Former Aruu County MP has penned a strong letter to President Museveni, warning that his directive to the Balaalo to fence off land they have invaded, occupied or bought off in Acholi is a grave error. He warns that the order on the touchy land issue is ill-advised, has no force of law, and will make an already volatile situation worse.
Odonga-Otto, who is current President of Revolutionary Peoples Party (RPP), also warns that they will make the prickly land issue both a political and an elective matter and warns the Balaalo not to tie land acquisition in Acholi to a political regime as it has proven disastrous in previous regimes. Odonga-Otto sent his terse letter on November 8, 2023, and says it was received on the same day.
President Museveni issued his directive on fencing during an on-spot visit to the volatile Okidi Parish in Atiak Sub-county, Amuru District, on November 3, 2023. The visit was planned to calm tempers over his endless changing of dates to expel the nomadic pastoralists from Northern Uganda.
The residents had cried out to President Museveni to kick out the Balaalo, who have trampled on the rights of the locals, driven cattle onto gardens, destroyed acres of cassava, peas, simsim and other crops, depriving the locals of means of livelihood and exposing them to hunger.
So far, the nomads 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.
In reaction, President Museveni ordered that the Balaalo grazing cows in unfenced areas leave Acholi, Lango and West Nile immediately or be evicted after three weeks. But Odonga-Otto dismisses the President’s directive on fencing as a wrong step.
Odonga-Otto argues that the trustees of customary land are the cultural leaders who have the mandate to make pronouncements on such land. He says President Museveni is “neither an Acholi nor a Cultural leader from Acholi, therefore, you have no mandate to order fencing of Acholi communal land.”
He says, “Fencing land in Acholi is a taboo and a violation of our culture, not even an Acholi can fence communal grazing land.” He says, “… it is protestable that your Excellency can order Balaalo to come and fence Acholi land.” He added, “The issue in my opinion is not cattle trespassing on people’s land but rather that of land ownership. The logic of fencing as directed by you is a grave error, discriminatory and addresses the wrong issue.”
Odonga-Otto then warns, “This action, if pursued would amount to cultural genocide.”
Two days after Odonga-Otto fired his letter, President Museveni posted on his micro-blogging site X, formerly Twitter, on November 10, 2023, that he would hold further discussions at a later date on the thorny issue of ownership and renting of land in the sub-region. It was not clear whether this was a partial response to Odonga-Otto’s letter. Odonga-Otto had warns that customary land, which is held according to the customs of the Acholi, is not for sale. He says, “It is held by the living on behalf of the dead and for the unborn.”
Odonga-Otto, who says he carries a national brand of speaking the truth irrespective of the consequences, signed off his tough letter as the chairperson of the Lamogi-Der clan, who he says bravely, fought British occupation of Acholi during the Lamogi resistance. He also describes himself as the convener of meeting of Acholi chiefs at Kal Kwaro Acholi, attended by 40 chiefs on September 23, 2023, to discuss the land crisis.
Odonga-Otto copied his letter to Gen Caleb Akandwanaho, better known as Gen Salim Saleh, who is the President’s brother and the overseer of Operation Wealth Creation. Gen Saleh has been central to the issue of the footloose Balaalo, ownership and renting of land in Acholi.
Odonga-Otto also draws President Museveni’s attention to what he calls gross procedural irregularities orchestrated by “State apparatus” ahead of the president’s baraza at Okidi Parish, the epicenter of Balaalo land invasion and occupation. Odonga-Otto cites instances where security men and some RDCs blocked some people and selectively allowed others to attend the meeting. He also cites the arrest of an activist, Ms Betty Ocwee, who was carrying a placard reading, “Balaalo must go.”He says such excesses have raised ethnic overtones.
Odonga-Otto also cites the “politicization of Acholi land matters.” He says the push to eject the Balaalo from Acholi and counter moves has assumed political overtones. He states that while former and current Opposition MPs are pushing for the Balaalo exit, the NRM MPs are pushing for their stay. “This division is deplorable and not acceptable. Land cannot have a political leaning if we are to move forward in an organized way,” he wrote.
Odonga-Otto also criticizes the manipulation of NRM ‘yes-men’ in Acholi to do the dirty lifting in the land invasion and occupation as a calculated policy of divide and rule. He questions why NRM big shots in Acholi, including NRM secretary General Richard Todwong, ministers Hilary Onek and Okello Oryem are all silent on the burning land issue. Odonga-Otto warns that “the politics of divide and rule on land matters in Acholi will not be taken lightly.” He says the concerns undermine the legitimacy of the outcomes of President Museveni’s meeting in Okidi.
Finally, Odonga-Otto dismisses as warped logic, President Museveni’s comparison of the mass invasion and occupation of Acholi by Balaalo to the forced presence of Acholi in Bweyale, Kiryandongo District. Odonga-Otto challenges, “Your Excellency, the defence you raised, which I believe was coached, about Acholi in Bweyale was least expected of a Head of State. The Acholi in Bweyale are people who fled their homes because the government was unable and unwilling to protect them in Acholi land, hence seeking refuge.”
“The Acholi in Bweyale hold plots of land, not hundreds of acres and square miles like what is happening in Acholi. In fact, many Acholi have lately been evicted from Ranch 22 in Bweyale,” he writes. Odonga-Otto, who says he is one of the lawyers in the Bweyale land cases, argues, “The total land owned by the Acholi in Bweyale collectively does not exceed 200 acres.”
President Museveni has repeated his argument on Bweyale in another 25-page letter titled, ‘Mistakes makers and opportunists let us alone (mutuleke)’, dated November 10, 2023. But Odonga-Otto says, “This line of defence [by the President] is, in my opinion,[is] provocative and politics of divide and rule and the Acholi people deserve an apology on that matter.”
As a middle ground, Odonga-Otto proposes a win-win option between the Balaalo who have put their money on the land and the customary rights and claims of the Acholi. He proposes, “That any Acholi landowner, who entered illegal land transactions with the Balaalo offers grazing rights to the Balaalo over a period of time, depending on the amount of money paid by each Mulaalo.” Odonga-Otto says once the agreed period is over, the Balaalo must leave. He says this is an option he has discussed with Gen Saleh.
But Odonga-Otto warns that in the meantime, no Balaalo should fence off any land in Acholi as it will make worse an already volatile situation. Odonga-Otto says Acholi leaders as the custodians of customary land will soon meet to chart a way on the land crisis, but warns government to keep off the said meeting.
Odonga-Otto also warns, “The Balaalo should be cautioned that tying land acquisition in Acholi to a political regime has failed in all previous attempts as people eat the cows at the departure of the regime, and in this instance, it will not be an exception unless we do the right thing..”
Finally, Odonga-Otto says, “This is a political matter, and we will capitalize on it and make it an elective issue if our concerns are not considered.”