Ugandan Airport Expansion Project Cuts Worshippers off From Sacred Ground

A long-standing tradition ended in 2017, when Uganda’s Civil Aviation Authority fenced off an area where practitioners of ancient religions had made animal sacrifices. In a country where much land is not formally deeded, and ownership disputes are common, a spiritual leader wonders how the airport could claim title to the site, when his clan has been its rightful owner for more than half a millennium.

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Ugandan Airport Expansion Project Cuts Worshippers off From Sacred Ground

Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda

Seguya Mugumya points to the area where he once conducted traditional worship but that is now fenced off. Uganda's Civil Aviation Authority erected the fence in January to protect an area that will be used for an airport expansion project.

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ENTEBBE, UGANDA — Every year in January, Seguya Mugumya made a ritual visit to Bulamu, a rock in a traditional place of worship in this peaceful city. He burned tobacco leaves and sacrificed chickens and goats as gifts to his ancestors at the specific rock, the highest boulder among a group. The rock formation is part of a place, sacred to some, known as Entebbe Za Mugula.

That tradition ended abruptly in 2017, when the federal Civil Aviation Authority closed off the area, making it inaccessible to Mugumya and others who practice some of the ancient religions rooted in the area. The aviation authority says the aim is to protect its land. Entebbe Za Mugula is near Entebbe International Airport, the nation’s largest airport. Aviation officials are managing a major expansion of the airport, a project that requires the land that Mugumya and others say is key to their religion. The aviation authority gained title to the site, measuring about 77 acres, in 2013.

Musisi Serwanja Byekwaso, a traditional spiritual priest and caretaker of Entebbe Za Mugula, says the aviation authority claimed the site right under the noses of the leaders of Mmamba Kakoboza, a clan within Buganda Kingdom, one of Uganda’s traditional monarchies.

“How can they say it’s their land and we are encroaching on it, when we have been the rightful owners of this land for over 500 years?” Byekwaso asks.

This sort of ownership dispute is common in Uganda, where more than three-quarters of the land is not formally deeded to a specific person. Customary ownership, which is based on traditional laws or commonly accepted guidelines, still holds more influence in some parts of the country than a modern legal approach. According to some estimates, such disputes affect between one-third and one-half of all landowners in the country.

“Because land is communally owned by an extended family or clan, it’s sometimes hard for the clan members to agree on whose name should be put on the title, hence failure to attain the title,” says Dennis Obbo, spokesman for Uganda’s Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development.

How can they say it’s their land and we are encroaching on it, when we have been the rightful owners of this land for over 500 years?

Only about 20 percent of the land in Uganda has a title deed associated with it, he says.

The Mmamba Kakoboza clan has never held a formal title to the site on which the rock stands.

The airport’s expansion began in 2016, in the first of five phases, says Vianney Mpungu Luggya, the public affairs manager of the aviation authority. The estimated cost of the first phase, expanding passenger and cargo terminals, is $200 million.

The airport was commissioned in 1951. In 1991, it handled more than 118,000 international passengers, Luggya says. By 2017, more than 1.5 million people came through it.

By comparison, the international airport in Atlanta, a major city in the United States, handled nearly 104 million passengers in 2017, making it the busiest airport in the world for passenger traffic, according to Airports Council International. None of the airports in Africa were among the top 20 busiest for passenger traffic.

Right now, Entebbe International Airport can only handle 10,000 tons of cargo each year, Luggya says. The airport’s maximum passenger capacity is 2 million people. When the first phase is completed in 2018, the airport is expected to be able handle 100,000 tons of cargo and 3 million passengers.

Byekwaso says he’s not opposed to development, but the aviation authority should have been responsive to his attempts to communicate regarding the rock’s importance.

He says he wrote a letter to the aviation authority, asking that the fence circumvent the rock, so that he and others could still have access to it. The agency never responded, he says.

Luggya says the authority never received a letter from Byekwaso or anyone else about the rock.

The Mmamba Kakoboza clan sued the aviation authority in 2017 for occupying the site. That matter is still in court. Details of lawsuits in litigation are difficult to verify, but Luggya says the court ruled this year that the aviation authority can remain on the land for now, because it holds the title to it.

That ruling, even if intended to be temporary until the dispute is resolved, blocks people from making sacrifices at the rock, Mugumya says.

“I have not been able to offer the chicken sacrifice to [my ancestors] because the [rock] is the only place for such a ritual,” he says.

Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda.