A senior official in Uganda's Internal Security Organization (ISO), Major Herbert Asiimwe Muramagi, has been named in a complex land dispute in oil-rich Hoima District where, some locals allege, last year he bought 1,200 hectares from an entity that had no right to sell it.
Members of the community in Kisukuma Parish, Kigorobya sub-county, further allege that when they resisted demands to vacate the land for the new owner they were beaten and arrested by armed police and soldiers.
When contacted by telephone on July 4, however, Major Muramagi -- who is Maritime Director of the ISO, responsible for security on Lake Albert -- denied involvement. "It is all lies. I do not own any land in Hoima and I have never owned land in Hoima," he told Oil in Uganda.
Yet, immediately after this call, Josephatia Mboneraho, the Chairman of Hoima District Land Board, also contacted by telephone, said that a sale had indeed taken place, and that Major Muramagi was issued with a land title.
In a follow-up visit to Kigorobya, on July 11, Oil in Uganda spoke to a Catholic parish priest, Father James Aliomu Sabiiti, who reported that Major Muramagi had personally approached the church for help in resolving a dispute between himself and local people over the contested land.
"He is the one who requested that the parish priests handle the matter in a bid to solve the issues amicably," Fr. Sabiiti said. "He came here and asked the fathers in this parish, as spiritual leaders, to help to mediate."
However, the priest added that "many months have gone" since then and Major Muramagi "has been dodging here and there" without following up his request for mediation. Meanwhile, according to Fr. Sabiiti, the Major has been "putting up projects [developments]" on the land.
Community members say that at least seven houses and ten dams have been built on the land.
A complaint against the ISO officer was lodged with the Uganda Human Rights Commission, whose secretary, Gordon Mwesigye, wrote to Major Muramagi on February 12, 2012, requesting that he "desist from harassing the squatters on the land pending hearing of the matter by a court of competent jurisdiction."
Yet the story is further complicated by the fact that, after Oil in Uganda spoke to Major Muramagi, he contacted a local councillor in Kigorobya who delivered to our office a dossier of documents which appear to show that the land in question was lawfully acquired, in April 2011, by one Christina Mirembe, and that she has paid compensation to several 'squatters' on the land.
What is going on? Here we present the conflicting evidence and leave our readers to judge.
TAKE 1: WHAT THE COMMUNITY SAID
Oil in Uganda staff writers visited Kigorobya in late June and were told by community members that in April 2011 Major Muramagi bought 1,205 hectares of land from a Bunyoro Teachers Cooperative Savings and Credit Society. Yet this organization, some affected locals insisted, exists in name only and had acquired the land title fraudulently.
"We protested by occupying the land and not allowing any activity to take place in the area," said Aloysius Kyaligonza, the Local Council II Chairman of Kisukuma Parish.
In October 2011, according to Kyaligonza, a truckload of soldiers assaulted and beat the protestors, some of whom were also arrested. "We suffered silently and no district officials came to our rescue," Kyaligonza says. He claims that Major Muramagi had intimidated or bribed almost the entire local council leadership, including local security officials, to win their cooperation.
Other residents said they had taken their complaint to the Hoima Resident District Commissioner but were then arrested and jailed.
According to Edward Bende, a 41-year-old army veteran, some 50 villagers visited Hoima Deputy Resident District Commissioner, Abdul Swammad Wantimba, on September 23, 2011.
"We told him our issue and he told us to report to police and open a case," said Bende. "He then told us he would arrange a meeting with the buyer and asked us to return in a week's time. To our surprise, as we were leaving, we were arrested by police. Some people had gone ahead and others were using private means, so it was only four of us who were on foot that were arrested. We were taken to court and accused of stealing 350 cows belonging to Muramagi. We were remanded to Hoima Prison for over three months and released on January 12 this year."
He added that Major Muramagi had many animals on the land but the accused persons never stole or harmed them. "What happened was that the cows would stray and destroy our gardens, and then we would only chase them away."
