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Oil: Hoima High court registrar sued over demolition order

Emmanuel Bamwiite's old house

Emmanuel Bamwiite's old house

The acting assistant Hoima High court registrar, Emmanuel Bamwiite has been dragged before the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) following accusations of incompetence, bias, injustice and falsehoods from Fred Balikenda, one of the Tilenga oil project-affected persons. 

The military and police descended on Balikenda's home on Monday evening May 13 and demolished it. Balikenda accuses government, the court, and the Petroleum Authority (PAU) of denying him a fair hearing. The demolition of Balikenda’s house followed an order granted by Bamwiite following the miscellaneous application No.67 of 2024.  

However, PAU which regulates the oil and gas sector clarified that a protracted legal process led to the order to demolish Balikenda’s house. Balikenda was among the 42 families who were in December last year sued by the government for refusal to vacate land where part of TotalEnergies’ Tilenga project infrastructure is to be constructed.

Balikenda became one of the first persons whose house was demolished from the land where the government and the international oil companies were putting up infrastructure for Uganda’s oil and gas projects. Other PAPs have voluntarily had their homes demolished after receiving compensation in cash, exchanging land for land, or after the oil companies have constructed for them better houses.

Reports indicate that the government has previously compensated Balikenda but he reportedly declined to vacate the land and instead demanded Shs 200 million in compensation for his house and pigs that he said died after the contested land was fenced off.

With the counter-accusations, it has been hard to determine who is telling the truth about the matter. According to PAU, land acquisition for the Tilenga project commenced in 2017 and several engagements have been held with close to 5,900 PAPs to enable land access for the oil and gas activities.  

To date, 99 per cent of the project affected persons (PAPs) for the Tilenga project have been compensated and/or relocated while adhering to local and international standards regarding land acquisition and voluntary resettlement. Balikenda was allegedly covered by Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) II for the Tilenga project. He has since November 2018, been actively engaged by the project implementers and government.  

This process culminated in involuntary relocation from their old house in the project area to a newly constructed house within Buliisa district on May 13, 2024. In May 2022, Balikenda reportedly received and acknowledged compensation for the value of his assets (including structures, crops, and trees) along with a 30 per cent disturbance allowance and a 30 per cent uplift. 

“Following the grant of a demolition order, there is an imminent threat of demolition of my home and/or looming eviction from my land which I seek your urgent intervention,” Balikenda pleads.

“In the ruling, he [Bamwiite] made a gross misrepresentation and deliberate falsehood that parties had filed “written submissions” …no such “written submissions” were filed. Such conduct is contrary to the Uganda Code of Judicial Conduct principles namely: integrity, propriety, competence and diligence.”

PAU on Tuesday stated that the recent evictions in Kirama village followed the due legal process. However, lawyers representing Balikenda insist that the court process was flawed.

“Sadly, yesterday May 13, 2024, the AG acted on the granted demolition orders by the acting registrar and demolished Mr. Balikenda’s house without providing fair and adequate compensation further exacerbating his plight. Now he and his family are left without a place to live,” said a statement from the Africa Institute For Energy Governance (AFEIGO).    

Now in a letter to the secretary, JSC and copied to the principal judge, Balikenda accuses Bamwiite of determining his application without a hearing, gross misrepresentation and mischaracterization of the exercise of his constitutional rights.

The complaint stems from an application by Balikenda, a resident of Buliisa, to set aside an eviction order from his land without being given a chance to defend himself. He further accuses Bamwiite of being dismissive of his right to adequate compensation before the compulsory acquisition of his property.

“In light of the travesty of justice, I pray that the commission be pleased to thoroughly investigate the above-stipulated complaints, make appropriate orders to restore the dignity and integrity of the High court at Hoima and make necessary interim measures and interventions to reign on the judicial misconduct of Bamwiite,” reads part of the petition.

