Months after the central government tried to quell land speculation in oil-rich Bunyoro by suspending the issue of new land titles, 'Oil in Uganda' visited Kasenyi, on the north eastern shores of Lake Albert, and unearthed a tale of double-dealing and thuggery seemingly abetted by district leaders and security officials.
Eriakimi Kaseegu, the Kasenyi Local Council One Chairman, revealed that community land - including the plot where Tullow Oil's Kasemene 3 well is located - was fraudulently sold by "outsiders" and that the community's efforts to investigate the sale were met with violence and arbitrary arrests.
"In 2010, one Kahwa Franco, a rich Mugungu who stays in Kampala, bought land from two Congolese residents who did not even own it. Local leaders had allowed them to settle some time back because the area was largely uninhabited, although useful for grazing. However, these Congolese took it upon themselves to do a deal with Kahwa, who reportedly then sold off a chunk of the land to Tullow Oil," claims Eriakimi.
In the living room of his small, grass-thatched house, Eriakimi passionately described the events that followed, when locals learned that land had been sold off to outsiders.
"We summoned the so-called sellers to a village meeting, where they admitted selling the land. One of them, Benja Tepolo, even revealed that he had sold the land where the oil well is situated for about one million shillings ($400). They then bowed to pressure from the villagers to refund the money and repossess the land. However, a week later we learnt that they had defied the directive of the meeting and refused to refund the money."
In 2011, Eriakimi says, he heard that Kahwa was planning to fence off the land. In April of this year he was astonished to receive a letter from the Buliisa Town Council informing him that they were coming to inspect and fence "Kahwa's" land the following month. The letter requested him to inform the villagers and mobilise them for a meeting with the town council officials.
"I wondered how the council could refer to the community's land as Kahwa's!" Eriakimi exclaims.
On May 2, council officials arrived for the proposed meeting. However, no sooner had it started than people armed with sticks, bows and arrows descended on the eighty or so villagers, beating and dispersing them.
"A group of about thirty men, a mixture of Congolese and Bagungu, started beating up people. One John, a Mugungu from Wanseko, appeared to be commanding the group."
The Bagungu people, estimated to number around 30-40,000 in total, are indigenous to Buliisa District, and live mainly by fishing.
ENTER THE POLICE
Shortly after the violence had started, Eriakimi says, the Resident District Commissioner, Florence Beyunga, arrived on the scene in the company of the District Police Commander and several police officers.
"The attackers seemed to know the authorities were coming, because just as they [the authorities] were about to reach, John ordered his men to hide their weapons. Rather than rescue us, the police started beating us too, arresting those they thought were ring-leaders."
Eriakimi and two others were arrested, taken to Buliisa Police Station, and then transferred to Masindi Police Station.
"It was a horrible experience. I was suffering tuberculosis but the police who arrested us would not even allow me to drink water or make a short call along the way to the police station. I almost urinated on myself," says Eriakimi.
He says that he was detained for five days after which he was taken to court in Masindi and released on bail. The cases against him and one other villager were later dropped, but a third man is still required to report to court monthly.
Eriakimi adds that many people were beaten by police but feared to report this because they believe that the police are agents of Kahwa.
After narrating his ordeal, Eriakimi led 'Oil in Uganda' on a tour of the area. Five minutes drive past uncultivated bush took us to the Kasemene 3 well site, where about two acres of land have been fenced off. Uniformed employees of Tullow Oil were going about their daily business, excavating the area using a grader. Several trucks were parked in the complex, while some of the workers were having lunch.
A security guard approached and asked what our business was, to which Eriakimi replied, "I am the LC 1 Chairman of this area, but I don't know exactly what you are doing inside there. I can see that you are digging up soil but I don't know whether the waste you will generate will be harmful to our health."
A friendly exchange with the guard then ensued, with the guard telling us that many people come to the site, some with "wrong intentions." However, our chat was abruptly ended by a tough-looking and evidently higher-ranking security guard, who instructed our new friend to go back to work and stick to his role. "You want to go beyond your scope?" he asked him, as he noted down the number plate of our hired vehicle.
As we continued our tour, we asked Eriakimi if all the land we were passing had been sold. He said he did not know. "All I know is that we have lost our land," he replied.
It was not possible to establish exactly how much land was bought by Kahwa and others.
But the anxiety and anger of the local population was perfectly clear. People in this area no longer know who "owns" the land they live on. They have lost their sense of security, with the nagging fear of eviction perhaps lying in the future.
NOT MUCH COMMENT
'Oil in Uganda' contacted Tullow Oil in Kampala and the Buliisa District Land Board in order to clarify the ownership of the land where the Kasamene 3 well is sited, but was unable to elicit a satisfactory answer.
Tullow's Corporate Communications Manager in Uganda, Cathy Odengo, emphasised that Tullow leases, rather than buys, land in the areas of its operations, but said that Tullow is not "mandated" to disclose who it leases land from. In an emailed response she wrote that: "We would recommend that you approach the Buliisa District Land Board as the appropriate authority to prove land ownership of land in the area."
Tundulu Sabiiti, Chairman of the Buliisa District Land Board, said in a telephone interview that he could not comment, adding only that: "Those land arrangements are between government and the company. You ask them." When asked whether he had heard of Kahwa Franco, he hung up.
Meanwhile, some local observers believe that land conflicts in the area are growing.
Alice Kazimura, who runs a charitable organisation, Kakindo Orphans Care, near the site of Tullow's Kasemene 1 well, says that land sales are on the rise as more and more local people seek to mint money from selling "idle" land.
"Initially it was only some few tycoons like Kahwa who were buying land," she told 'Oil in Uganda'. "But now the local people are involved and it has turned clans against each other. They grab each other's land."
She added that some opportunistic people claiming to have been born in the area are now surfacing, saying that their forefathers were buried there and so they are entitled to land.
This article was first published Oil in Uganda.