Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation

Living in fear

IPS 25.04.2024 Wambi Michael Translated by: Jpic-jp.org

When Mugisha Jealousy Mulimba learned that the Ugandan government was dragging him to court, he expected justice. But he says he has realized then that these courts are being used to deprive him of his rights to a fair trial and of the right to fair and adequate compensation for his land and property.

Mulimba said that a few days after the government's case against him and 41 other farmers and landowners in the oil-rich Albertine region of Uganda was heard in December 2023, the court ruled that the money for compensation for expropriation should be deposited with the court and that the government could evict them so that TotalEnergies could go ahead with the construction of the oil refinery and pipelines for the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) could be laid.

"It was the fastest trial I have known since my childhood. And even more so if it is a case where the government is suing its citizens," Mulimba said. "Judge Jesse Byaruhanga of the Hoima High Court heard and ruled against us within four days - can you imagine ruling on a case brought by the government in four days!" he added. Now the land holders are waiting, not knowing when they will finally be evicted.

Mulimba and hundreds of dependents of the 42 landowners are on the brink of homelessness, facing eviction for refusing to accept unfair, undue and inadequate compensation from TotalEnergies, which is acquiring the farmers' land on behalf of the government.

The threat of forced eviction of landowners has been around for years. But this time it seems imminent, with the government equipped with an eviction order and a decision that the oil, discovered in 2006, must be extracted by 2025. "Unfortunately we, the landowning farmers, have been punished since 2018. And now, with their eviction order, they can do anything. But we are determined to die for our rights," said Fred Balikenda.

The government requested and was granted a specific order to evict Balikenda from their land in Kirama village: "Each one of us is going through the most difficult time. It is not known when they will finally attack and how they will treat us".

It was on 4 December 2023 when the Ugandan Attorney General's Office sued 43 landowners and asked the court to grant the government to deposit compensation money at the court itself so as to allow TotalEnergies to quickly take possession of the land for the Tilenga oil and gas project. The government was in that way asking to be released from any liability and from any claims that might arise from the eviction order. The High Court made this order on 8 December 2023.

TotalEnergies E&P has been trying to acquire a 60-acre disputed plot of land on behalf of the Ugandan Ministry of Energy since 2020. The "hasty ruling" in favour of the government caused surprise within the legal community. In Uganda, land disputes remain in the court system for years without resolution. "All the cases we filed against the government are rotting in the courts. The same judiciary is hearing the case against us filed by the government in four days. Has the devil taken over our government? We cry in our hearts, wondering who will help poor people like us," said Kwonka William Mugisa, another of the affected people.

A human rights lawyer, Eron Kiiza, issued a statement saying the judge in the matter violated established legal principles by delivering a verdict in the land case within four days, without allowing the defendants to respond or contest the matter. "When a judge, oozing with impunity, deliberately denies the parties to a case the opportunity/right to be heard, to contradict evidence, to present their arguments and hurriedly makes orders for the benefit of TotalEnergies to the detriment of Ugandans' homes and gardens, their livelihoods, dignity and property, he is undermining the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms," Kiiza said.

In January, he and other lawyers attempted to urge the Uganda Law Society to boycott the activities of the judiciary in protest at the judge's conduct and handling of the matter. With the permission of the affected farmers, Kiiza appealed the ruling to the Court of Appeal to set aside the eviction order and the permission to deposit the compensation money in court. The Court of Appeal having not set a date for hearing the appeal and fearing that the government would go ahead with the eviction, Mulimba and four other farmers travelled to the capital Kampala at the end of February to request an audience with the Minister of Constitutional Affairs and the other leaders of the judiciary.

Mulimba says they were not allowed into any of the offices.

Kwonka William told IPS that, according to the government's valuation report, he was forced to accept the equivalent of about nine dollars for his land and property. Energy ministry permanent secretary Irene Batebe said in an affidavit that the compensation was based on approved valuation reports and a 30 percent increase in the project by the government.

According to Mulimba and his wife, Pityedi Mugisa, the government, through the court, is trying to force them to accept unfair and derisory compensation in the form of cash: "The land is for the family. We are asking for land in return. If they can find equivalent land, we are ready to leave. But we don't want cash”. The couple have attended dozens of meetings demanding fair and adequate compensation, but to no avail. "We had been working that land for years. We earned money for school fees, for food and medical support. So we are not fighting against the government, but for our rights to be respected," he concluded.

Dickens Kamugisha, a lawyer and executive director of the African Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), says the landowning farmers have been trying to meet with government officials to ensure that there is equity and justice. "Instead of ensuring fair and adequate compensation, the government is now resorting to the courts, knowing that these people cannot get better lawyers to represent them and cannot influence the courts. The government is filing these cases to get the judgments it wants and evict people," he said.

According to Kamugisha, AFIEGO supported the people affected by the oil refinery by filing a case against the Ugandan government for low, inadequate and unfair compensation in March 2014. "Almost ten years later, the hearings on the case are still not concluded. That is an injustice. And where there is injustice, there can be no settlement arising out of negotiations." Moreover, he said, no law provides for the government to acquire land and deposit the landowner's compensation in court.

"In 2021, the judiciary illegally allowed the government to deposit household compensation in court. This set a bad precedent that should never be repeated. It is also sad that the government has continued to use and abuse the courts to destroy the right of citizens to own property and/or obtain adequate compensation," Kamugisha said.

As the property owners wait for the Court of Appeal to consider their appeal, some of them are being threatened by security agents who, they said, continue to visit their properties. "That is happening mainly here in Kasinyi, Ngwedo Center and Kisimo villages where most of us live. Someone comes, parks a motorbike or a car on our land and then leaves. Isn't that intimidation?" said another landowner.

According to Global Witness, its undercover investigation in December 2023 showed evidence that state authorities had threatened and detained several activists. "In some cases, state authorities appeared to be in communication with TotalEnergies before the reprisals took place," the report said.

IPS learned from TotalEnergies and EACOP employees that the oil company was opposed to the idea of forced evictions because it was not within its rules and feared possible negative publicity.

There are also reports that TotalEnergies was considering hiring an independent firm to investigate the landowners' claims. However, according to Kamugisha, it is TotalEnergies that is displacing these people. "It is unfortunate that Total says they will bring an independent investigator here. They bring an investigator at a time when they are working with the government to get eviction orders. How is that investigator going to be useful?" he asked.

See, “Vivir con miedo”: un un yacimiento petrolífero los desaloja de sus tierras en Uganda

Photo. Construction site of the Tilenga Development Project operated by TotalEnergies. Some landowners oppose what they see as forced evictions without adequate compensation. © Wambi Michael / IPS

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