Three bedroom House that was reportedly constructed for Fred Balikenda by TotalEnergies. PAU photo
Three bedroom House that was reportedly constructed for Fred Balikenda by TotalEnergies. PAU photo

BACKGROUND

On December 4, 2023, the Attorney General sued Balikenda and 41 other residents of Buliisa seeking to have them evicted to pave way for the multi-billion Tilenga oil project, whose total investment will be approximately $10 billion (Shs 37.6 trillion). The residents had refused to vacate their land until they're adequately compensated.

In just four days on December 8, 2023, the court ruled in favour of the Attorney General and ordered the eviction of the residents without granting them a hearing. However, a dissatisfied Balikenda appealed to the Court of Appeal on grounds that he was not notified of the suit, there were no pleadings, evidence and submissions on his part and nine others.

Balikenda also applied to have the implementation (execution) of the eviction ruling stayed (suspended) until the resolution of the appeal. Before his application for stay of execution could be heard, the Attorney General filed another application seeking demolition orders.

According to Balikenda’s complaint, Bamwiite fixed May 8 to rule on his application for stay of execution but instead delivered a ruling in the Attorney General’s application and granted demolition orders without a hearing. On Monday, the Attorney General armed with a court order obtained from the High court in Hoima caused the forceful eviction of Fred Balikenda from his land located in Kirama village.

The Attorney General’s Chambers filed the application seeking an order to demolish the house that has been sitting in the middle of part of the Tilenga project’s infrastructure. Lawyers representing Balikenda have cried foul, saying their client was denied the right to a fair hearing by the court in Hoima.       

The lawyers have said Balikenda is among the 8 people who had applied for a stay of execution of an order by justice Jesse Byaruhanga in December 2023. The judge ordered that the government should evict the 42 households and have their compensation money amounting to over Shs 940 million deposited in court.

In response to the outcry, PAU through its corporate affairs directorate issued a statement explaining the court processes leading to the demolition of Balikenda’s house. PAU said the decision for the government to resort to legal action followed various engagements since 2018 with PAPs.

It further stated that on December 8, 2023, Hoima High court heard the application and granted orders to government to deposit the assessed sums in court, to have vacant possession of the suit land and an eviction order where any of the respondents refused to vacate the land. It said 41 PAPs have since vacated the land.   

PAU stated that on February 1, 2024, Balikenda was served with a notice to hand over vacant possession of the suit land and the copy of the court order and he declined service of the same.

“Following the PAPs refusal to vacate the land after the thirty (30) days’ notice within which to vacate, the government applied for an eviction order in the High Court of Uganda at Hoima on March 28, 2024,” said the statement endorsed by Gloria Ssebikari, manager corporate affairs at PAU.     

The statement further said on April 16, 2024, Balikenda was served with an application at his home in Kirama, Buliisa district in the presence of the Local Council 1 chairman, and others. He reportedly declined receipt and stated that no document should be left at his home since he instructed a lawyer to serve the court process.  

His lawyer, Brighton Aryampa was reportedly served with the application for an eviction order at his law firm; KAMU Associates and Solicitors located in Najjera II, Zuri Mall on April 17, 2024. PAU said on April 25, the application for an eviction order was heard in court where the government sought to be granted an eviction order against Balikenda in respect of land measuring 0.791 acres at Kirama village, Kigwera sub-county, Buliisa district.

The government also asked for an applied consequential order to demolish the structures on land measuring 0.791. On May 9, 2024, the court issued an eviction order. Balikenda’s lawyers however said the acting registrar of the High court issued directions to first hear the application for interim stay of execution filed by Balikenda before the application for the order to demolish his house on May 8, 2024. They say the registrar informed Balikenda’s lawyers that he would be absent from court and promised to deliver the ruling on the application for interim stay of execution. 

“He did not mention that on the same day, he was also going to hear the application by the AG to demolish Mr Balikenda’s house,” said a statement issued on Tuesday. 

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