The Great African Rip-Off

As Russian and American oil companies stream into a new energy hotspot, most residents of rural Uganda are left with only broken promises and degraded land.

The Great African Rip-Off

“I am a refugee in my own country,” says Betty Pascal, forty-two, her dull and listless eyes revealing only exhaustion, physically and spiritually. She sits in front of her family’s makeshift home, a tent-like structure made from grass and sticks, covered with a white tarp that seems insufficient for the heavy rains of the season.

Pascal, along with at least 200 others from Rwamutonga, a rural village in Western Uganda, has been homeless for almost a year, displaced with nothing but the clothing on their backs. They are now living on a hill overlooking their former home — which is now destroyed, the land fenced off and patrolled by private security.

Residents here have set up makeshift tents made from sticks, where they have been living since being forcibly evicted from their by the police.
Residents here have set up makeshift tents made from sticks, where they have been living since being forcibly evicted from their by the police.

Early one morning last August, without warning, the small village outside Hoima was rocked awake. Former residents say the police, led by Ambrose Mwesigye, the Hoima Deputy Resident District Commissioner, stormed the village in a rain of bullets and teargas. Pascal says she and her family fled as children cried and plumes of smoke erupted from burning homes. The residents — three generations of tea plantation workers and farmers — had been evicted by a man who lived among them for decades. (Commissioner Mwesigye did not reply to requests for comment.)

The violent clash was instigated by Joshua Tibagwa, whose family, according to area Local Council Chairperson Aloysius Onzima, was given a parcel of land like everyone else in the community when an influx of people arrived to work on nearby tea and cotton plantations in the 1970s. Tibagwa’s fight for total landownership here has taken nearly three decades. “He became greedy, sorry to say it, but that’s how it is,” Onzima says. Following a long court battle, Tibagwa was awarded the land title in August 2014 after receiving money to acquire it from the Texas-based company McAlester Energy Limited. Shortly after, Tibagwa formally accused his village of illegally squatting on his land, thus giving him grounds for forcibly evicting them.

Rwamutonga, nestled in the lush green rolling hills of Hoima District, brims with small farms and nationally prized tea plantations connected by winding red dirt roads and footpaths. Approaching the tents of the internally displaced peoples camp where former residents of Rwamutonga now stay, one could easily mistake them for haystacks dotting the countryside. Upon reaching the settlement the situation has none of the peacefulness of gentle hills, and there are no haystacks.

It is hard to imagine what normal life looked like just a year ago. The scant parcel of land, offered to the displaced residents by a neighboring community, is congested and dirty. Families sleep next to fresh graves, illness is rampant, and at least one child has died from malnutrition. Injury and rape in the wake of the eviction are still open wounds for many people. One couple was even burned to death. In addition to the burning of homes, Onzima says, crops were destroyed, making food scarce. He added that some residents who tried to sneak back to their homes for food were detained, physically assaulted and, in one case, raped.

“The eviction has left a pain in my heart. I came here with so many worries,” says Pascal, whose husband was tear-gassed so badly that almost a year later he has still not regained his eyesight. “I am now the sole provider and there is no comfort in that.”

How does such violence go unchecked? The residents of Rwamutonga — a town so small that it can’t be found on Google Maps — are embroiled in a battle much bigger than their village.

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Hoima District is situated within the Albertine Rift, an African region unparalleled in its wealth of natural resources and biodiversity. It is also one of the most densely populated regions in Africa. The rift, which stretches through Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has been rife with decades of conflict. Large populations and high levels of poverty, conflict and biodiversity have made both conservation and peace challenging.

The frenzy by developers for natural resources such as crude oil, gold and timber, too often leave people here powerless when protecting the land they live on. In 2006 the race reached Uganda, specifically around Lake Albert outside Hoima, where the dollar-value of oil reserves is estimated to be in the billions.

Paradoxically, for all its riches, the desperate race for land and energy has led to abject scarcity in food and livelihoods for the region’s indigenous people. Part of the problem is that the concept of land titles is relatively new for many rural communities in Hoima District — new, as in the last five years.

Some of the many residents in this region, who say they have never met the representatives of the refinery who are asking for their relocation.
Some of the many residents in this region, who say they have never met the representatives of the refinery who are asking for their relocation.

As was the case in Rwamutonga, rural land in Uganda is inherited under customary law. This practice, often undocumented, has its pitfalls. Land wrangling – that is, disputed claims of land ownership – is an all-too-familiar conflict in Uganda, clogging up courts all over the country. A common example concerns Ugandan women who till over eighty percent of the farmland yet own less than ten percent. Much of this is due to land being inherited patrilineally. If a man passes away and leaves a wife and their children, the man’s family will often evict them or have them arrested for squatting. For communities like Rwamutonga, the lack of legislative framework by the government concerning land rights and protection in Uganda has been devastating.

The oil speculation in Hoima District has bred an unlikely economic alliance between Uganda and international companies from countries including China, Russia and the United States. These companies, with help from the Ugandan government, which ranks 142nd out of 175 countries for corruption according to the Transparency International index, and speculators, like Joshua Tibagwa, have capitalized on Uganda’s ambiguous policies toward peoples’ land rights. Decisions made behind closed doors leave an all-too-visible trail of suffering and human rights violations.

