Understanding and addressing land disputes
For more than two decades, Northern Uganda was embroiled in an armed conflict between the Government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). As a result, it is estimated that more than 1.8 million people were displaced, mainly in the Acholi region, with a further 38,000 people abducted, some being forcefully conscripted into the LRA. Other consequences include the disruption to social services and infrastructure and property destruction. A cessation of hostilities agreement was signed in 2006; since then, the guns are silent but the destructive impacts of the war remain. Recovery interventions by the Government of Uganda and development partners are starting to address these impacts. However, incomplete reconciliation processes and a history of mistrust in the government still impacts on people’s perceptions of the situation. In addition, new conflict issues have emerged – partly s a result of the impacts of the war and partly due to institutional weaknesses in managing these issues.. The Advisory Consortium on Conflict Sensitivity (ACCS) project aims to strengthen the ability of key stakeholders to address the drivers of conflict and contribute to peacebuilding. As a contribution towards the realisation of this goal, Saferworld conducts evidence-based advocacy, provides targeted recommendations, and technical support to improve the recovery and peacebuilding impact of key stakeholders.
Between December 2012 and January 2013, Saferworld organised a series of training sessions on conflict-sensitive approaches to development with the Area Land Committee and District Technical Planning Committee in Amuru, Northern Uganda. In this newsletter we highlight some of the key conflict issues linked to land that were identified in the sessions, including land acquisition, control, and ownership.
Discussions with Amuru district officials and members of the Area Land Committee reveal a deep-seated fear of widespread violence. A lack of sustainable mechanisms for conflict resolution, the continued arming of communities with bows and arrows, and increased unemployment are leading to discontent and hindering the effectiveness of recovery processes in the area. This is being made worse by large expenditures on the resolution of land-related disputes, which could otherwise be spent on community services. If these issues are left unresolved, they have the potential to trigger violence, costing lives and wasting precious resources.
The training sessions with the Area Land Committee and District Technical Planning Committee in Amuru highlighted the importance of dealing with land questions and solving land-related conflict to give the Northern Uganda recovery programme a fair chance of achieving its intended objectives. A number of specific issues raised by the training sessions are discussed below.
Proposed sugar cane plant investment
The Madhvani Group is a well-known business conglomerate that includes companies involved in large-scale sugar production in Uganda. One of the Madhvani companies secured a lease for 100,000 acres of land (40,000 hectares) for sugar cane cultivation in Amuru District. However, this agreement has met with a lot of resistance and accusations that communities were not consulted sufficiently. As a result, these communities have been opposing the company’s use of the land for the last two years. They even went as far as mobilising themselves to try and guard the land, to which the government responded by deploying armed police officers to secure the land. Three leaders from the area took the company to court, but the court ruled in favour of the Madhvani Group. Further consultations have since happened, mostly between central government, district officials and some local leaders. But communities still feel left out and complain that they do not receive any feedback from their leaders on decisions being made, or on how communities living in the area will benefit from the investment.
The key reason for the community’s opposition is the suspicion that the land has oil, and that sugar cane farming is just a decoy set up by both the government and the company to access the oil. The central government, and some members of the Area Land Committee, especially those that belong to the ruling National Resistance Movement party, are in support of the sugar plant investment. They point out the benefits of a likely increase in employment opportunities, improved standards of living resulting from the amenities that come with it, reduced poverty, an increase in local revenue, and infrastructural development.
Opponents to the lease of land to Madhvani argue that land is the most viable asset left in the area and thus valuable for people to recover from the economic losses of the war. For peaceful coexistence, some training session participants were of the view that the local communities will not be at peace until a more sustainable win-win solution is reached. They recommended that more consultation and dialogue was needed with local communities, including cultural and religious leaders, as well as politicians and the local government.
Land disputes leading to community armament
Adjumani and Amuru districts are in an ongoing dispute over land in Apaa. The area is also claimed as protected by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and this has led to the forceful eviction of the Acholi community in that area to Pabbo sub-county (people were involuntarily ferried to Pabbo on UWA trucks). It has also been reported that there has been anonymous ‘dumping’ of bows and arrows in large numbers at market places on both the Adjumani and Amuru sides of the border, so that the communities could arm themselves without any actor being singled out. A blacksmith’s camp in Adjumani district was said to be getting equipment to increase the local supply of arms in preparation for any eventuality. A large number of police officers were also said to have been deployed in the area of Apaa, alongside wildlife authority game rangers.
