Kampala — On Aug.10, artisanal gold miners in Bukuya and Kitumbi subcounties in the central Uganda district of Mubende were left in tears after soldiers acting on orders of President Yoweri Museveni kicked them off their patches.
The two-day operation under the command of Col. Joseph Balikuddembe, the UPDF 1st Division commander, followed an order by then-Energy ministry's Permanent Secretary, Stephen Isabalija.
Don Bwesigye Binyina, the executive director of the African Centre for Energy and Mineral Policy (ACEMP) who has spent the last three years working with many of the artisanal miners in Mubende helping them to formalise their mining activities told The Independent that the actions of the government were high-handed and were based on misinformation.
"It is yet another clear case that demonstrates that the government is yet to appreciate what it needs to do to streamline the mining sector," Binyina said, "Economic wars are not fought with guns; they are fought by constantly engaging the people because it is through people that economies are built."
Binyina said the government has failed to follow up with its commitments in regards to helping these artisanal miners to formalise their activities yet most of these miners went ahead and started associations and cooperatives.
He said the government's deployment of the military in the mining sector may in the long run backfire because no credible investor would invest in the industry knowing that the government displaced people.
Officially, Isabalija was stopping the illegal mining on grounds of environmental degradation, rising crime, and the need to restore order in Uganda's mining industry.
But Isabalija's directive followed an ultimatum of one week given by President Museveni to have all the artisanal miners off the mines to allegedly pave way for a mining entity, Gemstone International, to start mining and exploration under a recently re-issued license.
Gertrude Njuba, a former minister in Museveni's cabinet who works at Statehouse on land matters, is alleged to be connected to the land under contention.
In a recent interview on NBS Television, Njuba said she has had gold mining interests in the area as way back as 1987. In 1994, she got a mining lease for up to 207 sq. km in an area which straddles two sub-counties.
According to an expert who is conversant with Uganda's mining sector, it is difficult to understand how she has come to renew it on several occasions yet technically she has never been compliant with the mining law.
The expert said Njuba's lease expired two years ago and the owner declared having mined only 2kgs of gold but the lease was renewed for another 15 years.
"It is not clear how these mining leases have been renewed yet there is no clear demonstration of mining activities," the expert added. He says this is one clear case of speculation that has dogged Uganda's mining sector for decades.
The expert says the government reinforces the speculation when it sends soldiers to evict local entrepreneurs who have demonstrated that they can mine this gold.
According to Energy Ministry officials, up to 2,249 artisanal and small scale miners had so far been registered in Mubende, 1,614 in Namayingo and Busia districts and 600 in the Karamoja region in addition to registering close to 20 mining associations.
However, experts in Uganda's mining sector say the number of Ugandans directly involved in artisanal and small scale mining has doubled in the last five years to an estimated 400,000 people with another 1.5 million indirectly benefitting from the sector.
The expert said the evictions in Mubende have rendered over 50,000 people unemployed overnight.
"Does the government understand what this means?" he said, "These people have been consuming fuel, food, beverages and other consumables in these camps.
"Has the government also thought about where these people are going next; yet the same government says it is working around the clock to find work for the over 60% of youths who are unemployed."
The ownership of the acreage under contention has tended to alternate between business partners who are at the forefront of Gemstone International and AUC Mining.
The controversy in Mubende links directly to a Global Witness report released in June, 2017 entitled, 'Undermined: How corruption, mismanagement and political influence is undermining investment in Uganda's mining sector and threatening people and environment,' which put prominent names in the government at the centre of the mess in Uganda's mining sector
The report particularly mentioned President Yoweri Museveni who it accuses of influencing the awarding of deals to investors in the extractives sector. These investors, the report noted, sometimes turnout to be fake, evade taxes, and abuse human rights and the environment.
Global Witness found that it is routine for investors to pay certain employees in the Directorate of Geological Survey and Mines a fee to ensure that mining applications meet all requirements.
On Aug. 22, tempers flared and tears welled down the faces of hundreds of the artisanal miners as they recounted their experiences to MPs on Parliament's natural resources committee who spent the day visiting several camps in the gold-rich subcounties.
One of the victims, Roy Franca, a woman in her 40s could not control tears as she spoke about property worth billions of shillings that, she said, was lost. She said some parents were yet to find their children who had gone missing.
All this, Franca said, followed the confusion that ensued when the heavily armed soldiers descended on the camps and ordered over 30,000 people to leave the camps within two hours.
Apparently, the order was followed by a looting spree of shops, clinics, bars, restaurants and mobile money shops that were in the mining camps. Many of the miners fled to the nearby trading centres of Lubaali and Bukuya in the hope that they could return to pick any remnants of their property. But three weeks later when The Independent visited, it was still not possible as the army remained there guarding the mines.
