23 August 2017

Uganda: Land Disputes - Acholi Residents Resort to Local Council Courts

Pader — Mr Charles Opiyo, 33, and his family, have been battling a land court case for the last five years at the Pader Chief Magistrate's Court.

Mr Opiyo, a resident of Otong Parish in Ogom Sub-county, Pader District, claims his family members are the rightful owners of the disputed 60 hectare-piece of land.

However, the case has dragged on for nearly half a decade with no proper explanation from judicial officials.

"My elder brother was arrested in 2012 by a rival clan member who claims the same land. He was detained at Pader Police Station for four days without proper charges," Mr Opiyo told Daily Monitor last week.

He says, his brother was later dragged to court by the complainant but since then, he [the complainant] has never gone back to court to defend himself on the disputed land.

"Whenever we go to court, the case is always adjourned because the complainant doesn't show up. We are unable to use the land because the matter is before court. We are unsure whether the judicial officials have been bribed or not," he says.

Despite filing their affidavits in defence of their claim to the disputed land, he says no judicial officer has taken initiative to visit the disputed land as it's the practice nowdays by the Judiciary before delivering a judgment.

Mr Opiyo says he spends more than Shs30,000 on transport to attend court proceedings, an amount that he says has proved costly for him and the family.

This, he says, has forced them to resort to local court system to resolve their land issue.

Mr Opiyo is among hundreds of people in the sub-region who have expressed disappointment with the mainstream judicial system's handling of land cases.

"The main stream courts cannot be trusted with resolving land disputes. We want to use the local court system to mediate these matters because the elders and clan members know the boundaries between the disputed land better than judicial officials," Mr Opiyo says.

Mr George Tek-kwo, a resident of Latoro Sub-county, Got Apwoyo Village in Nwoya District, is also opting for the local council court system.

According to Mr Tek-kwo, his trouble began in 2008 when he dragged his opponent to court over a disputed 1,300-hectare piece of land in Obira Upper Parish in Got Apwoyo Village.

"I acquired the land when it was degazetted by government. However, in 2008, an individual started working on the land claiming it was his. When I dragged him to court in Gulu, I won the case but he appealed. To date, the matter has not been concluded," Mr Tek-Kwo laments.

Local councils role

Despite village council courts being established under Local Council Court Act 2006, which regulate their jurisdiction and mode of operation, their roles are widely considered illegal in handling land disputes.

The government has also failed, over the years to conduct elections of LC1 and LC2s since 2001, citing inadequate funds.

Mr John Ongwen, the Awere Sub-county Local Council court committee member, says their work within the community has not been appreciated much by the government yet they are helping to resolve many land disputes.

"Our land mediation is helping many vulnerable community members embroiled in land conflicts to get justice. We receive, on average, 10 land dispute cases a month but our efforts has paid off in peacefully mediating half of the cases every month," Mr Ongwen says.

In Pader District, more than 80 per cent of the civil cases filed at the Magistrates' Court are related to land disputes, according to the district senior lands officer, Mr Julius Nyeko.

Mr Nyeko attributes land conflicts to wrangles among family members, inter-clan disputes, boundary disputes between neighbours and institutional land disputes.

Victims

He said the most affected people have been the widows and elderly persons.

Mr Nyeko notes that many of the cases have not been properly resolved in court because either the plaintiff or accused don't have financial capacity to hire lawyers and travel to court when their cases are due for hearing.

"The LCs are very important for our community in this region in handling land disputes. This is a court at the village level where the community can access it any time. It uses the language our community understands, involves elders and it is cheaper. We demand that government conducts their (LC) election so that they help in addressing the disputes within the community," Mr Nyeko said.

Mr Samson Obitre, the officer in charge of criminal investigations at Pader Police Station, says the use of local council courts would help reduce cases of individuals running to court claiming other people's land.

"We have had cases of some individuals rushing to court to claim ownership of a particular land. However, when such a matter is brought within the community, they are found not to be owning any land but just targeting a poor family to grab their land," Mr Obitre says.

He observes that in a bid to avoid land cases escalating, the police have heightened investigations on allegations brought by both parties claiming land ownership.

In a build up to championing the land rights among the vulnerable communities in the region, Action Aid Uganda, an NGO, has been engaged in conducting trainings for local council court committee members and community paralegals as land mediators and counsellors on land rights.

Through their two-year project dubbed, "Promoting women's land rights and livelihoods", the organisation has trained 40 community paralegals on access to justice, mediation and referrals to enable them support the alternative dispute resolution of cases reported at community level.

According to Mr Albert Kwawan, the project officer of women land rights and livelihoods project at Action Aid Uganda, the project that rolled out in March 2016, is being implemented in Atiak Sub-county and Amuru Town Council, Amuru District.

Pending cases

According to the Judiciary court census as of December 2015, land matters stood at 18,056, which translated to 15.739 per cent.

About 80 per cent of the land in Acholi sub-region is held under customary tenure.

This partly explains why communities in Amuru District are protesting the government allocation of 10,000 hectares of their arable land to Madhvani Group to set up a sugarcane plantation and mill.

Land cases on the increase

Land disputes in Acholi have increased since 2007, as a result of the two-decade Lord's Resistance Army insurgency in the sub-region.

It has been established that 94 per cent of the cases reported to local courts committee in Acholi sub-region are about land disputes.

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