18 June 2017

Uganda: Apaa - Evidence That Demands a Verdict - Part I

opinion

Pictures of mothers of Acholiland daring then Internal Affairs minister Gen Aronda Nyakairima (RIP) and former Lands minister Daudi Migereko to look at their helpless nakedness turned Apaa into a byword for government's heartless highhandedness. The Apaa strip down added a remarkable chapter to the record of protests in Uganda.

Many commentators have attempted to explain what happened when Aronda and Migereko were confronted by thousands of desperate residents of Apaa carrying placards protesting the plan by the government to evict them for their land. Some of the placards bore writings calling upon Joseph Kony and the LRA to return and help them defend their land! Some women also stripped down in front of the two ministers, their entourage and heavily armed security detail. They fell down summersaulting and wailing in protest against what they saw as an imminent land grab disguised as boundary demarcation.

Since then, Apaa has witnessed even more episodes of violence. The last episode was even more gruesome. Five people were confirmed dead and more than 30 wounded. Many others are still missing. The truth is currently clouded by protagonists trading accusations. No solution oriented debate is taking place. Both sides are generating more heat than light.

In 2002 I was a Member of Parliament when the matter of East Madi Hunting Area was brought before the august House by the then minister of State for Tourism and Wildlife Otim Omara. Gen Moses Ali was then the substantive minister. In addition in 2006, I was still in charge of the districts that now comprise Gulu, Amuru and Nwoya. I was also at the centre of the Juba Peace Talks and the processes that saw displaced people return from the government created concentration camps back to their villages when the guns finally fell silent in northern Uganda.

Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) states that in 1998 it applied to Gulu District Local Government for the land that had been proposed to be a game reserve. Ms Betty Aol Ocan, the Gulu Woman MP who was at that time a district councillor confirms this fact. As a member of the District Council's General Purposes Committee, Ms Ocan travelled with other councillors to Apaa. The district chairman at that time was Col Walter Ochora. Gulu District rejected the application. UWA applied to Gulu because they knew that Apaa is in Kilak County, Gulu District. Maps dating back to 1936 attest to this fact. Curiously, after being snubbed by Gulu, UWA then applied to Adjumani District which gave the game reserve a nod. Amuru District local government strongly protested this move and vowed that the idea was unacceptable.

In 2012, UWA sent armed rangers with the backing of police and the army to forcefully evict the residents of Apaa. People were beaten up, their livestock raided, their houses burnt and their crops set on fire. Some young men were shot dead in the operation. Twenty five men were arrested, beaten severely, taken to Adjumani where they were charged with offenses ranging from criminal trespass, being idle and disorderly to threatening violence. I can attest to this because I travelled to Adjumani in the company of Kilak MP Gilbert Olanya in an effort to get bail for the 25 who were detained in Adjumani Government Prison. We had to spend a night in the open compound of Adjumani Chief Magistrate's Court in protest at the unnecessary delay by the magistrate in processing bail. For sure he was under immense political pressure not to grant bail yet bail is a constitutional right. I had to contact Justice James Ogoola to intervene and remind the magistrate of his judicial oath. Eventually the 25 were released on bail and we took them back to Apaa.

One primary school was closed down, the pupils and teachers sent away and the school desks were being used as firewood by the army and police. In fact, the school became the command post of the army complete with a road block on the road leading to the school. I know this for a fact because I visited the area and even spoke to the officers in charge.

In the next part of this article, I will explain the shortcomings of the government policy in Apaa and show why a militaristic approach will only make a bad situation worse. I will also offer some simple practical solutions.

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