Another victim, Sam Kawere also barely holding tears back, told legislators that he has been left with nothing following the looting of his shop. He estimated that he lost about Shs20 million.
The land owners were overwhelmed too. Stephen Kayongo Mutumba, who owns one and half square miles in Lubaali, in Kitumbi Sub-County where one productive gold mine is located told the MPs that the UPDF soldiers did not give any warning to the miners and the landlords.
A report prepared by Lubaali artisanal miners, landlords and the business community in Kitumbi sub-county presented to the MPs about the eviction noted that over five years, the artisanal miners were mining here, mining had become a source of employment for the youth, who previously used to idle around commercial centres.
Francis Kibuuka Amooti, the LC V Chairperson of Mubende District told The Independent on Aug. 28 that unlike the formal mining companies which acquired exploration licences years ago, spent years doing unverified activities with no results, the people the government calls illegal miners came recently and have shown that they can find the gold.
On the tour, the MPs were joined by Peter Lokeris, the state minister for minerals, Isabalija, Edwards Kato, the Director at the Directorate of Geological Survey and Mines alongside officials from the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).
Lokeris said the government's decision is aimed at trying to re-organise the mining sector in the country. All mineral resources belong to the central government, he said, and it is the mandate of the Energy ministry "to promote the development, strategically manage and safeguard the rational and sustainable exploitation and utilization of mineral resources for social and economic development." "The miners will come back in an organised manner," he said. But nobody believes this.
On his part, Isabalija said that government was looking at having the local artisans doing their activities well without undermining those with mining licences.
"We shall register the local artisans," he said, "so they respect the licences that are there so that the full exploration of minerals is done properly."
Isabalija had earlier said in a letter dated Aug.2 that the government had moved to evict the artisanal miners, in order to organise them and regulate the sector better.
The NEMA and energy ministry officials accuse the artisanal miners of engaging in extensive environmental degradation of the mining area and employing potentially dangerous methods of mining with the use of cyanide and mercury.
Energy ministry officials also said the miners were making money without paying taxes and, as such, deprived the government of revenues.
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Isabalija insisted the artisans had been evicted peacefully. As the MPs toured three of the gold mining camps, evidence of violence was everywhere.
The UPDF soldiers in heavy camouflage jackets assisted by police men manned road blocks on the way to the Lubaali gold camp. Inside the empty camp, the silence was deafening--a reversal to what this reporter had witnessed when he first visited in October, last year.
Back then, thousands of enthusiastic young men and women could be seen armed with pick-axes, hoes and spades loading wheelbarrows with gold-bearing rocks. Others with muddy faces were descending or climbing out of pits, hundreds of metres deep, hauling huge sacks of rubble on their backs, wheelbarrows, bicycles, small trucks or panning for gold.
Buyers were also on standby haggling with the miners for the pea-like specks of gold. A gram went for anywhere between Shs 130,000 and Shs 150,000. It was a bustling mini city. One zone called "Saigon City" was probably the most hyperactive.
From bars selling some of the most expensive liquor to retail and whole sale shops, salons, clinics, mobile money kiosks, chapatti stalls, entertainment halls connected to satellite TV, lodges, restaurants, mechanical workshops and even a Pentecostal church-- everyone was here determined to eke out a living from gold.
The gold camps had attracted many auxiliary businesses but, save for a police post, the central government seemed totally absent in this multi-billion enclave economy spurred on by gold.
But when the MPs visited on Aug.22, the machines had suddenly gone silent. The young women in restaurants, bars, lodges and shops were gone.
All that was left were abandoned pits with stagnant rain water and generators, solar panels, wheel barrows and rock crushers, wooden panning platforms and sacks full of gold-bearing dust and rock, and leaning poles with powerless electricity cables.
In the business and residential zones of the camp, there were empty kitchens, bars, lodges, restaurants, clinics and even a Pentecostal church--all stripped of iron sheets and their characteristic blue tarpaulins. In what used to be clinics, there were hundreds of unused condoms and drugs left on the floor. In one camp, the only reminder of a huge church which could sit probably 300 people were a few white plastic chairs and a big wooden cross still hung above the church's entrance.
MPs from Mubende, led by Bukuya County MP, Dr. Michael Bukenya, say the eviction was uncalled for and that it is the responsibility of the government to educate the miners on safe mining practices and organise them into formal groups.
Isabalija defended the eviction as intended to organise the miners into formal groups and weed out foreigners and illegal miners. He said registration is expected to take three months. Nobody believed him.