President Museveni for the third time in just three months flies back to Acholi on Friday to calm tempers over his endless changing of dates to expel the Balaalo from Northern Uganda.
The nomadic migrants have invaded and occupied huge swathes of land in Acholi. By July, 2022, these Balaalo had already occupied 25,416 acres of land and were grazing more than 13,000 head of cattle in just two villages of Okidi Parish in Atiak Sub-county, Amuru District.
Mr Museveni starts his tight-rope walk by first holding a meeting in this volatile Okidi Parish whose residents have cried out to him to kick out he Balaalo, who have trampled on their rights and have driven their cattle onto gardens, destroyed acres of cassava, peas, simsim and other crops, depriving the locals of means of livelihood and exposing them to hunger.
The locals claim the Balaalo arrogantly say their crops are ideal food to fatten their herds and also boost production of milk, which they sell for huge profits at Elegu on the Uganda-South Sudan border. Hardly any these cases of trespasses and destruction lodged by the locals against these cattle herders have been compensated.
The Balaalo have also been accused of carrying huge sums of cash in their bags as they roam the villages and irregularly seize customary lands, hunting grounds and even buy up hills as they trample on the rights of locals with impunity.
Previous petitions against such impunities had forced President Museveni to issue an Executive Order No 3 on March 19, 2023, which declared the Balaalo as illegal migrants in Acholi, Lango and Teso. He also labelled them as indisciplined, and manipulative, and should be expelled.
But President Museveni has since curiously changed and delayed the dates to evict the Balaalo. His latest change of mind and date for the expulsion of the Balaalo came on October 18 when he met a team of Acholi leaders and the Balaalo Group at State House, Entebbe, and advised them to coexist and harmonise their relationship.
Mr Museveni now returns to Acholi amidst more intense pressure from the locals and leaders to throw out the Balaalo before his new deadline of November 15. Already, a group of Acholi MPs have warned President Museveni not to dare extend the eviction deadline as they have since kicked off an aggressive campaign to chase away the Balaalo from the sub-region.
A July 2022 report on the land grabs by the Balaalo herdsmen, compiled by the Atiak verification Committee headed by the chairpersons of the administrative units in the Greater Atiak sub county, reveals some staggering facts.
In the Greater Atiak sub-county, the team discovered that 63,558 acres have been sold to Balaalo herdsmen, representing 21.9 percent of the land size in the area. The Greater Atiak sub-county comprises Opara, and Atiak sub-counties, Atiak and Elegu town councils.
In Okidi Parish alone, there were a total of 25,416 acres of land illegally sold, with 5,761 acres sold from only two villages of Okidi South, and another 19,565 acres sold from Okidi North, representing 96.4 percent of total land occupied by the Balaalo herdsmen in Atiak Sub-county alone.
Out of the 25,416 land transactions in Okidi Parish, at least 22,843 acres were pieces of land sold and another 2,573 acres cheaply rented out for periods ranging between 2 to 5 years at a miserable Shs86.1 million. Another 22,843 acres were sold at Shs2.5 billion, meaning land deals in Okidi parish goes for as low as Shs107, 500 per acre!
The roll-over prizes of land were also as varied as in Okidi and other places like Pupwonya, Palukere, Kaladima and Elegu Town Council. For instance, in Okidi North Village, 238 acres were rented out at only Shs6.6 million , another 300 acres rented out at Shs1.5 million while in Okidi South village, 600 acres were rented out atShs5 million per year. In Okidi South 625 acres were sold at Shs280 million while in Okidi North village 3,778 acres were sold at Shs289.9 million.
In the 82 land transactions reviewed, 99 percent involved customary land where some family members connive to sell land without the consent of the majority family members. This was most common in Okidi Parish.
“The land buyers are moving with money in their bags in the bush as if they are hunting, they use land brokers to sell community land”, Moses Lakwoneyero, a worried resident, lamented.
This twisted and extensive land deals in Acholi was forced onto the community when they returned home wretched from 10 years of forced displacement into concentration camps. They later resorted to tree-cutting for charcoal and timber, and later resorted to selling communal land, which has for ages been held in perpetuity for the past, current and future generations.
The local land agents took advantage of displacement into camps to forcefully settle on the land and are now claiming it is their own and selling to the Balaalo across the sub-region. Excitedly, the Balaalo have gone ahead to survey and get titles on 25,558 acres (8.8%) they illegally acquired, and some are now with titles while 38,000 acres (13.1%) were not surveyed by the time of this report.
The local leaders say documentation in these land transactions are questionable, with most of them done in Gulu City and the surveying done in the night or during weekend. Samuel Akera, the Atiak sub-county airman, says the Area Land Committee in the previous leadership used to sit and draw the maps from their offices without any verification.
“They were only two and not substantively appointed, and we had to stop their land documentation in the area”, he said.
The land transactions also affected the Atiak Chiefdom cultural and historical hill, Got Olima, where some three individuals sold the 428 acres site to two herdsmen, a one David Ruzinda and David and Kanyamibwa, at a paltry Shs133.5 million.
The prime minister of Atiak chiefdom, Gusto Okot Gwanga, says Got Olima was sold by individuals who did not have any history of the customary land in the area. “When we tried to stop them, they incited people against us, claiming we wanted to grab their land, but they went ahead and sold off the land,” Okot says.
In all places where the chunks of land were sold, there have been conflicts within the families, with some members conniving with the Balaalo to sell the family land without the consent of other family members.
In the 43 land transaction considered by the committee in Okidi Parish alone, there were conflicts in 30 land sales (69.8%), and only 13 (30.2%) have partial conflict as the people (families) did not report as result of fear and intimations that they would be arrested or killed by those that grabbed or sold their land illegally.
Those who reported, their cases are now before the Local Council (LC) courts, while some are in Amuru Magistrate’s Court and the rest in Gulu High Court, seeking intervention to revoke titles illegally issued on their customary land. But most people do not have the capacity to meet the cost of court suits, hence abandoning any chances of legal redress.
Statistics from Amuru District show that 30 percent of the litigants have lost their cases due to challenges of hiring lawyers to represent them in the courts of law. Most of the court cases in Amuru are land-related, for example, at Gulu High Court as of September 2022, had 772 cases of land matters from Acholi sub-region, of which 176 are main suits, 307 civil appeals and 289 applications seeking interim injunctions on disputed land, while 75 percent of the land matters in this court relate to customary land.
Against this backdrop, President Museveni will be hard-pressed to find any more excuses not to stop this land use abuse and endorse Acholi chorus of ‘Balaalo Must Go!’