Uganda: Escalating land disputes in the north

AMURU, 17 February 2011 (IRIN) - Disputes over land in northern Uganda have escalated, affecting the resettlement plans of former internally displaced people, say locals.

"As people return to their villages, they are confronted with the realization that over a period of 20 years, clan leaders, heads of households and the elderly who would have knowledge of the previous set-up in the villages are no more," Peter Odok, district chairman for Pader, said.

Land in Acholi is communally owned and elders were influential in settling any disputes. Such disputes have affected 1.7 million IDPs - about 80 percent of northern Uganda's population - forced into squalid camps or "protected villages" in the official jargon by conflict between government forces and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). These rebels are now based in the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo.

In Lakang village, Amuru district, recent clashes left 1,500 households unsure of ownership of a 103 sqkm area.

"Land is life and no one will succeed in claiming ownership of this land, it belongs to us, the people of Lakang, and we are defending it without fear," one local resident, Philip Ocaya, told IRIN. "Our grandparents lived in this territory over centuries, we know the boundaries because the place is separated by a flowing stream in the south, the Nile waters in the west."

Ocaya and his parents abandoned Lakang in 1998, after several people were killed or abducted by the LRA. In 2006, they left Amuru IDP camp and returned to the village but found other people had claimed their land.

The settlers were from the neighouring Pogo clan. Since then, clashes have occurred with Ocaya's Pailyec clan. In December, Charles Obwoya, 38, and six villagers sustained machete cuts in a fight. "Here you have to be armed with a spear or machetes because you can't predict what can happen any moment," he said.

Women in the area have also been victimized. "Here you can't go for firewood in the nearby forest alone, you need some men to escort you for your safety," said Catherine Abalo.

Some women, she added, had been waylaid when they went to collect water from the stream 2km away.


Edward Openy, the local leader, said the disputes could explode into interclan conflict unless leaders sat down to address the problem peacefully. "You know what happened to people during the LRA conflict and what it means to be in conflict," he added. "This situation is undesirable [and] requires intervention."

Amuru Resident District Commissioner Milton Odongo, who recently met the affected people in Lakang, said government had taken up the matter.

"A dialogue will be convened involving the conflicting clans. What they need to understand is that the only way to do away with these conflicts is to have development so that people are occupied," Odongo said. "There is no LRA, so why start another fight?"

"Our life in the past was different, we lived with our brothers of Pailyec in peace before the displacement but I can't understand why all this," Nacon Okwonga, an elder, remarked.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in Gulu, 76,386 people were still living in IDP camps in December 2010. Some feared to return home due to land disputes, others land-mines and insecurity in neighbouring Karamoja and South Sudan. So far, 1,347,335 former IDPs have returned to their homes across the Acholi sub-region.

Hot spots

In Pader, the dispute between the Acholi and Langi in Puranga sub-county has threatened to turn into full-blown conflict. The Langi are accusing a section of the Acholi in Lamincwida and Acwinyo villages of grabbing their ancestral land.

Twenty-two households representing more than 500 Langi have made a formal complaint to both Pader District local government and the Acholi chieftaincy, requesting intervention.

In Lokung, Madi-Opei and Agoro sub-county of Lamwo district, resettlement of IDPs has been hampered by disputes with communities from South Sudan, which are claiming parts of Lamwo.

In Atiak subcounty of Amuru, conflicts between residents and communities in Adjumani districts have escalated over boundaries, while in Gulu, inter-clan disputes that started in Corner Agula between the Lukwo and Palaro and left two people dead in 2009, have continued.