When police officers and game rangers were first seen in the area, a statement was issued by government saying the deployment was an attempt to promote community policing and sensitisation on harmonious living with animals. But other actions and rumours have increased suspicions among community members that the government may have other intentions with the area, and that there may be oil beneath the surface. In Amuru, training participants also mentioned that it is not uncommon to see men armed with spears as a weapon against intruders. An increase in the number of persons armed with bows and arrows as weapons of protection in case of attack is a disturbing situation which may one day lead to serious violence if it is not addressed.
Youth unemployment and participation in violent acts
Land clashes within and among communities in the area are thought to be mainly perpetrated by unemployed youths. These young people are vulnerable and easily manipulated, and they include a significant number who were abducted, forcefully made to participate in the LRA’s armed rebellion, and missed opportunities which could have raised their living standards. The frustration among youths, who constitute the majority of residents in the district, is evidenced by their participation in land-related clashes, which are further aggravated by alcohol abuse.
These issues need to be addressed in order to avert the possibility of young people being used to destabilise the area. Participants suggested that the rise in youth-led violence requires an intervention that will make youths understand the need for peaceful resolution of conflicts, involve them in viable economic activities, and empower them to lead productive lives.
Read more about youth vocational training and conflict sensitivity in Uganda.
Effects of land conflicts on district development initiatives
Training session participants felt the land question in Amuru district not only affects socio-economic relations but also infrastructural development. For instance, a project to open urban roads by Amuru Town Council is being hampered by the failure to get consensus on the sale or use of the land, since the land is communally owned. It requires wide consultation which normally causes disagreements over who has the final authority over the land. Land disputes were also said to have cost the district over 500 million shillings – money which could otherwise have been used to improve service delivery in the district.
Other land issues raised by the Area Land Committee included:
Addressing the issues above requires a concerted effort to support Amuru district local government and the affected communities to resolve conflicts in a manner that promotes peace among the various actors, by taking into account existing conflict issues in the planning and implementation of recovery programmes. As a way forward, Saferworld and Amuru district local government have developed a conflict sensitivity plan of action meant to address specific capacity issues, while at the same time advocating for the peaceful resolution of identified conflicts. Pertinent areas of work agreed include a technical review of the district development plan for conflict sensitivity, conflict resolution guidance to the local government, and conflict sensitivity capacity building to Local Council 5 members.
The training sessions were carried out by Saferworld in conjunction with Amuru District Local Government.
 Anderson ER, Sewankambo F,Vandergrift K (2005) Pawns of Politics: Children, Conflict and Peace in Northern Uganda (Kampala: World Vision International)
 Pham P, Vinck P, Stover E (2007) Abducted: The Lord’s Resistance Army and Forced Conscription in Northern Uganda (Berkeley-Tulane Initiative on Vulnerable Populations)
 The ACCS consists of Refugee Law Project, International Alert and Saferworld and is running from 2010-2015.
Amuru district is estimated to have a population of 174,000. The majority of this population is made up of young people and children. The main economic activities range from small-scale business enterprises to large-scale mechanised agricultural practices run mostly by rich business people, government officials, and politicians. Amuru district covers 4,852 km2 of land, most of which is said to be fertile, with large areas unoccupied. There is a widespread suspicion that the land has oil beneath it.
The major ethnic group in Amuru is the Acholi. They have a clan-based governance system in which each clan is headed by a Chief, and there is a Paramount Chief who oversees the work of the Chiefs under the ‘Ker Kwaro Acholi’ – a cultural institution that brings together all clan chiefs in the Acholi region. Ownership of land in the Acholi region in general, and Amuru district in particular, is communal in nature, with land belonging to the clan. Displacement during the war has led to an increase in land disputes as boundaries to family or clan plots were no longer clear when people returned. In addition, the war has led to a change in family and social relationships, so that there has been an increasing trend for young men to sell the family’s land without the permission of the family elders. Often, these young men then buy motorbikes and start a transport (boda-boda) business. While land-related conflicts are a major issue across Uganda, these particularities make them even more explosive in Northern Uganda.