From marginalisation to action: fighting for equal access to resources in northern Uganda4 October 2020
Land is the most important source of livelihood for over 80% of households in Uganda. Yet many people in northern Uganda, a region historically marginalised due to the legacies of armed conflict, experience land and resource-related insecurity with marginalised communities bearing the brunt of these injustices. Dorcas Akello explores their journey to voice their rights.
“We did not ever imagine that as vulnerable as we are, we would be empowered to reach out, create change and impact our own lives and the lives of many other vulnerable people like us.” – Community action group member.
In northern Uganda, inequality of who can own land and resources is driving conflict and ethnic tensions between the Acholi people of Amuru district and Madi people of Adjumani district in the Apaa region, and between the Acholi people of Nwoya district and Jonam people of Pakwach district. These areas have a history of conflict. Following the end of the Lord’s Resistance Army conflict (1986 – 2006), Acholi communities, who spent 20 years in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps after fleeing their homes, returned to find their land being used by the government and other communities. This conflict has been exacerbated by the discovery of substantial amounts of oil in Nwoya district, which neighbours Adjumani, where increased interest and the forceful acquisition of land by local and international investors means marginalised people have been further pushed out.
In Nwoya for example, there are also tensions between communities and the Uganda Wildlife Authority where community-owned crops have been destroyed by wildlife. As a result, communities have resorted to poaching wild animals to sustain their livelihood, causing tensions with the authorities. This is on top of land-related disputes between refugees from South Sudan entering Uganda and host communities in Adjumani district. These inter-connected issues driving conflict have made worse the exclusion of marginalised people, including women, youth, older people, people with disabilities (PWDs) and people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA), due to limited knowledge of their rights, access to education, employment and opportunities for them to participate in decision-making that impacts their lives. They are particularly excluded from land and resource-related allocation.
In October 2017, we started a project to foster inclusive development and equal access to resources for marginalised communities* in partnership with Ugandan organisation RICE West Nile. Since this time, I have witnessed these communities grow from strength to strength in advocating for their rights.
First steps and engagement
The first step of the project was speaking to the wider community about land and resource governance, and holding targeted meetings with marginalised people on experiences of land and resource-related injustice. This was designed to kick off a process that ensured each person involved had a clear understanding of the project and could address any arising fears or discomfort. Discussing land and resource governance and also discussing why or how people are marginalised is highly sensitive and we wanted to be aware of any stigmatisation surrounding the discussion of sensitive issues.
As a next step Saferworld and RICE West Nile provided trainings for members of the marginalised groups on how to assess and resolve conflicts, and gender and land rights. The second phase of the training centered on community-led advocacy. It was also during this training that the two groups developed action plans to address issues they had identified as priorities for their communities’ safety and security.
Once the trainings were done, the group’s identity changed from being ‘groups of marginalised people’ to ‘community action groups’ (CAGs) as members started to gain confidence to advocate for their own needs and on behalf of other marginalised people. The purpose of the groups, made up of 15+ people from different marginalised backgrounds, was to work together to identify, analyse and advocate for land and resource-related issues to those in charge, on behalf of all marginalised people in the district, spearhead projects to bring about change and be role models for others.
Following the trainings, budgets were drawn up to put into motion action plans that would address the identified community safety and security concerns. The action plans consisted of activities that the CAGs would conduct based on prioritised conflict issues, what changes they want to see, where and when the activities would take place, and the people responsible for the change. At this point, the action groups met three times a week for planning. Examples of conflict issues that came up included land and boundary conflicts, gender based violence, property destruction by wildlife, domestic stray animals, and theft. The CAGs decided on actions intended to address the above issues, and I saw them meeting every day to conduct this work.
In July 2018, the first small grant was given to a CAG to support their work. These small grants were given to the CAGs via a Community Development Officer – a government official at sub-county level responsible for community development. We channel these grants this way for purposes of transparency and accountability but also to ensure government involvement in all processes. While the Community Development Officer acts as the accounting officer for the grants, they also monitor the progress of the work and use the opportunity to update the community on government plans, further increasing government-community collaboration. The community also uses this platform to remind and demand from the government what they have committed to in terms of community services.
A widows’ group supporting a member demarcate their family land in Pakele sub county, Adjumani district. This follows a conflict resolution process facilitated by a CAG.
Advocacy at all levels has been a major component of the CAGs’ work. Following dialogues between the CAGs and private investors on their investment practices, some have improved relationships with the community, pledging support through corporate social responsibility and improving the general welfare of their employees and labourers. Others pledged to set up a complaint desk at the sub-county level where members of the community can report their complaints, significantly increasing the trust of communities where they work as a result. In other instances, some investors have been summoned by the district authorities to respond to some of the issues raised by the community in order to agree on the way forward. At a national dialogue in September 2019 on investment practices, findings from outreach meetings with local and international private investors and engagements with communities affected by land-based investments within Nwoya district were shared with district officials and Members of Parliament. The meetings with both investors and communities unearthed a number of critical conflict issues based on their experiences. Such platforms provide the opportunity for policy makers to understand issues directly from the community rather than a third party.
Challenges, expectations and moving forward
At the start of the project, I noticed the groups were skeptical that they could enact change in themselves, their families and their communities. Women particularly felt this in male dominated spaces that made it challenging to make their voices heard. Yet once the groups began to engage in the trainings, network with each other and start projects, there was a shift in self-confidence that they are proud to have achieved.
The CAGs also initially experienced community skepticism and resistance in some locations where they went to build awareness on peaceful coexistence, the land rights of marginalised groups and community wellbeing. The groups then used skills acquired during trainings to adapt their approach and tailor their outreach, working with the communities themselves to resolve emerging conflicts. Their success soon reached the lower local council level who have since been coming to the CAGs for advice. Considering most community members tend not to trust local council leaders as they are associated with corruption and extorting money from the community, this development has strengthened the bond between the community and local government.
More recently, I have recorded more PLWHA joining the action groups after learning about the work being done. Some members who were part of youth, widows or older persons sub-clusters, later on willingly declared their identity and experiences of also living with HIV/AIDS. We saw this closely linked to the increase in confidence of the groups and mentorship provided to tackle stigmatisation through seeing success stories ranging from the individual, family, household, community, district and national levels.
Moving forward, the groups will continue to identify, prioritise and analysis emerging conflict issues from which they can advocate at community and district level with the contacts they have established. They will also continue carrying out conflict resolution when approached, and when the issue is beyond them, they will refer to the relevant authorities.
* The Strengthening Inclusive Development and Equal Access to Resources for Marginalised Citizens in Uganda project is funded by Irish Aid CSF 25-18.