Thousands of residence of Amuru District community could soon lose their land after Gulu High Court ruled that over 40,000 hectares of land be given to Madhvani Group of companies to grow sugarcane.
The Friday verdict that has been described as “unacceptable” by the Amuru community, will also hand over about 1,700 hectares of land to UPDF army Genera Julius Oketta and former district employee Ms. Christine Atimango .
The ruling by Justice William Musene, which lasted nearly an hour starting at 11am, said the District Land Board has the right to give the land to the company and other individuals for investment.
“I have evidence that the land in question is much needed for development, and those already pursuing the quest should continue with the investment,” Justice Musene ruled.
He said when he visited the disputed land, the High Court found it bushy and had no settlement.
The defendants, the Madhvani Group of Companies officials could not hold their joy following the ruling. The company is seeking to acquire 40, 000 hectares of land for sugar cane growing.
Maj. Gen Oketta, also army MP who was accused of grabbing about 1,700 hectares of land said to belong to Lwak Obito Mixed farm, in Amuru Sub-county, said: “The ruling was expected and I thank God for using the judge to deliver his work for truth which prevails, it’s a fair verdict to all developers in Amuru,” Gen. Oketta said. Gen. Oketta said he would offer 100 hectares to Church of Uganda that would be used for building Orombi Foundation School.
Moving out of court in dismay, residents said they would not respect the court ruling which they termed as “bias.” Ms Karimela Anek, a resident said: “Why such a ruling when the Acholi have just been out of conflict and camps. Now efforts of resettlement are useless.”
Another resident, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “We are clearly slaves on our land. We suffered in IDP camps and we are not going on with smooth resettlement on the ancestral land, some people have taken advantage through court.”
The resident said the land was the only wealth left for them to feed and farm so that they can send their children to school.
“I felt so devastated because it’s the same land which we utilise to pay revenue to government. How shall we survive, why only land of Acholi?”. Mr Safe Ogik, LCII chairperson of Labala Parish in Pabbo Sub-county, said the Madhvani Group should talk with the local community before they can begin investing on the land.
“We are not opposed to investors but they should consult us if they want to utilise the land peacefully,” he said. Mr Jackeo Oballim, a petitioner in the case, said if government attempted to use the police and army to enforce the verdict, they would resist.
“If they try to use force against our people, there will be another LRA in name of the land,” Mr Oballim said. Meanwhile, former Kilak MP Michael Ocula expressed dissatisfaction with the verdict and vowed to appeal the ruling.
“The ruling is unfair, we are going to court of appeal so that our land is protected. We are ready to face any challenges for the better future of our people,” he said.
Meanwhile, Kilak County MP Gilbert Olanya urged residents to protect their land and continue utilising it, saying there was no where they could go.
“It’s unfortunate the judge never took in consideration the effect his verdict would create at this time when the people are desperate,” Mr Olanya said. Amuru residents and leaders said they will continue to protest the ruling.
Former legislators, Livingstone Okello Okello (Chwa County) Michael Ocula (Kilak), David Ochieng Penytoo (Gulu Municipality) and others in 2008 sued Madhvani Group of companies, Gen. Oketta, and former Amuru Land Board Secretary Christine Atimango for wrongfully allocating communal land to private investors.
“For us we are appealing and we shall do so until the last court. We cannot accept that kind of ruling. The lawyers are already on it,” said Mr Okello Okello.
The court, however, argued that the land in question is public land.
Mr Olanya argued that the claim by the court that the land is vacant does not hold water because the people who were living in IDP camps during the two-decade war have now settled on the land.
“The Acholi were in IDP camps for 23 years and people started going back (home) in 2009. I am very surprise when the Judge ruled that way,” he added. Mr John Okot, a retired civil servant in Gulu District, said people will destroy Madhvani sugar works if it goes ahead to plant sugar cane.
“If the government used forceful means, people will destroy Madhvani sugar plantation.”
However, Gen. Oketta said the elders in Amuru offered the land to him in appreciation for opening a security road in the area in 1993, the land being claimed by Jacheus Uma, one of the plaintiffs.
Defendant applauds court
Meanwhile, Ms Atimango, who reportedly acquired 500 hectares of land in Amuru sub-county told court recently that she got the land when it was vacant. “The verdict confirmed my earlier remarks that I did not displace anyone. I am planning to resettle in the land and use it for mixed farming,” Ms Atimango said. She lauded the judge for restraining the award of costs on the former legislators whom she branded as men of the “grass thatch huts.”
Reported by Livingstone Kidega, Sam Lawino and David Okumu