Oil in Uganda – Published on Pambazuka News, by Chris Musiime, Frederick Womakuyu and Nick Young, July 18, 2012.
A senior official in Uganda’s Internal Security Organization (ISO), Major Herbert Asiimwe Muramagi, has been named in a complex land dispute in oil-rich Hoima District where, some locals allege, last year he bought 1,200 hectares from an entity that had no right to sell it. Members of the community in Kisukuma Parish, Kigorobya sub-county, further allege that when they resisted demands to vacate the land for the new owner they were beaten and arrested by armed police and soldiers.
When contacted by telephone on July 4, however, Major Muramagi — who is Maritime Director of the ISO, responsible for security on Lake Albert — denied involvement. “It is all lies. I do not own any land in Hoima and I have never owned land in Hoima,” he told Oil in Uganda.
Yet, immediately after this call, Josephatia Mboneraho, the Chairman of Hoima District Land Board, also contacted by telephone, said that a sale had indeed taken place, and that Major Muramagi was issued with a land title.
In a follow-up visit to Kigorobya, on July 11, Oil in Uganda spoke to a Catholic parish priest, Father James Aliomu Sabiiti, who reported that Major Muramagi had personally approached the church for help in resolving a dispute between himself and local people over the contested land.
“He is the one who requested that the parish priests handle the matter in a bid to solve the issues amicably,” Fr. Sabiiti said. “He came here and asked the fathers in this parish, as spiritual leaders, to help to mediate.”
However, the priest added that “many months have gone” since then and Major Muramagi “has been dodging here and there” without following up his request for mediation. Meanwhile, according to Fr. Sabiiti, the Major has been “putting up projects [developments]” on the land.
Community members say that at least seven houses and ten dams have been built on the land.
A complaint against the ISO officer was lodged with the Uganda Human Rights Commission, whose secretary, Gordon Mwesigye, wrote to Major Muramagi on February 12, 2012, requesting that he “desist from harassing the squatters on the land pending hearing of the matter by a court of competent jurisdiction.”
Yet the story is further complicated by the fact that, after Oil in Uganda spoke to Major Muramagi, he contacted a local councillor in Kigorobya who delivered to our office a dossier of documents which appear to show that the land in question was lawfully acquired, in April 2011, by one Christina Mirembe, and that she has paid compensation to several ‘squatters’ on the land.
What is going on? Here we present the conflicting evidence and leave our readers to judge.
TAKE 1: WHAT THE COMMUNITY SAID: … //
… BACK TO THE PRESENT:
- Presented with these conflicting stories and the allegations of harassment and eviction, Oil in Uganda contacted Major Muramagi to learn his version of events. In the July 4 telephone conversation, after denying owning any land in Hoima, he agreed to meet in Kampala on the evening of July 6 to discuss the case.
- On the afternoon of July 6 Oil in Uganda again called Major Muramagi to confirm the appointment. After re-stating that “I absolutely don’t own any land there” he said he was unable to keep the appointment but might be able to meet on the evening of July 8. He requested that we contact him for confirmation earlier that day. However, on July 8 he did not answer repeated calls to his mobile phone.
- Meanwhile, four hours after the July 6 conversation with the Major, Deo Birinaiwe phoned Oil in Uganda saying that Major Muramagi had been in touch with him and asked him to call. “It was a mistake,” Birinaiwe said, referring to what he had previously reported about the land transaction. “He [Muramagi] did not buy the land, we did not sell it to him. Christine Mirembe bought it.”
- Asked who Ms. Mirembe was, Birinaiwe described her as “a Kampala lady,” adding that “I did not follow her much.” He said she had paid 300 million shillings (not the 500 million he had claimed in the earlier interview) and that the sale took place “last year sometime, around April.”
- Asked why he had previously named Major Muramagi as the buyer, Birinaiwe said: “He had got interested in it, we had dealt with him for a long time, so his name was always the one that came to mind. But when I finally checked the records, I found it was Christine Mirembe.”
- The following afternoon, Oil in Uganda received a call from Mugenyi Mulindambura, a local councillor for Kigoroba sub-county and chair of the Hoima District Production and Natural Resources Committee. He also said Major Murgamagi had asked him to explain the situation. It was not possible to arrange a meeting within the next few days, but on July 11 the councillor delivered to the Oil in Uganda office a packet of documents that appear to confirm Christine Mirembe as the legally registered owner of the lease to Plot 8, Bughaya Block 6 at Kyamgando, Kigorobya.
THE MULINDAMBURA DOSSIER: … //
… CONCLUDING PUZZLES:
- It is impossible from our limited research to reach any conclusion on the rival claims of Deo Birinaiwe and Erineo Rugondo over the original ownership of the contested land lease.
- It is also hard to unravel claims and counter-claims about violence, arrests and detentions that have taken place since the April 2011 sale.
- It seems certain, however, that this sale and later efforts to ‘vacate’ the land of its occupants sparked resistance in the community, arrests and detentions.
- It is also notable that, before the sale, this 1,205 hectare plot of land was being leased for a total rent of just 120,000 shillings per year — a mere 100 shillings (US$ 04 cents) per hectare. Why would anyone, whether an ISO man or a “Kampala lady,” spend many hundreds of millions of shillings buying a lease that now has only 23 years to run? (Bearing in mind that the costs included not just the purchase price — whether 300 or 500 million — but, according to the Mulindambura dossier, significant compensation for ‘squatters’ and also the services of Kageera & Katumire, Uganda’s “oldest law firm,” according to its website, and doubtless one of the most costly.)
- What expected, eventual profit could justify such expenditure? Has Bunyoro cattle-ranching suddenly become so profitable? Or is the investment linked to expectations of eventual profit as a result of “oil activities” in the area — perhaps in anticipation of compensation, if land is compulsorily purchased, for income foregone on the yields of a ‘forestry project’?
- Another important question: What is the connection between Christine Mirembe and Major Muramagi? Who is the principal and who is the agent? Who is acting for whom?
- Despite his denials of ownership, numerous testimonies point to the Major’s involvement in the purchase and development of the land. Deo Birinaiwe, in a third version of his story, related over the phone on July 13, claimed that the Major had initially agreed to buy the land for 300 million shillings and made a down-payment of 45 million, but “After a week, he came back and said he had changed his mind, so we refunded his money.” It was only then, Birinaiwe added, that Ms. Mirembe appeared with her offer.
- Yet even after the sale, the Major has apparently been prominent in developing the land and, as the letter pleading clemency for a jailed man seems to show, in the disputes surrounding it. According to Erineo Rugondo, the Major offered him 250 million shillings in return for giving up all claim to the lease—an offer Rugondo says he rejected, although he also says he is willing to consider an out of court settlement. Other community members, including Father Sabiiti appeared genuinely baffled when told by Oil in Uganda that the Major denied ownership. “Then why doesn’t he leave us alone?” one young man asked.
- The Major’s strenuous efforts to prove he did not buy the land are also puzzling. He appears to have had no trouble getting Deo Birinaiwe to recant his first version of the sale. The rapid mobilisation of the meticulously presented Mulindambura dossier, including large-format colour photocopies, was apparently intended to distance the Major from the case. But why go to so much trouble? Is this not, perhaps, a case of “protesting too much?”
- Finally, the single most disturbing aspect of this case is the possibility that Major Muramagi may have used the armed force of the state to pursue private business interests, whether for his own sake or on behalf of others. Various interviewees insist that this has happened. And even Deo Birinaiwe took it upon himself, on July 13, to hint that it might. “Muramagi is a big man in this country,” he warned Oil in Uganda, “And if you want to take him on, you may suffer.”
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