Uganda: displaced villagers protest land-grab

A BBC News account today notes an action by a group of elderly women in a village in northern Uganda that made local headlines in April. When officials backed up by soldiers and police were sent to Apaa village to begin a land demarcation project, the women stripped naked in front of them while chanting "Lobowa, lobowa!"—"our land" in the Luo language. Women appearing naked is a traditional form of shaming and dishonoring. The conflict affects several villages in Uganda's northern Amuru district, where residents were forcibly relocated to government camps (ostensibly for their protection) during the 18-year war with the Lord's Resistance Army. Now that they are returning, they find that Uganda's Wildlife Authority seeks to demarcate 827 square kilometers of their traditional lands as a game reserve to be leased to a private investor—said to be a South African businessman. At Apaa village alone, some 21,000 residents who cannot prove official title to their lands stand to be evicted.

There is a sense of history repeating itself here. A May 17 report in Uganda's The Indepedent notes that British colonial authorities similarly deported residents from Amuru during the Lamogi rebellion in 1911, and when the villagers were allowed to return in 1936 they found that much of their lands had been incorporated into game reserves. The game reserves were abolished under dictator Idi Amin's land reform in 1971, and the dispossessed allowed to return. But they were never given title to the lands, either as individuals or communities, because Idi Amin held that all land belonged to the state. 

An irony is that President Yoweri Museveni, even as he oversees this second expropriation of the Amuru peasantry, has seized upon the Lamogi rebellion as a symbol of nationalism. In a March 22 press release he announced construction of a tourism complex in Amuru commemorating the rebellion. Tellingly, the verbiage contained echoes of Idi Amin's nationalist doctrines. He said that colonial powers were able to subdue Africa because the people were organized as clans or tribes, and that this is "a lesson for us to organize on a national basis." In an unsubtle message to the dispossessed villagers, he said: "We should respect tradition, this however, should not be at the expense of modern advancement of science. The future of Africa lies in advancement of development while keeping and respecting our culture at the same time." He added that there should be no compromise on Uganda's harsh anti-gay laws, because homosexuality "is contrary to our culture."

Doesn't this say it all about the bogus nature of Museveni's populism? "Traditional culture" is invoked to deny gays their rights—despite the anti-gay dogma itself being a legacy of Christian colonial indoctrination. But a more authentic traditional culture is dismissed as an obstacle to progress when it comes to guaranteeing villagers the right to their lands.