Speaking in a recent interview, Matia Lwanga Bwanika, the Wakiso district chairman, set his sights on the illegal sand mining in his populous district and singled out for harsh criticism President Museveni’s younger brother, Salim Saleh.
Interviewed by Baker Batte Lule, the chairman was extremely unhappy with the retired general’s reported support for illegal sand mining on Lake Victoria; an activity Bwanika says is having a catastrophic effect on the environment and the lake’s fragile ecosystem. Read on…
What is this war with sand miners all about?
There is no problem with sand mining. Actually, it forms part of our revenue collection in many areas where sand mining places are one kilometre from the lake banks.
That mining has no effect at all; it has been existing since time immemorial. What I’m fighting is this activity started by mafias of recent. I got to know about them in May last year.
Who owns these companies?
One company is called Only You, it was hidden in Kasanje. The other is called Posh, and the third is Mango Tree. They have ships; they enter the lake hundreds of metres and excavate not only sand but everything in those areas; fish or fish eggs.
When they are servicing their machines, they do it in the lake, and pour oil in the lake. The effects of that activity is very dangerous to the water, the aquaculture, which we don’t even have control over as Wakiso district, not even Uganda because it’s a regional lake; the source of the Nile.
Ever since I chased them in May last year even Nema [National Environment Management Authority] attests that fish has increased in those areas.
Not only is their activity illegal, some say their immigration status is contestable. But the other issue is who owns them? Are they established companies that Uganda Investment Authority gave a go-ahead? After they have sold the sand, who takes the money? Private businesses are accepted worldwide but not at the expense of the public good.
Why are your district councilors going after you instead?
I came in as a whistle-blower and used politics to arrest them because I tried using legal means through police and Nema but they feared to do anything. When I came out, that’s when Nema wrote letters stopping the activity. This is about divide and rule.
The schemers went behind my back and met the [district] speaker, saying they want a council resolution authorizing them to resume work. But even if they get a council resolution, according to the Constitution and the Local Governments Act, there is no law that allows us to check a national agency.
Whether Nema is right or wrong, the district has no locus to pass any resolution that challenges Nema.
I know money was involved to sway councilors to portray me as a bad leader. It became so diversionary that it’s now Bwanika versus councilors, Bwanika versus speaker.
I have been here for eight years and I have not collided with my fellow politicians. The [problem] is sand mining. People are using power and politics to force us to support this illegal activity. Journalists, civil society organisations and everybody should rise up and say this is wrong.
Whether councilors abandon me, I will insist on saying that what is happening is illegal even if it means losing the chairmanship.
What do they use this sand for?
I don’t know, but what I can say authoritatively is that it is very expensive sand. By the time I stopped this activity, they were selling the big [ten wheeler] truck (magulu kkumi) at Shs 3 million. They have heaps of sand which are larger than a village. So, these are billions of shillings.
My interest is in the activity of mining itself. You see the district has no money because after getting so many municipalities, which are autonomous, district revenues were cut off; therefore, it would be enticing if they gave us some revenue in exchange. But I don’t need revenue from an activity that threatens the future of our lake. They also wanted to sort me because one time they invited me and asked me; ‘what do you want’?
How far are you willing to go on with this fight?
As far as it takes. Council wanting to impeach me is diversionary. There is no war between me and councilors; it is just imaginary. Those people wanted to intimidate me by inciting councilors but I’m a very firm and seasoned politician who you cannot intimidate on matters of fact and law.
They have no legal backing to impeach me. Two, we don’t have the powers to allocate licenses contrary to a national agency [directive].
These are big people trying to use their offices to force us into doing something very dangerous. So, because they are used to intimidating every Tom, Dick and Harry, they think they can use the same on me. I have been here for eight years, take that off the age I have, how was I surviving then? I can still survive without being the district chairman.
If I can draw your attention to the contested impeachment of Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago in Kampala; it was an illegality that was pushed through…
Circumstances change. In Kampala, it was purely politics and power struggle. You cannot tell me there was any matter of public interest.
Maybe the matter of public interest was who had the power between those elected by the people and those appointed by the president. It wasn’t a matter of policy or a matter of regional and international importance.
Environmental matters have catastrophic [implications] for the future. This is a struggle between selfish and dubious people who want to get money. But even if they use illegalities like they did to Lukwago, so be it. I can leave this seat and go back to Namulanda. I have so many other things I do to survive.
Saleh says the benefit of development and jobs outweighs the need to protect the environment.
I appeal to the ministry of education to investigate the schools Saleh went to because he wouldn’t have made such a statement if he had gone to good schools.
A school that doesn’t teach sustainable development in economics is not a good school. Sustainable development and the environment are synonymous. You can’t have one and lose the other; they move together. If it’s just development for the sake of it; we should cut down all the trees.
You have very powerful people backing the Chinese; is this war winnable?
That question is for everybody; if we want to win, we must join hands. I’m a very small person, Wakiso is a small district compared to Uganda and Uganda is a very small country compared to all countries using the lake. I have played my role; you as a journalist play yours and engage other people.
Is Bwanika scared for his life since you are fighting what you call a mafia?
I’m not in this seat accidentally. I’m like a sailor, there is no way you go to the waters and say that you didn’t expect waves, storms or winds. It’s part of the game. You cannot avoid being imprisoned, stop assassinations when you are in politics.
Mowzey Radio has died. As I speak mortuaries are full. You can’t avoid death; you can’t abandon the truth just because you fear to die.
Some people despise me that I have nothing yet I lead one of the richest districts. That’s where we differ; I’m not looking for riches. I’m a small man but I don’t fear anybody. I’m courteous and respect people if they are doing the right thing.
Even if it’s Museveni behind this, I will tell him what he is doing is wrong. For Assistant Inspector General of Police Andrew Felix Kaweesi to be assassinated, did he first fight for the lake?
I hear they shot him 72 bullets. We don’t know who killed him up to now. When he was still the commander of Kampala Metropolitan Police, he put me under house arrest when I was fighting Sudhir [Ruparelia] because of environmental issues. If I die, so be it. I don’t want to be part of the massive killing of people if I keep quiet.
Some people have accused you of being highhanded …
When I was arresting the Chinese, I first went to police. The officer in charge told me: ‘Chairman, leave me alone, I had lost a job, even the cars I had impounded I was told to release them’.
If you behave normally in an abnormal situation, then it’s you who is abnormal. As I talk to you, some very big people in government are whispering to me, otuyambye (you helped us) but they are more powerful than me. So, that means I touched a button everyone fears to touch.