"After being released I came home and was told to resume tilling my land. I had to fill in some forms; in fact all villagers were required to fill these forms. But we refused, yet they allowed us to use some bit of the land for farming."
Bende says he has lived in the area all his life. "Although we were not staying inside the land, we were using it for agriculture and grazing. My grandfather is buried here. Personally I had thirty acres, where I was planting cotton, maize, cassava."
Bende further reveals that his new landlords are constantly bullying him. "The new owners are now planting pine in our gardens, which we must look after alongside our crops. If they find a tree under your care has dried up, they arrest you or threaten you."
He and other community members also report that police in blue camouflage uniforms are now regularly deployed to guard the area.
A DISPUTED HISTORY
Local testimonies and documents passed to Oil in Uganda agree in naming the Bunyoro Teachers Cooperative Savings and Credit Society as the seller of the land in question. Behind this undisputed fact lies a complex history that Oil in Uganda is not able fully to unravel.
Deo Birinaiwe, the Secretary Manager of the Savings and Credit Society, confirmed the sale in a telephone interview, saying that Major Muramagi bought the land for 500 million Ugandan shillings (US$ 200,000)
According to Birinaiwe, the Teachers Cooperative was formed in 1951 and had acquired legal tenure of the land for a ranching scheme, but had virtually ceased to function by the late 1990s, when members asked him "to find a buyer for our land so that we put the money into the society."
This account is bitterly contested by one Erineo Rugondo, who appears to have considerable support in the local community.
He says that in 1965 he obtained from the Bunyoro Kingdom Land Office a five-year, renewable lease for three-and-half square miles of land in the name of Kababwa Ranching Scheme. "By then there was no one keeping cows in this area. So I brought my cows, about 150 in number, from Buliisa and Masindi, here. Everyone else was growing cotton." He insists that to this day he is the bona fide owner of the lease.
Rugondo says he also joined and became longstanding chairman of the Bunyoro Catholic Teachers Cooperative Thrift and Loan Society Ltd., which was particularly active during the 1970s, and confirms that Deo Birinaiwe served as Secretary Manager in the 1990s.
According to Rugondo, in 1991 he entrusted to Birinaiwe the task of renewing the land lease with the authorities in Masindi, where the latter was travelling on other business. Ten years passed, during which Rugondo waited to receive updated documents from the Registrar of Titles. (Birinaiwe, on his own account, spent much of this time outside the area pursuing his studies.)
When Rugondo eventually went to Masindi to investigate, he says, he found that the lease on the land had been extended for 44 years, but that it had been issued in the name of Bunyoro Teachers Cooperative Savings and Credit Society -- a different entity from that over which he has presided as chair. He has since been trying to rectify what he describes as an "outright fraud" -- although, until the 2011 sale, it appears not to have affected his normal operations as he and other members of the community continued to use the disputed land as before.
In 2007, as confirmed by documents shown to Oil in Uganda, Rugondo wrote petitioning the Commissioner of Lands over the case, and in 2010 he wrote to the Land Committee Chairman in the Office of the President, claiming that the file recording his original lease (LWD 3200) had been "hidden for over ten years" by Deo Birinaiwe, and that: "There is another file (No. LWD 5900) being used in the process of that land."
Since the 2011 sale of the lease, Rugondo says, the buyer has been intent on evicting him and other users of the land -- who he estimates to number about 80 families in total. He has therefore redoubled his efforts to assert his tenure rights.
His daughter, Mercy Rugadya, now resident in Kampala, made a complaint on behalf of the family and other users of the land to the Uganda Human Rights Commission.
The family also says they have filed a civil case against the Bunyoro Teachers Cooperative Savings and Credit Society with the High Court in Kampala.
BACK TO THE PRESENT
Presented with these conflicting stories and the allegations of harassment and eviction, Oil in Uganda contacted Major Muramagi to learn his version of events. In the July 4 telephone conversation, after denying owning any land in Hoima, he agreed to meet in Kampala on the evening of July 6 to discuss the case.
