Early this year a shocking video footage of heavily armed security personnel facing off with other security colleagues emerged in the media. In the footage, armed men dressed in counter-terrorism police uniforms were seen exchanging with colleagues from another unit in a heated exchange that nearly degenerated into a fully blown shootout. The footage showed police struggling to restrain a colleague dressed in regular police uniform who engaged in a heated exchange with the heavily armed personnel, but eventually calm was restored.
The dramatic events took place at the Kisita gold mine (in Kassanda district) that has now turned out to be a contested gold hot spot that has sucked in powerful government figures including State Minister for Minerals Development Sarah Opendi, State House Anti-corruption unit boss Lt. Col. Edith Nakalema, and the Uganda Revenue Authority pitted against Jessica Keigomba, the commandant of Police Minerals Protection Unit (PMPU) and the company bosses who are crying foul over the police unit's actions.
Recently, minister Opendi revealed that a clique of mafias were out to frustrate her after severally issuing anonymous death threats concerning the Kisita gold mine whose proprietor, Mustafa Semih Gecgil, complained to Nakalema that the minerals protection police were frustrating him from doing any work there.
"Concerning the issue of the gold mines, my life has been threatened but I have assured these mafias that before they blow my head, I will have removed them," Opendi told parliament.
Following a visit to the mines, Opendi ordered Keigomba's officers out and put Uganda Revenue Authority, that demands over Shs1 billion in taxes, in charge so as to recover the money. However, wrangles over the mines persisted with recent developments indicating that artisanal miners working on behalf of the company owners were also evicted, mirroring the horrific events of the August 4, 2017 evictions from Kitumbi sub-county of now Kassanda district. Only, in the case of Kisita, unlike at Kitumbi, the license holder has been on the ground operating.
A 2018 complaint filed with Nakalema's office stated that under the disguise of carrying out investigations, police officers barred the company team from accessing the gold mine and took over it as a scene of crime.
"The police has instead granted access to the mine to more than 500 local miners led by Johnny Nsasirwe and others who have no shareholding or interest in Kisita Mining Company," reads the complaint lodged by Horizon Energy, principal owners of the subsidiary called Kisita Mining Company, based in the United Arab Emirates, according to the Daily Monitor.
Additionally, the complaint alleged that the illegal miners who were allowed in the mine destroyed the company's machinery; were actively extracting gold without paying taxes; and that police officers had also resorted to threatening the management team with arrest on trumped-up charges.
On 12th March 2020, Nakalema's team placed under arrest two officers of the minerals police including Caleb Tashobya and her boss Jessica Keigomba who were made to record statements to back the investigations, in which the unit is accused of frustrating Kisita Mining Company's investment.
How did we get here?
Uganda's National Development Plan II - themed Strengthening Uganda's Competitiveness for Sustainable Wealth Creation, Inclusive Growth and Employment - prioritised investment in five key growth drivers (agriculture, tourism, minerals, oil and gas; infrastructure and human capital development) with the greatest multiplier effect as identified in the Uganda Vision 2040
As part of efforts to revamp the mining sector therefore, the MEMD embarked on legislative reforms that resulted the Mining & Minerals Policy in 2018 to replace the ones of 2001 and 2003. The process to replace the old Mining Act 2003 is also under way with a Draft Mining Bill 2019 already under review. This was all meant to put the sector in order to attract Foreign Direct Investment and also lift rural households, where ASM takes place, out of poverty.
In a progressive move, the 2018 Policy recognizes the contribution of artisanal and small scale mining and provides for its formalization and regulation to realize its full potential where mining rights, including prospecting, exploration, retention, location licensing, mineral dealers' licenses and the mining lease, have been given to individuals or companies.
The PMPU was established and operationalized in August 2017, the same year miners were evicted from Kitumbi. Their mandate, itself a source of contradiction, is to eradicate illegal mining, to promote the health and safety of miners and encourage more to participate as a form of community development.
Several complaints from miners and civil society actors have been raised, including human rights violations, corruption allegations, extortion and accumulated wealth by senior management among others. Some specific ones have however been levelled against Keigomba in particular and her team about their mandate being over-stepped hence undermining the gatekeeper roles of the Directorate of Geological Survey and Mines.
"For example, the PMPU has taken over many roles of the supervisory and regulatory roles that the Mining Act 2003 vests in the DGSM. Many miners, especially those mining Gold, Tin, Tantalum and Tungsten in Central, Eastern and Western Uganda have been harassed by this Force," Don Binyina, executive director of Africa Center for Energy and Mineral Policy (ACEMP) noted in a statement read at a press briefing on 24th June 2020 .
Civil society actors note that despite government "prioritizing mining in its development plans as one of the sectors that can enable the country transform to middle income status, little has been done over the years to address systemic governance bottlenecks and institutional under funding that continue to cripple the sector," citing a disturbing trend of a small group of people continuing to expand their grip on the sector.
Binyina also noted that 'the sector is increasingly under capture by a combination of State and State-affiliated institutions and powerful individuals with strong political connections."
"Another example is the Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) initiative which is assuming some of DGSM's roles in the sector, including investigations, dispute resolution, investment promotion and formalization of ASMs outside the mining sector's policy and regulatory framework," the statement further reads.
In showing solidarity with Opendi's stance and the (MEMD) in her efforts to clean up Uganda's mining sector, ACEMP has called for hastening of the passing of the Draft Mining and Minerals Bill into law to end some of the ongoing controversies relating to ASM.
They have also called on Parliament to look into what has now become irregular operations of the PMPU including how it is constituted, chain of command and mandate. On 18th June 2020, Kalungu West MP, Joseph Ssewungu raised concerns over the irregular constitution of the Force while noting that there were deliberate efforts to fail Opendi.
"The Minister of Energy and Mineral Development may not be able to do much when people from one region are the ones manning the Minerals Protection Unit of the Uganda Police Force," Ssewungu said, claiming that all the 20 senior officers in the unit were from western Uganda which he said may frustrate any effort aimed at streamlining the mining sub-sector, especially if such efforts are deemed by the officers to be against their personal interests.
The involvement of the OWC, whose operations are run by army generals and many reserve force officers, raises eyebrows as its head, Salim Saleh, is the president's brother. Binyina called on the OWC to respect the structures of managing the sector laid out in the law and operate under the guidance of MEMD.