As President Museveni heads to Acholi Sub-region on Friday to declare his stance on enforcing the eviction of the Balaalo, Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Norbert Mao has penned a terse opinion. He says sanitizing the dispossession of the vulnerable Acholi is unacceptable and the Balaalo should be expelled at once as spelt out in the Executive Order No 3. Mao says any other excuse would be a distraction likely to arm those who love to fish in troubled waters. We reproduce his letter verbatim.
The essence of Executive Order No. 3 is being lost and the community most affected by the Balaalo issue is in a state of confusion. We cannot afford to be drifting like a rudderless ship, decidedly undecided. The answer to the confusion is to go back to basics, starting with the expulsion of the Balaalo without any further delay for the reasons that are well stated in the Executive Order.
I reproduce the relevant part of the Executive Order below for the avoidance of doubt:
“Then, there is the issue of Balaalo. These are indisciplined cattle keepers from Ankole – Mpororo, ancient Bunyoro, parts of Congo, Karagwe in Tanzania and Rwanda, who move from their traditional areas and move to other areas of Uganda, but do so in illegal ways. Having learnt the techniques of some modern farming in the cattle corridor, they come to acquire land in the areas of Uganda that have not been their traditional areas – e.g. Acholi, Lango, Teso, etc. The problem is that, they come to those areas illegally or manipulatively. There, the mistakes are two.
First, they claim to have bought land from so and so. The problem, however, is that land in the North, is communally owned for most of the time. With such land, nobody can legally sell it to anybody without the permission of the clan or family. These sells are, therefore, null and void.
Secondly, even if they were to be legally owning the land, nobody should bring livestock to an area, if he has not fenced the land, provided water, etc., otherwise, that livestock will commit the sin of okwonesa (cattle trampling the crops of Wananchi).
I, therefore, completely ban the illegal presence of Balaalo in the Northern Uganda districts. This does not mean that the Balaalo, like other Ugandans, cannot buy land and settle in Northern Uganda. However, on account of the two mistakes above, that right cannot be enjoyed. By the authority of this Executive Order, no Mulaalo should settle and bring cattle to settle and bring cattle to Northern Uganda, except with the permission of the Minister of Lands and the Minister of Agriculture. Those Ministers can only give that permission, if the two problems are addressed. I, therefore, direct all government Agencies to ensure that these Balaalo, are expelled from the indicated areas by the end of June, 2023.
The Attorney General should also bring a draft of a law criminalizing nomadism. A wrongdoer could serve 7 years in prison for bringing cattle to Northern Uganda illegally. The Attorney General, to also provide for the confiscation of the cattle of the Balaalo involved in entering the indicated areas, illegally.”
Most of the land transactions in question were procured by local agents who got commissions and the illiterate villagers were ripped off. For instance Hectares of land were confused with acres! Under the law relating to the protection of illiterates, such transactions can’t stand. That notwithstanding, the affected Balaalo are now blackmailing the land owners they transacted with that they face dire consequences, including jail if they’re evicted! These trapped people are now being weaponized to undermine the Executive Order. In Luo, we can say it is a situation where a person fleeing from harm tells his feet to be swift and save him, otherwise, the feet will also suffer. (Tyena ka pe ikonya in bene itye i iye)
Those who manipulated the desperate land owners have to be identified and either compensated and they leave or where there’s agreement, the customary owners are facilitated to get freehold titles and then the “buyers/renters” be given formal leasehold titles in the basis of be, fairer and better terms. They can then continue with their farm activities subject to the strict conditions in the Executive Order. In any case the amounts they paid are paltry and the Land Fund which has been used to salvage communities in similar situations can be the source of the compensation funds. The issue of land use will then be resolved progressively and harmony restored.
Then there are the “Balaalo” who cruise in Four Wheel Drives and hold powerful offices but have land and cattle being looked after by their employees/ herdsmen. These herdsmen obey no law knowing that they have powerful people behind them. The cows trample people’s lands destroying acres and acres of crops. They target crops like simsim, cassava and peas which they claim can enable cows to produce more milk. The cows are driven into the fields in the night while the residents are asleep. Local leaders have attempted to impound the cattle but the owners influence the police to order the release of the cattle. In some cases, trumped up charges of cattle theft are slapped on such local leaders. Even where the local leaders impose fines, these indisciplined cattle owners ignore any directive to compensate those who have lost crops.
The police is clearly on the side of the perpetrators of such indiscipline and not on the side of the victims. One local leader called me complaining about one cattle owner who told him to his face that “there is nothing anybody can do after all this government is ours and even the army is ours!” This prompted me to call the DPC who I told in no uncertain terms that the only army I know is called UPDF (Uganda Peoples Defence Forces) not UBDF (Uganda Balaalo Defence Forces!). When the police threatened to charge the Opara Sub-county LC5 Councillor with a crime for speaking out against the Balaalo misconduct I told the DPC that for the first time the cause of Justice will demand that the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs shows up as a witness for the accused!
Then there are also those who have titled land on which they have large numbers of cattle. These are the people who on account of their power and position have continued to lobby for the endless postponement of the implementation of the Executive Order. Some of these people who are afraid of eviction do not fall strictly within the definition of “Balaalo” according to the Executive Order. For instance, there are those who legally acquired leaseholds in places like Nwoya. Nwoya District Land Board wrongly assumed the role of landlord of customary land! The Constitutional Court clarified that matter. The titles will have to be rectified and the correct landlords (i.e. the customary owners) entered on the record.
For now, the paramount issue is to expel the “Balaalo” as defined in the Executive Order. Any other issue would be a distraction likely to give ammunition to those who like fishing in troubled waters. The Acholi are historically known to be a very hospitable people. In 1967, the Acholi Chiefdom entered an agreement with the government of Uganda to set up a livestock breeding project in Aswa in Pader district. By 1980s, the livestock multiplication center had about 30,000 heads of cattle in the Ranch. The land size offered was about 46,000 Hectares! We shall return to Aswa Ranch later. Therefore, we should dismiss with contempt any insinuation that chasing the Balaalo as defined in the Executive Order is evidence of tribal intolerance. While Acholiland would welcome serious ranches in order to diversify Agriculture, we don’t consider the Balaalo to be serious ranchers by any definition.
The broader issues, however, have their comprehensive answers in the Juba Peace Agreement. It is the failure to implement the Juba Peace Agreement, which has led us to this anguish. If you look at Uganda as a hospital, then Acholiland is the Intensives Care Unit. Other parts of Northern Uganda are in the same predicament. Others are High Dependency Wards. Some parts of Uganda are General Wards while others are Outpatients. Some of the out patients are busy smoking in the hospital compound chatting about the fate of those in intensive care! Government response should take into account this glaring difference in contexts. Text without context is pretext.
The Acholi voted the manifesto which promised to secure their future. How do you secure their future by making them more vulnerable? Ironically, the vulnerability is an opportunity for the Balaalo. Balaalo have found that the Acholi now have no cattle and so they can occupy the vast land belonging to the impoverished Acholi. That is why sanitizing the dispossession of the vulnerable Acholi is unacceptable. And that is why the group known as Acholi Landowners and Cattle Keepers Association that has popped up out of the blue as an advocacy group defending the indiscipline of the Balaalo requires scrutiny.
Why? Because they are not looking at the problem from the viewpoint of the Acholi. They have tinted glasses!
From the point of view of the Acholi, the problem is this: I’m a poor Acholi, I have land but I have no capacity to make it productive. A relatively rich Mulaalo comes and leases my land, say 50 acres for a few years. He brings 200 head of cattle, which the land he has leased cannot support. His cows start roaming in the neighborhood grazing uncontrollably and destroying crops belonging to local neighbours. Due to the succulent grass the cattle grow fat and the mulaalo takes them to Kampala and makes a massive profit. He returns and offers to buy my land. In fact he offers to buy two hundred acres from me. I succumb because the offer is one I cannot refuse. With a poverty rate of 68 percent in Acholiland, the Balaalo phenomenon is a cry for help because the Acholi did not choose poverty! The poverty was imposed by circumstances over which they had no control. When your home is a battlefield for 20 years you’re bound to limp for a while like a man whose limbs are unfastened after being bound for long.
That said, it is not enough to expel the Balaalo. As long as large land tracts are there and their owners have no capacity to utilize them, it will lead so many people into temptation. There should be restocking because historically cows took the place of perennial crops in Acholiland, Lango, Teso and Karamoja. In addition, the people should be equipped with tools to cultivate and add value to new crops. Agricultural finance, mechanization, inputs and equipment for value addition will be vital to any economic strategy to lift up the North.
Finally, let us not allow this disagreement over the Balaalo issue to define us as a people. Let it not divide us. We are not pro Balaalo or anti Balaalo, we are all Acholi. Let us stand together to defend the land rights of our people and take Acholiland beyond this debate. Above all, let us remember why we’re having this debate at all. This debate is about LAND and its central position in the life of our people. Land tenure will evolve. For now we are discussing land use and our focus is to stop its abuse. The Executive Order has the force of law; therefore, delaying its implementation by subjecting it to endless debate only breeds impunity. Therefore, to use the words of the President, it is the duty of “all government Agencies to ensure that these Balaalo, are expelled!”