Uganda: Museveni's and Madhvani Group's Acholi Land Grab Would Amount to Second Genocide

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Madhvanis themselves were victims of displacement, when in 1972, General Idi Amin expelled Ugandans of Asian origin out of the country with nothing except a few suitcases. The Madhvanis certainly must remember the pains associated with displacement, wilderness, and dispossession.

[Black Star News Editorial]

A vicious land grab is being carried out in Uganda, pairing the country's dictator with an "investor," and the targets are the Acholi, who are genocide survivors.

The Acholi live in the northern part of the East African country, on abundant, fertile and mineral-rich land.

Nearly 26 years ago, shortly after Ugandan president General Yoweri K. Museveni came to power, his regime began herding about two million people -- nearly 90% of the Acholi population, into concentration camps euphemistically referred to as Internally Displaced People's camps (IDPs).

At the height of the displacement period, the death rates in the more than 200 camps that eventually mushroomed was more than 1,000 per week, according to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO), a unit of the United Nations. People in the camps died from planned neglect. Lack of food, lack of water, lack of adequate sanitation, lack of medical facilities, and; targeted rapes which spread diseases, by government soldiers.

In the nearly quarter century of the camps' existence, it is possible that more than one million Acholis perished -- a conservative estimate, using the UN statistics referenced. The camps were ordered closed by the WHO in 2005.

The widespread belief during the height of the forced displacement of the Acholi was that Gen. Museveni sought to collectively punish all Acholis for their perceived opposition to his regime. Acholi soldiers comprised the bulk of the army defeated by Museveni's insurgency.

Later, documents attributed to Gen. Museveni by an American scholar showed that he had intended all along to displace Acholis from vast lands that he was eyeing for mechanized agriculture; so fertile were the lands.

And in recent years, the contest for land in Acholi region has intensified, as rich oil fields have been discovered in Uganda. The land Madhvani has aggressively sought is located near one of the largest oil finds in East Africa, owned by Tullow Oil.

What rationale did Gen. Museveni provide for the creation of the death camps? The regime claimed the camps, guarded by unruly government soldiers, were meant to offer shelter to civilians from marauding fighters of Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

Kony's fighters mercilessly brutalized civilians throughout the years -- yet the numbers of deaths at the hands of the LRA pale by comparison to the genocidal proportions that perished in Gen. Museveni's camps.

Olara Otunnu, a former U.N. Under Secretary General and leader of the Uganda People's Congress (UPC) has referred to the depopulation of Acholi as a planned genocide. Otunnu was a leader in mobilizing international denunciation of the Museveni regime by exposing the Acholi pogrom, during his Sydney Peace Prize lecture in 2005.

Finally, over the past four years, most of the concentration camps were dismantled. Civilians rushed back to their ancestral lands, including in Amuru District in Acholi, and began tilling the land and growing crops.

But during the period of the Acholi displacement, Ugandan government officials and senior military officers had been busy grabbing their land and unlawfully lining up blood money from "investors."

One of the major investors who is now determined to once again displace Acholis from their land are Ugandan tycoons of Asian origin, the Madhvanis; they operate under the Madhvani Group of companies and want to grow sugar on the land. The company, founded in 1914, on its website boasts 10,000 employees and assets worth $500 million in Uganda.

Ugandan lawmakers from Acholi region, including then Member of Parliament Livingstone Okello Okello, filed a law suit in 2008 seeking to bar the unlawful allocation of the land by the Museveni regime to the Madhvanis. A court eventually granted an injunction.

Gen. Museveni himself has repeatedly made public statements declaring that the land be allocated to the Madhvanis, who have historically been strong supporters of the president. Museveni also personally and publicly denounced Okello Okello as an economic saboteur.

Even while the case was still in litigation last August, Bloomberg News quoted Gen. Museveni's orders that the dispute over the allocation must be resolved within three months.

During the same period last August, Gilbert Olanya, another member of parliament from the region, interviewed in The Daily Monitor explained: “No institution should negotiate about people’s land other than the land owners themselves. We want development for our people, but they should first agree directly on their benefits when they leave the land.”

Elsewhere, the Member of Parliament has made it clear that investors were welcome but that they should negotiate directly with the landowners and not go through Museveni. Olanya said, "the biggest challenge we have now is that between the local community and the investors; to be specific, the Madhivani (sic) Group of Companies."

He added: "The land we have is the only source of livelihood for our children and grand children. So the strong message we have for investors interested in coming to Acholiland is that there is no land for sale, they can come and hire as much land as they want. This is because once we sell the land; ownership ceases to be ours and that means we have stopped progress for our children and grandchildren in the years to come." (By "hiring" he means leasing).

Given the public statements by Gen. Museveni in favor of allocating land for sugarcane growing, it was no surprise when on February 3, a Museveni-appointed judge, William Musene, ruled in favor of the Madhvanis, granting the allocation, even though the rightful owners oppose the expropriation.

Under the Museveni judge's decision, the Madhvanis could walk away with 40,000 hectares (98,800 acres) of land. The rightful owners would thereafter be ejected without the offer of fair market value for the land and the resources -- including oil -- that may be beneath the soil. The Madhavanis want to displace some people, while retaining the rest as sugar plantation laborers.

In last year's presidential and parliamentary elections, which many international and Ugandan monitors say was widely rigged in favor of Gen. Museveni, lawmakers critical of the land grab, such as Okello Okello, were not returned to Parliament.

Opposition parties have also rejected the outcome and not recognized Gen. Museveni as the legitimate president.

Even though he's no longer in Parliament, at great personal danger to himself, Okello Okello and other opponents of the land grab, including environmentalists, continue to fight for the rightful owners of the land, who only recently returned from the camps.

If the Madhvanis and Gen. Museveni have their way, tens of thousands of Acholi families could be forcefully ejected from their lands. Some would have no choice but to become part of the urban homeless.

Ominously, one civilian whose family could face eviction told The Daily Monitor, Uganda's independent newspaper, that Judge Musene's ruling could once again spark another LRA-type uprising.

The Madhvanis themselves were victims of displacement, when in 1972, General Idi Amin expelled Ugandans of Asian origin out of the country with nothing except a few suitcases. The Madhvanis certainly must remember the pains associated with displacement, wilderness, and dispossession.

It was only after 1980, after Milton Obote returned as president, that the Madhvanis and other Ugandan Asians were invited back and their assets were restored. They have a very curious way of paying back.

The Madhvani's, aware of a public relations nightmare, have launched a laughable whitewashing campaign. Mayur Madhvani, managing partner of Kakira, one of their other sugar works in Uganda, made the preposterous claim: "After examining various areas in Uganda, it was found that the land located in Amuru District, south of Zoka Forest, had no inhabitants and was at one time many years ago, deemed as a national park, but was de-gazetted over 40 years ago. This land currently is totally free of inhabitants and in an extremely isolated area."

In fact, tens of thousands of people are on the land. The Madhvanis must do the right thing and either walk away or negotiate directly with the people; such mass displacement would amount to ethnic cleansing.

In the meantime, opponents of the land grab have rejected the Museveni judge's ruling as biased and vowed to appeal it. They have promised that the rightful owners of the ancestral land will never again return to the concentration camps.

They have painful memories of burying their parents, their brothers, their sisters, their spouses, and other relatives in those abominable camps.

Editor's Note: For those who are interested in receiving more information and becoming involved in projects to  oppose the Museveni/Madhvani land grab and prevent Acholis from returning to concentration camps please send an e-mail message to milton@blackstarnews.com

"Speaking Truth To Empower."



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