Acholi Must Protect Land

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This is why I cannot but praise Acholi MPs who have exercised common sense by stating that the first step is to have people return to their original homes, and then whoever wants to engage in business with them; let him go directly to them.

[Africa News Update: Uganda Commentary]

Few people seem to recall when and how displaced people’s camps were started in Acholi. I do remember very well how around September 1996 the army went around villages in Gulu district compelling people to leave their homes –at times giving them a deadline of one or two days, not rarely forcing them to vacate the village on the spot- and concentrate in “protected villages” in trading centres.

The message those days was that they were going to finish off the rebels in a military operation that would last “two or three months”, and after that period people could go back to their homes.

Other camps were started because of people spontaneously fleeing the Lord’s Resistance Army terror. Others came into existence after the UPDF gave a 48-hour ultimatum broadcast in September 2002, after which the people who had resisted previously had little choice.

If I cannot grasp how people can forget so easily what happened a mere decade ago, it defies my understanding how we seem to be forgetting these days the origin of the so-called “decongestion” or “satellite” camps that now dot the countryside of Acholiland.

It is almost two years that in one of their recent plans for the North, the government announced the resettlement of IDPs in Lango and Teso, from the displaced people’s camps to their homes, and the moving of the people of Acholi to these smaller settlements on the grounds that there were still “pockets of rebels” roaming the rural areas that could cause insecurity.

Well, ever since the remaining LRA fighters moved from Acholi to South Sudan and to Garamba, there have been no more of such “pockets”, and in any case the government has announced almost every other week that with or without peace talks succeeding the Kony rebels would never return to Uganda.

If we are to take these statements seriously, it simply means that the reason for the existence of satellite camps is no more, and we should expect all camps, big or small to disappear and see people going back to their own ancestral land.

But go to Acholi these days and see by yourself that the ones going back straight to their original homes are a minority. Updated figures by humanitarian agencies like UNHCR speak of about half a million people resettled, most of them in Lango and Teso. So, we still have at least 1,200,000 IDPs in Acholi. Unless, of course, we want to count the ones living in satellite camps as having reached their homes, which I don’t think is the case!

The situation is tricky, to say the least. It is not that anybody prevents people from going back to their original homes, but the sheer fact is that if you pick up your belongings and go there, in most cases you will find no water, no functional school and almost nothing to support you.

Fear, also, is still a factor. At the same time, you wonder why local councils –which have a lot of power and can count on available resources - are not doing more to help people reach the places which are truly theirs and settle there. And why are some NGOs contributing to this artificial situation by availing facilities in displaced people settlements and not in the people’s real homes?

Under these circumstances, here come proposals (we hope they are only that) of giving big chunks of land for commercial farming in Amuru district. Let us suppose that I am a potential investor (foreign or local) and that I want a start a business. The procedure in such cases is normally that I go and speak directly to the people I want to deal with and the local authorities who represent them.

Going directly to the country’s highest authority for the government to try to convince the people to accept the arrangement sounds strange, to say the least, and it can even reinforce the perception that maybe it was true after all that there is a hidden agenda - to keep the people in the new camps as a reserve of cheap labour, as it happened for many years in South Africa under the apartheid regime.
Call it industrialisation or progress if you like. No one will convince me that this is nothing but potential exploitation of war victims in their own territory.

This is why I cannot but praise Acholi MPs who have exercised common sense by stating that the first step is to have people return to their original homes, and then whoever wants to engage in business with them; let him go directly to them. Archbishop John Baptist Odama in his Christmas homily also cautioned people about the “greed of the rich” who want to take advantage of people’s land.

As simple as that. The author is the editor of Leadership Magazine
(The article first appeared on

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