the land, since the land in Acholi is very fertile.

Oboto is one of the many who has a land conflict. When Oboto came back from the camp, he started digging his 4 acres of land. However, in 2009 his uncle (the brother of his father) started to claim that Oboto was not a son of his younger brother – who died during the war – and took over Oboto’s land. Now Obote lives with his wife and 16 children (including orphans) in his compound. The compound is surrounded with his land, which he cannot access. His uncle will kill him when he steps on the land. Oboto can’t dig, because he has no land anymore. Sometimes he does some casual work in town to earn some small money for food. His uncles and his friends came several times to try to burn Obote’s huts and to beat and kill the family. There is nothing Obote can do. The police are not doing anything and he can’t pay a lawyer to go to the court.

Another set of land concerns that has been particularly troubling, is the heated public debate is the recent oil finds and the pressure from central government for opening up Acholi for ‘development’. This pressure has been most visible concerning the allocation of 20.000 hectares of land to the Madhivani group (an Indian company) for a sugar-cane plantation in Amuru district. Most communities living on this land, refuse to leave their land. However, the Madhivani Group and politicians are using their powers (money) to carve out large tracts of land (in this particular land, is also oil found).

03Most local-level conflicts are (tried to) solve with help of the elders and the local chiefs. These people know the boundaries and the owners of land in their area. However, many elders died during the long years of war. Also, many of the elders are also involved in land conflicts. That is why most people don’t trust them. In 1988, the government enacted a law creating Local Councils (LCs) on village (LC1), parish (LC2) and sub county (LC3) level, to replace the lower level Magistrate Courts (district level) and provide them with the authority to deal with land rights issues. The LC courts were intended to be less formal and more accessible than the Magistrate Courts and to enable local leaders to deliver justice to their own communities by drawing on the formal legal principals and customary law. But, the members of the LCs generally have low literacy (generally primary 7) and knowledge about how to mediate and/or to judge. Furthermore, since 2006 there were no elections held (the intention was to have elections every 5 years). Another major problem is corruption. Most courts do not adhere to the stiptulated court fees, and they also charge money for transport, food, drinks etc. The results have been devastating, putting the impartiality of the courts in question, and the community has gradually lost confidence in them.

The Chief Magistrate Court (CMC) is only function in Gulu (since the other districts in Acholi region don’t have one), and is overburned by a huge backlog of cases. Most land conflict cases delay; some cases are still not closed for more than 5 years. Reason for this is that the defender don’t show up (a commonly strategy of the land grabbers), or the witnesses don’t appear in court (also because of the bad road conditions especially in the dry season, and lack of transport/money/for distance to Gulu). The other is the high cost of litigation. Most people cannot afford a lawyer (2 million UGX).

This means that people who lost their land can’t pay the courts and are left with nothing. NGOs are leaving the country (because most of the donor money for the recovery and development of Northern Uganda, is stolen in the office of the Prime Minister). So basically, after 20 years of LRA conflicts, Acholi people are now facing another conflict – of which some people say these land conflicts are worser than the LRA conflicts because people are killing their own people because of land, families are fragmented, livelihoods are affected, and there is no trust anymore. What will the future bring the Acholi people? Nobody of my respondents had an answer to this question…

Rixt Vellenga is doing her Master thesis on the Acholi region of North Uganda at the Social and Cultural Anthropology department of the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam. This piece is part of the Fieldwork 2013 series, where Master students share their fieldwork experiences and reflections with a wider audience.

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