First published here in July 2016
Since 1991 when the Organization of African Unity (now African Union) gazzetted June 16th the Day of the African child in memory of the children murdered in 1976 in a demonstration against the apartheid regime in Soweto, it has become a day to remember those children and draw attention to the lives of African children today.
At Karamoja Development Forum, this has been an important day for us. We have previously had a wide range discussions on issues regarding education, governance and peace in Karamoja, and have advocated for the rights of children.
This year, however, we choose to draw particular attention to the rights of children affected by illegal and irresponsible land acquisitions and land grabs. In discussing this, we would like to draw your attention to the children that have been affected by the land conflict involving Uganda Prisons Service and Namalu community in Nakapiripirit district.
The issue under contention involves some four hundred acres, on which the Uganda Prisons Farm in February 2014 evicted over three hundred households. In this particular case, around 1200 children were directly affected – displaced together with their families.
This eviction became a start to months of suffering for these children and their families. KDF research published in February 2015, exactly a year after the illegal evictions shows that fifty people, between February and December 2014 died as a result of starvation, and disease related to the living conditions in a swamp that became their home.
Of those who died, 18 were children, all of whom were under the age of five. Older children missed out on school, and other services that they previously accessed before the eviction. Medics at a nearby health facility told KDF that the children died mostly from respiratory diseases, diarrhea, and malaria. A number of them directly starved.
The other direct effect of the eviction was an outmigration to nearby districts of Karamoja, and the other districts of Uganda. Particularly interesting is the number of children who traveled to towns like Mbale, Soroti, Busia, Kampala and Jinja. 77% were young people, below the age of 35 in a phenomenon in which 27% percent were children below the age of 18. Close to 300 young people have made these trips.
Survivors have since continued to be exposed to severe living conditions, without any form of basic services provided. To further complicate the situation, the Uganda Prisons Services at the end of February 2015 (eight days after the launch of the KDF report) started the expansion of the farm, increasing the acreage to four hundred, without any regard to due processes.
It is 18 months since the first evictions, no evidence of ownership of the land has been tabled to the authorities in Nakapiripirit district, and no compensation has been made to the victims of the eviction.
Supported by the Office of the Prime Minister and financed by donors, the Prisons Services continues to displace these families, affecting the future of so many children. The UN World Food Programme and its sister agencies are aware of these violations. Partnerships with the OPM and Uganda Prisons Service in total disregard of the basic life requirements of these children and their families abets the practice.
These children seem invisible to the authorities, and their cries for mercy, calls for a more responsible government are not heard. No one seems to notice their pleas. KDF’s calls for action have largely been ignored. Eight days after the publishing of the KDF report, a high ranking government official only said they cannot ‘apologize’ for what has happened in Namalu, going ahead to acquire more land.
But ‘you cannot send a hungry child to school,’ an affected mother told KDF in December 2014.
Children continue to be the inadvertent target in land acquisitions, especially the forceful, illegal acquisitions of land. The case in Namalu will go down as one in which so many children have been affected. The authorities in the district seem complicit in this case, and do not want to offer any kind of alternatives to the displaced.
Because all forms of livelihood are severed, children growing in these kind of conditions are robbed of a future, even by agents of the state that should protect their rights.
No one can afford to stand and watch as land grabbing denies children a future. Play your role in fighting land grabs in Karamoja. Land grabbing should be fought just as other practices that are harmful to women and children like female genital mutilation and early marriages. Working with land grabbing institutions and personalities should be as detestable as offering blades and other instruments to facilitate FGM.
Note: since this 2016 article, we have made some progress on this case. A Kampala based law firm – Advocates for Natural Resources Governance, with the support of the community took up the case after our campaign on it. Proceedings for compensation, return of the land are ongoing at the High Court of Uganda.