In Uganda this has played out with foreign investors contracting directly from the government with little input by the residents on the land in question. It is difficult to find positive outcomes from this arrangement since little promised has been delivered, whether jobs, compensation or infrastructure.

In the case of Rwamutonga, McAlester Energy Limited signed a lease agreement with Tibagwa for the land in 2013 for a waste management facility, though Tibagwa did not have the land title until the following year. McAlester’s facility was meant to handle waste from a proposed Russian-owned oil refinery in a nearby town called Kyapaloni. On the company’s website they state their values as “Respect for people, nature, and wildlife in all that we pursue. To always make sound environmental decisions a priority. Keep an open door of communication with the governing bodies, the oil and gas producers, and local business. To maintain the highest level of integrity and transparency in all phases of our operations.” Leonard Durst, field operations manager for McAlester, said in a phone call that the company maintains it knew nothing about Tibagwa’s tactics at Rwamutonga. It was, he says, through a broker that they had given Tibagwa and his daughter Robinah Kusiima the money, around $300,000, as compensation to the residents for their relocation. The company has since pulled its projects out of the country and is filing a lawsuit against Joshua Tibagwa.

Kusiima, forty-one, sees it differently. “This is a war of personal interest,” she says. “One person can be right and 1,000 wrong. That is the situation in Rwamutonga.”

Kusiima says her father, Joshua, was given the land under customary law in 1972 but over the decades their family has fallen victim to the constant power struggles within the district, instable governance, war and land wrangling. She does not believe they should compensate those who were living on the land.

“Now that I’ve lost so much, why should I pay them [the displaced]?” says Robinah, who holds the land title with her father. She claims the people who settled in Rwamutonga were never more than squatters who saw an opportunity to make easy money when the American company showed interest in the land.

Around eighty-seven percent of Uganda’s population live in rural areas and depend on agriculture as their primary source of income. Small farms, the backbone of food sustainability in Uganda, have maintained and sustained land for centuries. Loss of farmland to development is a serious issue for indigenous communities, culturally as well as economically. Thus resource-rich land like the Albertine Rift region becomes poor by producing commodities that predominately benefit outside interests.

The road to Kyapaloni, where the Russian company RT Global Resources hopes to build a refinery. With the promise of compensation, residents have seen their town transformed and neighbors displaced.
The road to Kyapaloni, where the Russian company RT Global Resources hopes to build a refinery. With the promise of compensation, residents have seen their town transformed and neighbors displaced.

Notably, some oil companies, like the U.K.-based Tullow Oil, have made productive efforts to help affected communities. Tullow has financed an agricultural microfinance program, dispersing loans of about $600. Recipients have six months to pay back the loan with interest. The company also has a health center in the works.

The road to Kyapaloni, not far from Rwamutonga, is countryside as far as the eye can see, fertile and untouched, a safari for foreign investors. But in the town of Kyapaloni, residents struggle to survive while living under occupation. The challenges the people face today echo the tumultuous history of the lost kingdom of Bunyoro, which today consists of five districts including Hoima. The natural wealth of the kingdom brought internal struggles that eventually led to its demise.

William Kisembo, fifty-one, a farmer and former resident of Kyapaloni, has been living in the town of Kigaaga for over a year since receiving an order from the government for the removal of all residents of Kyapaloni, where his family resided for three generations, because the proposed Russian-owned refinery was to be built on this land. Kisembo says land speculators and local officials used coercive tactics to intimidate his family into signing documents for compensation far below the value of their property.

William Kisembo outside his incomplete home in Kigaaga. “We are no longer comfortable with the government. We feared them even without force,” he says. He left Kyapaloni after his home and land was taken.
William Kisembo outside his incomplete home in Kigaaga. “We are no longer comfortable with the government. We feared them even without force,” he says. He left Kyapaloni after his home and land was taken.

Kisembo and his family now live on a small parcel of land measuring less than 1,800 square feet, comparable in size to a Brooklyn townhouse lot. The family lives in a one-room shack behind the home he had hoped to construct, but which now sits on the road, a skeleton overrun with weeds. All are thin, in soiled clothing. The children, no longer in school, spend their days picking fruits to sell.

In William’s former life, he was a successful farmer with land valued at sixty million Ugandan Shillings (UGX), about $200,000. He received only seventeen million UGX, less than $6,000 for the land. Food, building materials and transport, things that would help with the transition, were not part of the deal. In fact he doesn’t even know who paid him. He says he was told to open a savings account in Crane, a local Ugandan bank, and the money was put there anonymously. Documents he signed have the headers of the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development.

“The government,” he says, “has refused to add to my compensation, which was already insufficient. The land I lived on was inherited [through customary law], passed down over three generations. I did not know what a land title was until now. We wanted to go to court but the District Chairman told us it was final. We are no longer comfortable with our own government. Even without force we fear them.” (Hoima District Chairman George Bagonza did reply to requests for comment.)

