It is easy to get lost in the midst of all the goings on; the ill-advised threat to use brute force to occupy the disputed land (boy I hope the minister was misquoted!), the police interrogation of area MPs, the killing episodes that go unprotected etc.
But let us step back and ask how all these started, when did the Amuru land saga become such a hot political potato. Maybe when we do, we can soberly reflect of ways resolve this impasse.
A GLIMPSE INTO THE PAST
Here is what we know so far about where this all started. The Madhvani Group are in a regional market race for the sugar market and have been for a while. They have long sought to expand their operations in Uganda to out-supply their Tanzanian and Kenyan counterparts, who are producing at outrageously high and unsustainable unit cost compared to those in Uganda.
This has further been escalated by the failing local factories like Kinyara (who got an injection from a Uhuru Kenyatta owned company) and Lugazi sugar that is struggling. On a willing seller willing buyer basis, the Madvhani Group has acquired nearly 20 acres of land in Kayunga for a sugar plantation. They have been advancing their ambition quietly and without controversy.
The group has sought additional land not just in Kayunga, but in other places as well. After several soil sample examinations, Madhvani found the Amuru land most suitable for sugarcane growth. Fertile soil, lots of rainfall and sunshine in the year – all necessary conditions for sugarcane growth. They took Amuru land over a vast and undisputed piece of land in Tororo.
Documents indicate that they applied for and got a lease offer from the Amuru District Land Board, at the time sitting in Gulu town. Their application was filed, processed, and delivered to them by a now conspicuously quiet long serving member of the Acholi Parliamentary Group. The said MP personally ran Madhvani’s errands in Gulu. It is unclear whether the MP acted on pro bono basis or was a a commissioned agent of the buyer.
No Madhvani official set foot in Gulu or met the district land board at the start of all of these. They may have subsequently visited. The MP was a contact person when the lease offer was made. Madhvani committed to sinking 40 million USD for the project.
This news made its way to the president through his cabinet. Eager for political capital, the president travelled to the North and announced that he was bringing investors to the region.
The president’s political pronouncement raised suspicion given the previous contentious
activities of his brother, Salim Saleh through his company Divinity Union. Divinity Union had, at the height of the conflict, sought to turn IDP camps into urban settlements and natal land into commercial farmland, an idea roundly rejected by the political and other leaders in the region.
Additionally, the president posture seemed uncoordinated with the APG and the Madvhani Group’s private overtures, further deepening the already abound suspicion of a land grab that had, at the time, been swelling in the region for a while
The political misadventure of the president kicked off a firestorm that has been reciprocated by other political actors who have presented the project as an attempt to grab their land for a political reward. They parroted a wildly held anecdotal view in the region.
Subsequent government actions of brutally killing land owners bent on defending their land and only means of livelihoods; and looking on when other unlawful killings went on, have muddied the water on what is an otherwise good intention.
Now plunging on and unapologetically, reckless government officials have used force and now reported threatening more force. The only loser in all this game of political recklessness and hubris is Madhvani. Even if he gets the land, we will require a battalion of soldiers to keep him and his investment safe.
It is Madhvani and Madhvani that has the master key to start a process of resolving this mess. It is he, after all who has the most to lose. My unsolicited counsel would be for Madhvani to renounce the violence, stop acting as though he is a free rider on the back of Minster Amongin and lot, and do to the people of Amuru what he has done with the people of Kayunga.
He is better advised negotiating with the land owners directly. The false representation that there is free land in the north must be exposed for what it is.
We may also want to depoliticize these issues and rid it of speculative and opportunistic folks claiming to act on the behalf of the people of the area. Any guanine land buyer must go to the land owners and negotiate with them directly. Minister Amongin is unhelpful to the process as Prof. Pen Mogi because their forceful and arrogant insertion of themselves into this process will only escalate the anger. Shut the hell up, let he owners of the land speak and be heard.
Thirdly, there must be a demonstrable commitment to prosecuting all involved in wrecking havoc, killing civilians and displacing hundreds regardless of their rank, role or position. When innocent folks are killed and the killers seem to go unpunished, goodwill is lost and no investment, however procured will be peaceful/successful.
Nicholas Opiyo is a human rights lawyer