Of late, resource-based conflicts relating to land, wildlife and forest products in northern Uganda have been on the rise. This has been partly attributed to the LRA war that destabilised the region. The Apaa and Lakang land conflict in Amuru, the Lendu Forest Reserve conflict in Zombo and the Abanga farm land in Zeu are but a few drops in the torrent of land disputes that are threatening the realisation of total sustainable peace and full recovery in post-conflict northern Uganda.
The issues, dynamics, causes and effects of these conflicts are intricate and vary from place to place. The identifiable root causes range from inter-family, inter-tribal or intra/inter-clan disputes; disputes with local governments, contested boundaries, access to and land use, conflict over ownership and conflicts with government institutions like Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), and the National Forestry Authority (NFA).
The key conflict drivers are evidently increased commercial value of land and land-related transactions, forceful grabbing, lost boundaries, boundary demarcations, business interests, improper sale of land, misinterpretation and poor understanding of the land laws and post-conflict return policies.
The problems are more acute in the newly established districts, many of which are battling for their own survival and this is not only threatening the success of the post-conflict recovery process but also undermining the much-needed service delivery.
Five years ago, the Government of Uganda unveiled the Peace, Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP) for Northern Uganda. This was aimed at rebuilding and restoring peace in the war-ravaged region. In its first phase, 2007-2011, PRDP has made tangible progress in putting the region on the recovery path.
But successful recovery and realisation of sustainable peacebuilding remain very much a work in progress. Right from Karamoja to Teso, Acholi and West Nile, land disputes have become top on the agenda.
Three weeks ago in Lamwo, Advisory Consortium on Conflict Sensitivity (ACCS) learnt that Lamwo district is preoccupied with fighting for the survival of its district headquarters instead of coordinating responses to the devastating Nodding disease.
According to the district leadership, land disputes are derailing progress and peace recovery in the district. This is just one example of the many disputes that over 90% of districts in the North are preoccupied with instead of focusing on other vital development needs.
In situations where these disputes have turned violent, people have been seriously injured, property destroyed and lives lost. For sustained recovery and enhanced service delivery, the land question must be addressed systematically by the government and relevant stakeholders.
In each district, mechanisms must be put in place from district to local council level to arbitrate and harmonise contested claims. The current efforts by NGOs and judicial institutions to address land-related disputes have clearly been overwhelmed.
We must reform the way land is acquired for investment in this country. In Zombo, the Alur kingdom has proposed investors must talk and negotiate directly with the local people. In Lakang and Apaa, we have seen progress in the formation of committees to articulate people’s grievances.
These are all welcome attempts at changing perceptions around foreign investors acquiring huge chunks of land for development purposes. But the challenge remains how to localise investments.
Until we change our community’s perception of investment as an alien concept, the mere mention of land for development will spark off conflict. In our research across northern Uganda, an ‘investor’ is synonymous with a ‘land grabber.’
Whether such a perception is correct or not, the critical question now is how best the investor-local community relationship can be restored for the community to be empowered.
From our facilitation of community dialogues in West Nile, Acholi and Lango sub-regions, it appeared that the investor-community relationship matters the most. People need development, but without their ownership and participation it is not sustainable.
Because development cannot take place in situations of generalised poverty and mass discontent, we cannot afford to pursue developments in ways that threaten disempowering communities and renewing conflict. PRDP II must seek as its goal post-conflict recovery and development that empowers local populations.
The author is a Research and Advocacy Officer, Refugee Law Project.