President Yoweri Museveni promises that a huge infrastructure project to speed commerce in and out of Uganda will transform the economy by 2040. Some citizens who live in the way are demanding payment to move, but the government says most settled on the land illegally and that few will receive compensation.
KAMPALA, UGANDA — Emmanuel Mpaka lives in Bukasa at the edge of Lake Victoria and has done so since 2011. He has built a house and a business there — a drinks bar that does well in the dry seasons. Now the government says he must move.
Mpaka and more than 100,000 others are in the way of Uganda’s biggest infrastructure project, one that the government of President Yoweri Museveni promises will transform the nation from a “peasant society to a high middle income economy by 2040.”
The project is designed to reduce transportation costs and speed goods in and out of Uganda. It includes a $2.3 billion standard gauge railway from Malaba at the Kenyan border to Uganda’s capital, Kampala, and a multimillion-dollar inland port that would provide the landlocked nation an alternative path through Tanzania to the sea.
When finished, the port would enable goods to be ferried from Bukasa across Lake Victoria to Musoma, Tanzania, where they would be shipped via railway lines to the Indian Ocean, offering Ugandan businesses an alternative to their single route to the sea through Kenya at Mombasa.
Some 113,000 residents of Bukasa, Namanve, Butabika-Luzira and many other small villages that altogether cover about 600 acres live in the path of the project. Some residents, like Mpaka, say they won’t move until they are compensated.
“I have lived on this land since 2011, built a home for my family and a bar business,” Mpaka says. “When government says it will not compensate me, it’s being unfair.”
Fellow Bukasa resident Salongo Kateli Bumali agrees.
“I am ready to die fighting for my rights over this land,” he says. “I have lived on land for over 11 years, and will not leave it unless the government compensates me.”
Dennis Obbo, spokesman for the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development, says that about 70 individuals who are considered bona fide plot owners may eventually be paid for their land. But he adds that the wide majority of residents will not be compensated.
“The people in Bukasa illegally settled in wetlands and forest reserve areas,” he says, noting that both areas are protected. “They cut down trees and built houses in the night without any physical plan that had to be provided at the district level.”
Bumali says Obbo is wrong.
“We did not cut down any trees,” he says. “We found the forests already cut down by those who sold us the plots of land.”
Museveni has criticized the National Environment Management Authority for failing to preserve the land, which falls within Namanve Central Forest Reserve and protected wetland areas along the shores of Lake Victoria, where settlement, parceling and titling of land by individuals are prohibited. The government canceled the titles in December to pave the way for development.
“Unfortunately, most people are ignorant of the laws governing land acquisition in Uganda and are duped into buying faked lands,” Obbo says.
The residents and the government appear to be at a standoff. Museveni addressed Bukasa residents in late February, asking them not to be “an impediment to investment and national development.”
Construction of the railway and inland port is crucial to the government’s national development plan to stimulate investment and industrialization and to create jobs.
The Ugandan government’s website champions “a modern, high-capacity railway system that is efficient, reliable, safe and affordable for both freight and passengers.” Supported by the China Export-Import Bank, the project is planned to link Kenya, Rwanda and South Sudan. The network will stretch from Mombasa through Nairobi to Kampala; Kigali, Rwanda; and Juba, South Sudan.
Suzan Kataile, senior public relations officer for Uganda’s Ministry of Works and Transport, says that because of the land disputes, she is not sure when construction will begin.
“The projects should have started years back, but we are in the process of land acquisition and plan to see who will be affected,” she says. “The projects have been delayed, and we are not sure on when they will start until all these issues are addressed.”
A press release from the Ministry of Lands says work on the project is delayed by the land acquisition process by illegal occupants, “some of whom were erroneously issued with Certificates of Titles and now claiming hefty sums of money in compensation.”
Shadid Kobusingye, who lives in Bukasa, says she acquired her land from a seller who claimed to own it.
“I bought this piece of land on which I constructed my house in 2012. How then can I be an illegal settler?” she asks. Kobusingye said she would seek about 20 million Ugandan shillings ($5,500) to move.
Others say they would have to consult with land appraisers to decide what price would be appropriate, but they remain steadfast in requesting payment.
“I am not leaving this land without compensation,” says Bumali. “It’s for my right against unfair land policies as a citizen that I am prepared to die fighting.”
Mpaka says Bukasa residents do not want to block progress.
“Development is good, and I will pave ways for the inland port and the railway,” he says. “But for me to leave here, I should be compensated first. Otherwise I am not leaving this place.”
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda.