Today the High court at Masindi is expected to start hearing an application filed by more than 200 residents of Rwamutonga village, in Bugambe sub-county, Hoima district, who claim they were illegally evicted from their land to pave way for the construction of a waste treatment plant.
The application is before Justice Simon Mugenyi Byabakama, the Masindi resident judge. The residents were evicted in August last year by a one Joshua Tibagwa, the alleged landowner, after he allegedly leased the disputed piece of land to McAlester Energy Resources Limited, an American firm, to pave way for the construction of an oil waste treatment plant in the area.
The residents sued Tibagwa in suit 21 of 2014, demanding for a declaration that they are customary landowners, lawful or bonafide occupants who were illegally evicted. They want court to restore the land back to hem and in addition to that cancel Tibagwa title, arguing that it was registered fraudulently.
Late last year, justice Byabakama allowed the evicted persons to file a representative suit challenging their ‘unlawful’ eviction. Court also gave them a thumbs-up to file for a restoration order which, if granted, would hand the land back to the evicted tenants.
As the locals await justice from the courts of law, in a new twist of events, The Observer has been told that McAlester, the purported investor, has since lost interest in the land due to the unending land wrangles that surround it – wrangles that have left the company’s image battered. George Bagonza Tinkamanyire, the Hoima district chairman, recently said that McAlester Energy Resources limited, which was supposed to have acquired a 45-year lease on the land, has since lost interest.
“The investor [McAlester] has since withdrawn its interest in the land and have gotten an alternative land, and are filing for recovery of their money [$300,000 approximately Shs 840 million] they had so far paid,” he said.
Last year, Leonard Durst, McAlester’s operations manager in Kampala, appeared before the High court at Masindi as a third party with an interest in the disputed piece of land. He accused Tibagwa of breach of contract. He told court that his company had started a process of acquiring a 45-year lease from Tibagwa to set up a waste treatment plant.
He acknowledged that the company was aware that some of the land was occupied by customary, lawful or bonafide tenants. McAlester paid Shs 200m as part payment to Tibagwa to compensate the tenants. However, the tenants were instead evicted without any compensation.
Tibagwa knew the occupants were poor, and did not have the muscle to challenge him. The tenants moved to an internally- displaced persons camp and are living in deplorable conditions. However, the pressure from civil society organizations, Members of Parliament and other stake holders, could see the tenants reclaim their land.
In November last year, the Parliamentary Forum on Oil and Gas (PFOG) visited the evicted families and condemned the manner in which the people were evicted from their land.
“The eviction was unlawful in light of the constitution and the Land Act. We are going to table this issue on the floor of parliament,” he pledged.
Durst has since disassociated the company from the brutal evictions.
“We had nothing to do with it,” he said. “Our deal was with the landowner and he has not passed the land on to us,” he told the press last year.
Nelson Atich, a councilor representing Katanga parish, Bugambe sub-county, said the current conflict on the disputed piece of land made it difficult for McAlester to finally acquire the land.
In addition to the ongoing court battle, the locals have also put a caveat restraining anyone from making any transactions over the land before the main suit is determined.
Atich added that the investor was also irritated by the fact that Tibagwa was paid money for compensation as part-payment for the land, but decided to evict people without paying them any money.
Following their eviction in August last year, the locals have often accused their leaders of betrayal, arguing that some of their leaders were behind their eviction. John Bahemuka, the Bugambe sub-county chairman, where the disputed piece of land is located, is one of the leaders the locals have pointed at for betraying their cause.
But in a new twist of events, probably after realizing that the deal has backfired, Bahemuka has started to warm up to the evicted locals. Last week, he reached out to the evicted residents for the first time and asked them to leave the camp. He has offered the subcounty community hall and other sub-county premises as new places of abode. The locals, however, rejected the offer.
McAlester Energy Resources Ltd, according to its website, claims to have put together a select team of experts to handle oilfield waste to be generated during the drilling of the oil and gas wells in the Lake Albert basin.
The company is also involved in oil waste businesses in the USA, Texas. When the company acquires the land, it expects to conduct an environmental impact assessment (EIA) before it embarks on construction of the waste treatment plant