On the afternoon of July 6 Oil in Uganda again called Major Muramagi to confirm the appointment. After re-stating that "I absolutely don't own any land there" he said he was unable to keep the appointment but might be able to meet on the evening of July 8. He requested that we contact him for confirmation earlier that day. However, on July 8 he did not answer repeated calls to his mobile phone.
Meanwhile, four hours after the July 6 conversation with the Major, Deo Birinaiwe phoned Oil in Uganda saying that Major Muramagi had been in touch with him and asked him to call. "It was a mistake," Birinaiwe said, referring to what he had previously reported about the land transaction. "He [Muramagi] did not buy the land, we did not sell it to him. Christine Mirembe bought it."
Asked who Ms. Mirembe was, Birinaiwe described her as "a Kampala lady," adding that "I did not follow her much." He said she had paid 300 million shillings (not the 500 million he had claimed in the earlier interview) and that the sale took place "last year sometime, around April."
Asked why he had previously named Major Muramagi as the buyer, Birinaiwe said: "He had got interested in it, we had dealt with him for a long time, so his name was always the one that came to mind. But when I finally checked the records, I found it was Christine Mirembe."
The following afternoon, Oil in Uganda received a call from Mugenyi Mulindambura, a local councillor for Kigoroba sub-county and chair of the Hoima District Production and Natural Resources Committee. He also said Major Murgamagi had asked him to explain the situation. It was not possible to arrange a meeting within the next few days, but on July 11 the councillor delivered to the Oil in Uganda office a packet of documents that appear to confirm Christine Mirembe as the legally registered owner of the lease to Plot 8, Bughaya Block 6 at Kyamgando, Kigorobya.
THE MULINDAMBURA DOSSIER
This file includes a copy of a sale agreement, dated April 5 2011, between Bunyoro Teachers' Cooperative Savings and Credit Society and Christine Mirembe of P. O. Box 7026, Kampala, indicating that Ms. Mirembe bought the land rights for 300 million shillings.
Also included were photocopies of two Certificates of Land Title from the Leasehold Register (with case reference number LWB/5900). The first, dated December 18, 1987, shows a five-year lease (starting September 1, 1986) as granted to the Savings and Credit Society. The second shows a 44-year lease (starting September, 1991) as having been granted to the Savings and Credit Society on August 24, 2007, and transferred to Christine Mirembe on April 20, 2011. These were accompanied by an A3 size colour photocopy of a boundary map of the land in question, drawn up by the Commissioner of Lands and Surveys.
Also enclosed were copies of compensation agreements, dated between August and October 2011, between Christine Mirembe and six occupants of the land she had acquired. These appear to show that the 'squatters' agreed to accept sums ranging from 5 million to 7 million shillings (US$ 2,000 -- 2,800) each in return for vacating the land.
Enclosed alongside these agreements was a copy of a Notice of Eviction, served on September 9, 2011 by the Kampala law firm Kateera & Kagumire "on behalf of our client, Christine Mirembe," against a seventh occupant, who had allegedly accepted a Sh5 million compensation package but then refused to vacate.
On July 12, Oil in Uganda phoned Kateera & Kagumire to verify whether they were acting on behalf of Ms. Mirembe. Managing Partner, Yusufu Kagumire, a renowned conveyancing lawyer and former Chief Registrar of Titles, confirmed that Ms. Mirembe was his client but declined to discuss her business affairs or relationship to Major Muramagi.
Finally, the Mulindambura dossier contained documents relating to an alleged case of threatening violence and malicious damage.
A photocopied, handwritten letter, dated June 27 2011, from LC 1 Chairman of Ndaragi II village, Tegras Kaahwa, reports to the Kigorobya Police Post a complaint from one resident. He, the letter says, had been threatened by a group of villagers who "instructed him to take them to the manager of the Bunyoro Teachers Savings and Credit Cooperative Society investments which are being persued [sic] at their land." They then, allegedly, "grabbed him towards the construction site [and] destroyed the construction materials at the site."
