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Human Rights

‘Living in Fear’: Landowners in Uganda’s Oil Field on Brink of Eviction

Works at the Tilenga Development Project operated by TotalEnergies. Some landowners object to what they consider forced evictions with inadequate compensation. Credit: Wambi Michael/IPS

Works at the Tilenga Development Project operated by TotalEnergies. Some landowners object to what they consider forced evictions with inadequate compensation. Credit: Wambi Michael/IPS

KAMPALA, BULIISA, and HOIMA , Apr 18 2024 (IPS) - When Mugisha Jealousy Mulimba learned that the government of Uganda was dragging him to court, he expected justice. But he says he has realized these courts are being used to deprive him of his rights to a fair hearing and the right to fair and adequate compensation for his land and property.

Mulimba told IPS that within days after the government’s case against him and 41 other landowners in the oil-rich Uganda Albertine region was heard in December 2023, the court ruled that money meant for the expropriation compensation should be deposited with the court and that the government could evict them so that TotalEnergies oil refinery construction could go ahead and the pipes for the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) could be installed.

“It was the fastest trial that I have known of since my childhood. And more so that involving a case when the government sued its citizens,” Mulimba told IPS.

“Justice Jesse Byaruhanga of the High Court in Hoima heard and passed the judgment against us within four days. You can imagine determining a case filed by the government within four days,” he added. Now the landowners are playing a waiting game, not knowing when they will finally be evicted.

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

The threat of forceful eviction of the landowners has been around for years. But this time, it appears to be imminent, with the government armed with an eviction order and determined that the oil, discovered in 2006, should be extracted by 2025.

“Unfortunately, we, the landowners, 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 applied and granted a specific order to have Balikenda evicted from his land in Kirama village.

“Each of us is going through the toughest times. You don’t know when they will finally pounce or how they will treat us,” said Balikenda

On December 4, 2023, Uganda’s Attorney General’s Chamber sued 43 landowners. The suit asked the court to grant the government leave to deposit compensation money in the court so that TotalEnergies could take possession of land for the Tilenga oil and gas project.

The government asked that it be discharged from any liabilities arising from any claim from the eviction order.

The High Court ruled on December 8, 2023, that the landowners’ compensation be deposited in court so that TotalEnergies can take possession of the land in dispute. TotalEnergies E&P has since 2020 been trying to acquire a 60-acre piece of land on behalf of Uganda’s Ministry of Energy.

The “hurried ruling” in favor of the government raised eyebrows within the legal fraternity. In Uganda, land disputes stay in the court system for years without resolution.

“All the cases we filed against the government are still rotting in the courts. The same judiciary hears the case against us by the government in four days. Has the devil taken over our government? We are crying in our hearts, wondering who will help poor people like us,” said Kwonka William Mugisa, another landowner.

A human rights lawyer, Eron Kiiza, issued a statement saying that the judge in the matter violated established legal principles by delivering a verdict in the land case within four days, without allowing the accused parties to respond or contest the matter.

“When a judge, oozing impunity, deliberately denies parties to a case/suit an opportunity/right to be heard, to contradict the evidence, to file their submissions, and hastily makes orders for the benefit of TotalEnergies to prejudice Ugandans’ homes, gardens, residences, livelihoods, dignity, and property, he is undermining the rule of law and fundamental human rights and freedoms,” said Kiiza.

Kiiza and other lawyers in January have tried to urge the Uganda Law Society to boycott the Judiciary’s activities in protest against the conduct and the way the judge handled the matter.

He, with the permission of the landowners, appealed the ruling to the Court of Appeal to overturn the High Court eviction order and compensation money deposited in the court.

The Court of Appeal had not fixed the date for hearing the appeal petition at the time IPS was filing this report. Fearing that the government could go ahead with the eviction, Mulimba and four other aggrieved parties traveled to Kampala at the end of February in an attempt to seek an audience with the Minister of Constitutional Affairs and the other leaders in the judiciary to hear their plea.  Mulimba old IPS that they were not allowed to enter any of the offices.

Kwonka William told IPS that, going by the government’s valuation report, he was being forced to accept an equivalent of about USD 9 for his land and assets.

The Energy Ministry’s Permanent Secretary, Irene Batebe, said in an affidavit that compensation due to the respondents was based on approved valuation reports and a 30 percent project uplift by the government.

Meanwhile, Mulimba, flanked by his wife, Pityedi Mugisa, told IPS that the government, through the court, is trying to force them to accept unfair compensation in the form of cash.

“The land is for the family. We asked for land in exchange. If they can find equivalent land, we are ready to leave. But we didn’t ask for cash,” said Mulimba.

The couple said they have attended scores of meetings demanding fair and adequate compensation but have been unsuccessful.

“We had been using that land for many years. We earned money for school fees from it. We get food from it and we got medical support from there,” he said. “So, we are not fighting the government but we are fighting for our rights to be respected.”

Dickens Kamugisha, a lawyer and Chief Executive of the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), told IPS that the landowners have been trying to meet government officials to ensure that there is fairness and justice.

“Instead of ensuring fair and adequate compensation, they are now using the court. Knowing that these people cannot get the best lawyers to represent them, knowing that they cannot influence the courts. So the government is filing those cases to get those rulings that they want to use to evict the people,” he said.

Kamugisha said AFIEGO supported the oil refinery-affected people in filing a case against the government of Uganda over low, inadequate, and unfair compensation in March 2014.

“Nearly ten years later, hearings on the case have yet to be concluded. That is an injustice. And where there is injustice, you cannot have a settlement that is coming from negotiations,” he asserted.

Besides, Kamugisha told IPS that no law provides that the government can go ahead to acquire land and deposit the landowner’s compensation in court.

“In 2021, the judiciary illegally allowed the government to deposit the households’ 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 misuse courts to destroy citizens’ right to own property and/or get adequate compensation,” Stated Kamugisha.

As the landowners wait for the Court of Appeal to consider their appeal, some of them told IPS that they are being threatened by security operatives who, they said, keep visiting their homesteads.

“That is mainly happening here in Kasinyi, Ngwedo Center, and Kisimo villages, where most of us live. Someone comes and parks a motorcycle or car at your land and then drives away. Isn’t that intimidation?” another landowner said

According to Global Witness, evidence from its undercover investigation in December 2023 showed that state authorities had threatened and detained a number of campaigners.

“In a handful of instances, the state authorities appeared to be in communication with TotalEnergies before reprisals took place,” said the report.

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

There are also reports that TotalEnergies was considering hiring an independent firm to look into the claims by the landowners.

But Kamugisha said it is TotalEnergies that is displacing these people.

“It is unfortunate that Total is saying they are bringing here an independent investigator. They are bringing an investigator at a time when they are working with the government to get eviction orders. How is that investigator going to be helpful?”

IPS UN Bureau Report


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