Closer into town, Kiiza Yovan, forty-eight, William’s brother, was also ill-compensated, receiving only half the value of his assets, echoes Kisembo. Standing in front of his incomplete home, where doors he salvaged from his former home in Kyapaloni lean uselessly against a wall, he says, “Even today [two years later] there is no refinery and we wonder if there will ever be.”

Kisembo (left) and his brother, Kiiza Yovan, in Yovan’s store in the Hoima District of Uganda. “We are not sure what will happen to our town or if there will even be a refinery,” Yovan laments.
Kisembo (left) and his brother, Kiiza Yovan, in Yovan’s store in the Hoima District of Uganda. “We are not sure what will happen to our town or if there will even be a refinery,” Yovan laments.

The reason the refinery has not yet been built is not a conspiracy, as Yovan suspects, but because people remain on the land, some out of defiance, some simply because they have nowhere to go. Others refuse to accept the amount offered to them, which they see as insufficient. Of those who remain, some haven’t even received an offer for compensation.

The Kyapaloni the brothers left over a year ago is a specter of its former self, a ghost town. Since their land was contracted to the Russian company RT Global Resources two years ago (the refinery whose waste would have been managed by McAlester) with the promise of compensation for their removal, little progress has been made. The village school was turned into a police station for a private security force hired to protect the land and resolve conflict — resolving conflict, that is, from the perspective of RT–Global Resources. (Representatives of the company did not reply to requests for comment.) Many have been intimidated into taking inadequate compensation and are now displaced, living in other villages with incomplete houses and lives. Those who have not received any compensation struggle with food shortages due to land degradation, lack of water and basic services.

A group of women sit on the side of the road after picking dodo leaves, one of the few food crops they can grow. They eat the leaves with salt, if they have any salt. Pending their relocation, the government has issued an order that no one in Kabaale-Buseruka sub-county, which includes Kyapaloni, can plant more than three months worth of food. They talk over each other, complaining that the land that once fed their families and was their main source of income is now too overgrown for cultivation because the area lacks able workers. They are forced to go to another town to buy goods, furthering their economic decline. Wild animals now threaten them and conflicts have increased between cattle grazers and residents who, until recent times, led a relatively peaceful co-existence.

Those who have not received any compensation, like Manuela Fatum, twenty-eight, and her three children, struggle with food scarcity due to land degradation, lack of water and basic services.
Those who have not received any compensation, like Manuela Fatum, twenty-eight, and her three children, struggle with food scarcity due to land degradation, lack of water and basic services.

“I have stayed,” says Manuela Fatum, twenty-eight. “I have received no offer for my land. I met with authorities from the company, but came to no agreement. We have been kept out of the future of this land. We know nothing about the plans here and have no contact with those making the decisions. Many have not been paid and are very angry. So our land suffers. We have no food. They have left us here to rot or leave without compensation. We need relief.”

Just beyond Manuela and the gaggle of lamenting women is a small sign posted on the side of the road. It reads, WE ARE DEFENDING OUR LAND UNTIL WE ARE RELOCATED AND COMPENSATED.

Ruwaga Jenny Rose and Markurta Akumi sit in their dilapidated home near the signpost. “They have refused to compensate us adequately and so we will die for our land. We have no chance to speak for ourselves,” says Ruwaga.
Ruwaga Jenny Rose and Markurta Akumi sit in their dilapidated home near the signpost. “They have refused to compensate us adequately and so we will die for our land. We have no chance to speak for ourselves,” says Ruwaga.

Idling in a dilapidated house near the signpost, Jenny Rose Ruwaga, thirty-seven, and Markurta Akumi, forty-five, sit with their children. “The community agreed to put up the signpost because we are not happy with the government. They have refused to compensate us adequately and so, if we must, we will die for our land,” says Ruwaga, who feels she and her community have no voice, and is given no chance to speak for themselves. Though directly affected, they are not, she feels, part of the decision-making.

However, the people of Kyapaloni and Rwamutonga have found allies. Community Green Radio, which hosts a popular thrice-weekly radio show focused on environmental issues, has created a forum that gives the affected people of Hoima District direct access to government and local officials. Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), a Ugandan public policy research and advocacy group, has also stepped up with a commitment to legally represent the people of Hoima District steeped in the land crisis.

A signpost put up by the residents who remain in Kyapaloni reads “We are defending our land until we are relocated and compensated.”
A signpost put up by the residents who remain in Kyapaloni reads “We are defending our land until we are relocated and compensated.”

The case, which asserts the government has violated the human and constitutional rights of the people, has been a slow and tedious process. It hinges on Section 59 of the Land Act and Article 26 of the Ugandan Constitution, which clearly states that a citizen can only be deprived of his or her property rights after such person has been promptly paid fair and adequate compensation. The property value must be annually assessed and updated, although that is hardly ever done efficiently. According to Michael Businge, twenty-six, the field coordinator for AFIEGO, the organization has been labeled “anti-government” and accused by the government of being, ironically, “rebels with foreign interest.”

Back in Rwamutonga, Betty Pascal asks: “We are Ugandan, but where is out protection?” It is a simple question that has yet to be answered.