This is accompanied in the dossier by six colour photographs of damaged construction materials, and by a Uganda Police "ammended [sic] charge" sheet, dated October 10, 2011, naming seven individuals as "threatening violence."
It is further accompanied by a photocopy of a handwritten letter, signed on October 30, 2011 by eleven family members of a detained prisoner.
"The family of Mzee [name withheld by Oil in Uganda] with grate [sic] humbleness would like to request you kindly to release their son [name withheld] who was arrested and remanded at Hoima prison under allegations of malicious damage, theft, violence and others which happened in your farm . . . "
The letter, signed in front of LC 1 Chairman, Tegwas Kaahwa, is addressed to one "Mr. Asiimwe Habert [sic]."
It is impossible from our limited research to reach any conclusion on the rival claims of Deo Birinaiwe and Erineo Rugondo over the original ownership of the contested land lease.
It is also hard to unravel claims and counter-claims about violence, arrests and detentions that have taken place since the April 2011 sale.
It seems certain, however, that this sale and later efforts to 'vacate' the land of its occupants sparked resistance in the community, arrests and detentions.
It is also notable that, before the sale, this 1,205 hectare plot of land was being leased for a total rent of just 120,000 shillings per year -- a mere 100 shillings (US$ 04 cents) per hectare. Why would anyone, whether an ISO man or a "Kampala lady," spend many hundreds of millions of shillings buying a lease that now has only 23 years to run? (Bearing in mind that the costs included not just the purchase price -- whether 300 or 500 million -- but, according to the Mulindambura dossier, significant compensation for 'squatters' and also the services of Kageera & Katumire, Uganda's "oldest law firm," according to its website, and doubtless one of the most costly.)
What expected, eventual profit could justify such expenditure? Has Bunyoro cattle-ranching suddenly become so profitable? Or is the investment linked to expectations of eventual profit as a result of "oil activities" in the area -- perhaps in anticipation of compensation, if land is compulsorily purchased, for income foregone on the yields of a 'forestry project'?
Another important question: What is the connection between Christine Mirembe and Major Muramagi? Who is the principal and who is the agent? Who is acting for whom?
Despite his denials of ownership, numerous testimonies point to the Major's involvement in the purchase and development of the land. Deo Birinaiwe, in a third version of his story, related over the phone on July 13, claimed that the Major had initially agreed to buy the land for 300 million shillings and made a down-payment of 45 million, but "After a week, he came back and said he had changed his mind, so we refunded his money." It was only then, Birinaiwe added, that Ms. Mirembe appeared with her offer.
Yet even after the sale, the Major has apparently been prominent in developing the land and, as the letter pleading clemency for a jailed man seems to show, in the disputes surrounding it. According to Erineo Rugondo, the Major offered him 250 million shillings in return for giving up all claim to the lease--an offer Rugondo says he rejected, although he also says he is willing to consider an out of court settlement. Other community members, including Father Sabiiti appeared genuinely baffled when told by Oil in Uganda that the Major denied ownership. "Then why doesn't he leave us alone?" one young man asked.
The Major's strenuous efforts to prove he did not buy the land are also puzzling. He appears to have had no trouble getting Deo Birinaiwe to recant his first version of the sale. The rapid mobilisation of the meticulously presented Mulindambura dossier, including large-format colour photocopies, was apparently intended to distance the Major from the case. But why go to so much trouble? Is this not, perhaps, a case of "protesting too much?"
Finally, the single most disturbing aspect of this case is the possibility that Major Muramagi may have used the armed force of the state to pursue private business interests, whether for his own sake or on behalf of others. Various interviewees insist that this has happened. And even Deo Birinaiwe took it upon himself, on July 13, to hint that it might. "Muramagi is a big man in this country," he warned Oil in Uganda, "And if you want to take him on, you may suffer."