Mukono — More than 1,000 households in Nakanyonyi Village in Nabaale Sub-county, Mukono District are living in fear after the Church of Uganda unveiled plans to evict them.
Although residents claim they have settled on the land for more than 30 years, the Church insists it legally owns the 400-acre piece of land and wants to develop it.
Mr Rogers Mukasa, one of the residents, says he has occupied the land for 40 years and says ordering him to vacate is "unfair".
"We have grown up knowing this place as our ancestral home and we have nowhere to go. If the Church is ready to listen to us, we are ready to pay nominal ground rent fees (Busuulu), but their plan to evict us will not work. We don't even want their compensation ," he says.
Ms Aidah Nakibuuka, another resident, says her late father acquired the piece of land they currently occupy and she wonders why the Church wants to forcefully evict them.
"My father bought one acre of land in this village in the 1960s from a one Mukasa. We were not told that the land belongs to the Church because we couldn't have bought it," she says.
However , the Church of Uganda legal officer, Mr Edward Musoke, says they want the squatters to vacant the land because the Church wants to use it to establish a conference centre, modern school for the deaf and demonstration farm.
He says although they secured a court injunction stopping any further developments on the land, they are surprised that the squatters are still carrying on with farming and construction of houses on the said land.
"Some unknown people are also digging deep pits on our land and residents are also continuing to sell and putting new structures on the land, which we believe are illegal," Mr Musoke notes.
According to Mr Musoke, the Church acquired the contested land in 1926 from the British colonial government and squatters have since been securing plots of land with the help of village council leaders.
"In the early years, the Church leaders thought these were good people who simply wanted some land where to grow food crops, and expected them to leave after some time, but many have over the years, put up permanent structures," he says.
Mr Musoke says in 1990, then Archbishop of Church of Uganda Livingstone Mpalanyi Nkoyoyo compensated some squatters to vacant the area. Unfortunately, the same people are still occupying the land and continue selling plots to new settlers.
"In fact, the Bibanja owners we know are less than 20. We have issued them with a number of letters, stopping their activities on the land, but they have failed to take heed," he says.
Mr Musoke says the Church is ready to negotiate with only Bibanja holders who are ready to secure lease on the land using the right procedures.
He accused politicians of defending the squatters without considering circumstances under which the latter occupied the land.
"Because these people enjoy a lot of support from the politicians, they have since become hostile and they always attack our officials whenever they visit the area to inspect our projects. What annoys us most is the fact that they have also cut down our forest reserve," Mr Musoke explains.
Mr Obedi Sabwe, the Nabbaale Sub-county chairperson, advises the Church leaders to resolve the matter amicably instead of threatening squatters with eviction orders.
"What I know, those residents are bonafide occupants and they are willing to pay Busuulu, so the Church cannot simply evict them," he says.
Mukono District chairperson Andrew Ssenyonga says the Church has had a long-standing dispute with residents in Nakanyonyi Village and urged the latter to respect the Church as their landlord.
"Many of us are tenants in one way or another, but if you fail to accept that fact and respect the landlord, you are bound to face problems. If the Church is ready to listen to their concerns, let them accept and have that matter resolved through negotiations," he says.
Battling illegal settlers
Being one of the biggest landlords in the country, the Church of Uganda is currently battling many illegal settlers on its vast land in different parts of the country.
A recent case is when angry tenants attempted to harm a delegation of 35 bishops led by Archbishop Stanley Ntagali as they inspected another piece of land in Ntawo Village in Mukono Town. Hardly had the inspection of the land ended than a group of people who were meeting at a nearby bar, confronted the prelates, hurled insults at the priests and threatened to lynch them .
The mob brought match boxes and dry grass and threatened to set a bus which had transported the bishops to the site, on fire. Police swiftly intervened and dispersed the mob.
This particular piece of land is currently being developed by Uganda Christian University, an institution of the Church. It is currently occupied by more than 800 tenants.
Mukono Bishop James William Ssebaggala says this particular piece of land was donated to the Church by the late Ham Mukasa in 1921 and it was later donated to Bishop Tucker Theological College.
Bishop Tucker was later renamed Uganda Christian University-Mukono. Bishop Ssebaggala insists that some of the tenants who occupied the land were fully compensated, but have adamantly ignored the law and continued to build houses on the land.