For over 20 years, the Apaa community in Amuru district, Northern Uganda has maintained its resilience in the fight against government plans to demarcate about 827 square kilometers of Apaa land to Uganda Wildlife Authority, (UWA). According to UWA, the land is meant to pave way for UWA to create a wildlife-protected area. But this has been received with relentless resistance by the Apaa community.
Last week, members of the Apaa community boldly marched into the Acholi Paramount Chief’s palace with empty coffins in protest of the continued government eviction plans. They demanded that their king, Rwot David Onen Achana II intervene in the matter or else have their bodies buried inside the kingdom.
The rage and exhaustion of the community members could not be hidden in their faces. Walking long distances to the Acholi king’s palace was a brave move of courage. They carried one message, “leave Apaa land or kill us all.”
The coffin protest was in retaliation to the government’s decision as blatantly delivered by Prime Minister, Robinah Nabanjja at a meeting with local leaders, to forcefully evict the Apaa people from their ancestorial land within three months and consequently closing the Apaa market. During that meeting, Nabanjja noted that the government would compensate Apaa people with 10 million Uganda shillings, twenty iron sheets, and twenty bags of cement for people with national identity cards and 2 million for those without national identity cards. This was not only reprehensible, but it was also an indication of how much the government does not value its citizens and their well-being. This pronouncement clearly showed the lack of respect for human rights by the state.
“We have suffered enough, LRA killed our people, UPDF and Police too killed many of us. And now Nabanjja has ordered us to leave our land by May 15th, 2023. Where does the government expect us to go?” Wilson Acuma, Apaa community member.
Acuma highlighted the government’s failure to reign in the situation in resolving the land conflict, something Apaa community believes is a systematic plan by the state to grab their land.
“For a long time, we have been deceived by the government that it was working on a dialogue between Apaa and Madi communities in ensuring that our land is not grabbed. We are surprised that the prime minister, Robinah Nabanjja, is telling us to leave the only land we have known as home. We have lost 23 lives in Apaa, our children have been arrested and tortured with impunity. This has left us with no other choice but to come here, be detained here, killed here, and be buried here at the palace since we no longer have land to bury our loved ones,” Wilson Acuma, Apaa community member.
For over two decades, the Apaa people have been subjected to gross human rights violations by the Uganda Peoples Defense Forces (UPDF), Uganda Police Force (UPF), and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). They have been constantly brutalizing the Apaa people for committing no crime, but for simply defending their homeland.
During the protest, President Yoweri Museveni visited the region. Even though he had initially indicated that he did not want to be involved in the Apaa land ‘chaos and drama’ as he called it, he was placed in a decision dilemma and chose to meet with a few of the community leaders. At this closed-door meeting, Museveni denied any knowledge of the forceful eviction in Apaa and indicated that Nabanjja acted from an uninformed point of view. During this same meeting, he ordered all Apaa evictions to stop with immediate effect.
Museveni said that the prime minister’s visit to Apaa was meant to assess the situation on the ground, not to evict anyone. He added that any eviction plans would not work because they are still waiting for a court decision on the matter. He noted that “the people of Apaa should continue to live in harmony and use their land productively as before.”
In Uganda, land remains a major source of livelihood among rural communities. But many societies have been systematically evicted from their land while others are still facing eviction threats. The UWA and NFA (National Forestry Authority) have continued to use UPDF and UPF to perpetuate injustice to the people with impunity. They do this with the pretext of preserving wildlife and conserving the environment.
But for the Apaa community, no level of intimidation, arrests, and killing of their people will deter them from using non-violent means of civil resistance in waging against this systemic impunity. Amongst many creative actions they have organized to defend their land are the famous naked protest, the occupation at the UN offices in Gulu, and most recently the Coffin protest.
They remain triumphant, believing that losing their land to unscrupulous individuals will not only cause an economic catastrophe for their families but will also erode who they are, and their identity.
The Apaa land conflict is just one example of the many ongoing land conflicts in Uganda. Land wrangles in northern Uganda became very rampant during and after the notorious war of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel movement (LRA) which displaced many people to government camps for over 20 years. During this time, the government and other private individuals took advantage of the people’s land
UWA and NFA continue to top the list of government institutions being used to dispossess people from their legitimate land in Uganda.