LT GEN JIM OWOYESIGIRE ALLEGEDLY ACCUSED OF EVICTING 1,200 PEOPLE IN WESTERN UGANDA, SCHOOL AND CHURCH
By Newvision Vision Reporters
“The General was summoned but he did not show up. He said he was in Somalia. He sent his wife and farm managers, but they did not give satisfactory answers,” …
Over 1,200 people are in tears after they were forcefully evicted from their land by a Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) general.
Lt Gen. Jim Owoyesigire is accused of grabbing 1.5 square miles of land, located in Kisuuga village, Masindi district. In some of the evictions that started in 2014, residents accuse Owoyesigire’s men of subjecting them to acts of brutality, including, floggings.
Residents also told Sunday Vision that Owoyesigire’s men had set houses ablaze as a way to force them off the land. Owoyesigire claims to have bought the land, although efforts by Sunday Vision to confirm the claims were futile as he hung up on our reporters when we tried to reach him by phone.
Owoyesigire, a former UPDF Air Defense Commander, served as commander of the African Union Peacekeeping mission in Somalia from January 2018 until February this year, when he was replaced by Lt. Gen. Tigabu Yilma Wondimhunegn from Ethiopia. The Masindi resident district commissioner, Godfrey Nyakahuma, said he had no details on the issue, adding that the complaint could have been filed before he took office in 2015.
He said he heard of the Kisuuga land matter when Justice Bamugemereire’s commission visited the district and the scene. The chairperson area land committee Miirya sub-county, Moses Businge, said the affected persons were not mobilised before the Commission visited the contested land in early July.
On Friday, a source in the commission confirmed that the investigating team and some commissioners visited the contested land. “The General was summoned but he did not show up. He said he was in Somalia. He sent his wife and farm managers, but they did not give satisfactory answers,” stated a source.
Asked about the action taken, the source said, “Sadly, the people had already been evicted and the commission does not have the powers to undo the eviction.” HARROWING TALES OF VICTIMS Alfred Oting, a catechist at Kisuuga Catholic Church, who claims to have lost land measuring an acre and a half, said on a fateful day, they saw soldiers with barbed wire and pillars storm their homes.
“Nobody has been allowed to set foot on that land since,” Oting told Sunday Vision, adding that “They were armed with guns and I decided to keep quiet.” Those who dared the men, like Joseph Kiirya, 70, as his four acres were being fenced off, paid dearly.
Kiirya said he was imprisoned on trumped-up charges. He was accused of injuring a cow belonging to Owoyesigire. “At Masindi Grade one magistrate court, I was ordered to pay a fine of sh2m or go to prison for one year,” Kiirya said. He said this has spread fear among Owoyesigire’s victims, many of whom have decided to keep silent because they cannot afford to hire lawyers to help them get justice.
“Most people decided to keep quiet because of what was transpiring in the area,” Kiirya said. Another resident, Augustine Onega, 64, said his family had lived on the land since 1959 by the time they were evicted. “My mother and father were buried here,” he said.
Ever since he lost his land, Onega is living under the mercy of a Good Samaritan, who has allocated the family a plot of land, where they have built grass-thatched houses for temporary settlement. Mgrs. Mathias Nyakatuura, the Vicar of Masindi Vicariate, told Sunday Vision that they were forced to close the Church and a school.
“We were not compensated as a Church because even the government-aided primary school that was there was founded by us, the Catholic Church,” Nyakatuura said. He prays that the Government returns their Church and school, saying they were forcefully taken away yet they have evidence that the land belongs to the Catholic Church.
He said the Church has documented evidence about the ownership of the land but they were left in suspense. Amliana Oyemba, 56, said he resorted to doing casual jobs to feed his children after being thrown off his land. Oyemba said he reported the matter to Masindi Police station but was referred to the regional Police headquarters in Fort Portal because the officer in charge feared to handle the case.
Genesis of eviction
Seventy-one-year-old William Kasaija, now a resident of Kyenga village, formerly from Kisuuga village, Miirya sub-county, said it all started as a rumor that some people had come to trace their ancestral land. “They said they were tracing burial grounds of their relatives, little did we know that we were going to be chased off our land,” he said.
Later, he saw a truck filled with soldiers, loaded with barbed wires and pillars and they were told to vacate the land. “We attempted to stop them but they threatened to beat us,” he said. Kasaija, who was the head of the laity at Kisuuga Church of Uganda, with five churches under his jurisdiction, said their Church was destroyed, and a government-aided school, Kisuuga Primary School, that was founded by the Catholic Church closed.
He told Sunday Vision that they had acquired the said land way back in the 1950s and that nobody had ever claimed ownership of their land, not until 2004, when a one Simon Rubanga came to their area claiming that his father was buried there and that the land belonged to them.
“There was no court order to evict us, but because Owoyesigire had the power of the army, we were chased in broad daylight as if there are no laws governing this country,” said Kasaija. Sunday Vision has learnt that some residents wrote to President Yoweri Museveni, complaining about the grabbing of their land by Owoyesigire.
In the letter dated July 29, 2014, they said Lt. Gen. Owoyesigire bought land in their neighbourhood, but added that the buying itself was controversial and had caused a commotion and unresolved questions in the district. “When the general started fencing, he annexed the lands of other people forcefully”, the letter read.
However, the residents were yet to get any breakthrough. Simon Rubanga, the person who allegedly sold the contested land to Owoyesigire, said their family had close to 1.5 square miles in the area, which they bought from Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom at sh5.
When asked for the exact size of the land, Rubanga referred the reporter to the buyer and surveyor, which gave the impression that he did not know. Rubanga, however, does not know whether the people who used to occupy the land were forcibly evicted, saying matters arising after the sale of the land were not his concern.
He said some people could have occupied the land because it had been left vacant. Rubanga added that at the time of selling, he had no land title and only relied on boundary marks. He declined to comment on information that only eight out of 1,200 affected people had been compensated.
A spot check done by Sunday Vision shows that the land is now under sugarcane growing, with some patches planted with sunflower and other crops. According to some of the affected residents, the land is now being hired out to other people to plant sugarcane.
What authorities say Francis Kyomuhendo, the Masindi district education officer confirmed that Kisuuga Primary School existed and was government-aided, but circumstances under which it was closed are still mysterious. Moses Businge, the chairperson of the area land committee, said the contested land is not titled and its ownership is still controversial.
Businge said according to records available in his office, Owoyesigire applied for between 200-300 hectares of land to the title, but the process has stalled because of the encumbrances surrounding it. Businge said he had been following up on the issues surrounding the said land even before he became a leader.
Owoyesigire was once reported by residents to the Masindi Land Tribunal, accusing him of land grabbing and fencing off their land without consulting them. There are reports that the Bamugemereire Commission faced resistance from some military officers who have been accused of grabbing land in different parts of the country.