Rukungiri municipality is designed to dispossess voiceless communities

In a critical or dialectical discourse you look for aspects that are not written about or discussed because that is where the hidden truth lies. Rujumbura has a history of decision making process including in land matters that adversely affects communities without consulting them.

Land dispossession of indigenous Bairu of Rujumbura goes as far back as the 19th century. In 1800 Bahororo who are Batutsi from Rwanda sought refuge in Rujumbura after they were chased out of south west Ankole by Bahima under Bahinda clan rulers. Bahororo arrived in Rujumbura with a militaristic and feudal system mentality. A combination of military experience and Arab slave hunters’ support equipped with advanced European weapons enabled Bahororo to quickly subdue indigenous people and expand their territory. As in Rwanda, they appropriated all grazing land for their long horn cattle at the expense of indigenous short horn cattle which perished for lack of pasture depriving Bairu of nutritious food and means of wealth accumulation.

Bahororo did not appropriate land suitable for crop cultivation because they do not engage in cultivation work which is below their dignity. But like all other human beings Bahororo enjoy food and drinks. To get free food from Bairu, Bahororo introduced the concept of ‘protection’. Bahororo would protect Bairu against unspecified dangers in exchange for unspecified amounts of foodstuffs and drinks which resulted in massive exploitation of Bairu and consequent under-nutrition especially during periods of food shortages.

When a decision was taken in the late 1950s and early 1960s to resettle Bakiga from overcrowded Kabale region of then Kigezi district local communities in Rujumbura were not consulted. Indirect rule chiefs in Rujumbura under colonial administration took the decision. The population pressure in Kabale had suddenly increased beyond the carrying capacity of the land because of Batutsi refugees and their cattle from Rwanda following the 1959 social revolution there.

As independence was approaching in Uganda and the British were eager to depart, they did not want complications arising from Rwanda refugees in camps. They encouraged that as many refugees as possible be settled with relatives in Uganda or be given land where they could settle and graze their cattle. Kangaho a DP member of the Legislative Council from Ankole pushed for settling refugees with relatives in Ankole and neighboring Kigezi districts. The refugees had rejected offers of resettlement in places such as in Toro because inter alia they were far away from the border with Rwanda.

Consequently one third of the initial group of refugees and cattle settled in Ankole and Kigezi districts. Although this settlement did not impose a charge on the colonial administration (B. L. Jacobs 1965) it did on the communities that were affected including those in Rujumbura where Bakiga and Banyarwanda refugees were resettled. In Rujumbura all the unused land was occupied leaving no room for expansion of indigenous population when their numbers increased. From that time on land shortage has become a serious problem in the area.

Two principal factors have increased the demand for land in Rujumbura which I have researched and watched closely. First, more people are coming in from outside the county for various reasons including instability and land shortage in neighboring Rwanda and DRC. Second, the elites have discovered that investment in land is profitable with minimum cost. Attempts to buy land from peasants on a willing buyer and willing seller principle have not yielded the desired results quickly. The leaders who are also under pressure to meet political demands came up with the idea of municipality to expand town council boundaries into agricultural areas where peasants live and earn their livelihood. Land is the only asset illiterate peasants have.

When the idea of Rukungiri municipality was first floated the peasants rejected it for fear they might lose their land. When I heard about it I contacted very senior officials of town and district councils. I was assured that that was an unfounded rumor. I put that assurance in writing and circulated copies to those concerned. A few months later the matter came up again. I was told in unspecific terms that Rukungiri has to develop and complaints from a few individuals to sabotage government efforts would not be tolerated. I suggested that given the sensitivity and importance of land in a subsistence economy, peasants should be consulted so that they fully understand the implications. I contacted central government authorities and Rujumbura political leaders for their intervention. I also wrote in local newspapers and posted relevant articles on my blog at

Sensing that the idea of a municipality was unpopular, the matter disappeared from public view. When the ministry of local government announced towns that would be upgraded to municipality status, Rukungiri was not among them.

However, a day before parliament met to approve those towns that the ministry had recommended for upgrading, I read a short message in the Sunday New Vision (Uganda) that Rukungiri district council had passed a resolution to upgrade Rukungiri town to a municipality. The following Monday morning, I sent an email message to the Speaker of Parliament, Prime Minister and Uganda’s Ambassador to the United Nations the nearest President’s representative in the United States where I work. I wished to know the circumstances under which this abrupt decision had been taken by the district council and parliament without early warning by the ministry of local government like it had done with other proposals.

The same Monday afternoon, I read in New Vision that parliament had voted for Rukungiri municipality at the request of Rujumbura’s Member of Parliament – not the minister of local government who has mandate and had presented other cases. The shadow minister of local government had also warned in parliament against hasty decisions.

I quickly sent another e-mail to the same three officials mentioned above complaining that the normal procedure had not been followed in approving Rukungiri municipality by parliament and by the district council that did not consult the people on a sensitive matter as land in an overcrowded subsistence economy. I felt that in both cases democracy had been rigged. I did not get a response to my two messages.

Information circulating in Rukungiri after parliament’s decision is that from now on development decisions will be taken by municipal authorities including land allocation for sale and for public purposes and approval of all construction activities. Land rents will also be charged. The obvious and immediate outcome of this decision is that peasants will not be able to cope and will be forced to abandon their land and sell to the rich at giveaway prices in the name of “compensation”. And those or relatives of those that have been making ‘noise’ are likely to be punished by having their land taken away.

Rukungiri authorities are arguing that the decision was democratic because district council representatives voted for it. From what I am hearing it was done through democracy at gun point. Surely this is not the kind of democracy that the people of Rukungiri – indeed of Uganda – were yearning for. Peasants are afraid that after 2011 elections tough municipal standards will be set with a hidden plan to chase voiceless peasants off the land after they have voted.

The government of Uganda and development partners that have pledged to eradicate poverty and suffering and to guarantee freedom from fear, freedom from want and freedom for all people to live in dignity must do something to protect the voiceless people in Rukungiri municipality.