Oil discovery leads to Buliisa pastoralists removal

GRAZING over 200 heads of cattle, Ntaganda Charles looks happy, though a closer look betrays fear in his eyes. Uncertainty and hopelessness haunt him like a horrible nightmare.
LONG-HORNED ANKOLE COWS: Pastoralists are rarely safe with their cattle.
LONG-HORNED ANKOLE COWS: Pastoralists are rarely safe with their cattle.

GRAZING over 200 heads of cattle, Ntaganda Charles looks happy, though a closer look betrays fear in his eyes. Uncertainty and hopelessness haunt him like a horrible nightmare.

Insecurity and fear surround him everyday, that even a mere tilt of a camera with an aim of taking a shot will provoke much resistance, much more like one shot would drain away every little bit, of life that is remaining in him.

Ntaganda is one of the 1.200 Pastoralists with Rwandan roots who face the paradox of being evicted from the land they legally bought with their hard-earned money.

It is just a matter of time and Ntaganda and his protégés will be on the move; to wherever they think they can settle with their cows for a while, until the same ghost that has haunted them for years returns.

Ntaganda like most of the 1.200 other pastoralists, inhabits the controversial Buliisa District in Mid-Western Uganda, which is a subject of running battles between Pastoralists and Bagungu tribesmen who claim rightful ownership of the land.

It is mainly, believed that there is a much stronger force behind the Bagungu or the Buliisa Members of Parliament, who are at the forefront of the battle to throw out the ‘Balaalo’ as they are referred too.

Buliisa is a small district located on the shores of Lake Albert, sharing borders with Hoima and Masindi districts in the Bunyoro a region of Mid-West Uganda.

It occupies part of the earmarked land with abundant oil deposits, perhaps the reason it has become a very strategic and sought after piece of land.

This explains how the Buliisa scandal has provided daily headlines since 2006; just after oil was discovered in the region yet some of the Pastoral families have settled in the area for over 20 years. 

Lately though, the Buliisa issue has increasingly become a very contested one, drawing in lawyers, High Court, government officials, politicians and soldiers into one gruelling battle which no party is ready to lose.

Life draining court cases, arrests, evictions, running battles, animosity and all, characterize the atmosphere in this district where at one time, a Genocide of sorts threatened to break out.

In this movie-like melodramatic scandal starring the Bagungu and Balaalo as the main characters, more questions have been raised and not a single answer has been provided.

However, the Buliisa issue is a more complicated one for an average person to understand. Perhaps the media has only covered the surface layer to do with particular sides/parties in this scandal; omitting the voice of the minority groups of helpless herdsmen.

It is for this reason that everybody thinks that the pastoral groups in Buliisa should leave the area with immediate effect since they are wrongfully occupying the land.

In a recent court ruling (June 2008), the High Court overturned a previous ruling of March 2008 in which the High Court Judge, Justice Richard Tabaro ordered the release of arrested pastoralists.

The judge ruled that there was no criminal offence against them and they should immediately be released to their homes as free persons.

This sounded like sweet victory to the pastoralists; but in a dramatic turn of events, two months later the court ordered for the evacuation of the pastoralists from Buliisa - rendering a heavy blow to the pastoralist struggle to keep their land.

The New Times, spoke to Grace Bororoza, the representative of the pastoralist groups in Buliisa and from her words, one is forced to rethink their understanding of Buliisa issues. Her story demystifies the story as told by the media.

“The problem is not occupying the land illegally but the main problem is that some people want our land for their selfish desires,” said Bororoza.

Adding that most of the people in the land own it legally and have land titles.

“Most of us have been here for all our lives and those who bought the land have possessed it for over 10 years, MP Birahwa’s allegations that we were evicted from Northern Tanzania are lies,” noted Bororoza.

One thing the Pastoralists admit is that they have Rwandan blood but that does not make them any different from the many other Ugandan Banyarwanda scattered all over the country.

“All this is due to the discovery of oil and nothing else as claimed by those who want to evict us”, Ntaganda remarks.

The Buliisa issue is not ending soon. The New Times learnt that most of the land has been fenced, denying the mainly pastoral communities access to water. Compounded by a heavy military deployment in the area.

Tension has mounted on the minority pastoral communities and the Buliisa MP, Stephen Mukitare Birahwa has been accused of plotting violent attacks against the communities.

Due to wrong facts given by the media, more pressure has been piled on the Pastoral communities hence subjecting them to attacks even on their animals.

Houses have been razed, livestock hacked and many are languishing behind bars without trial. Bororoza admits that there are pastoralists who illegally migrated to the area, especially from Northern Tanzania, but this does not mean that the whole community be treated as immigrants.

As it seems though, the battles will not end soon but from the look of things, it is just a matter of time and these people will lose their land, property and perhaps their lives too.   


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