Will Museveni’s trip to Amuru resolve Balaalo crisis in Acholi?

05 Nov 2023


KAMPALA.President Yoweri Museveni is expected to visit Okidi Parish, in Atiak Sub- County, Amuru district this weekend for the first time to specifically address the growing crisis of the settlement of the migrant cattle keepers commonly referred to as Balaalo in the Acholi Sub-region.

The president’s visit comes against the backdrop of an uproar among local leaders in the sub-region who have accused him of violating his own decision to evict the cattle keepers from the sub-region.

Leaders from the sub-region have on several occasions raised complaints to the President on the conflicts being witnessed between the locals and the cattle keepers over the illegal acquisition of vast chunks of customary land.

To address the complaints, President Museveni issued Executive Order No. 33 in May banning the illegal presence of cattle keepers from Northern Uganda by the end of June following years of complaints from local leaders.

The president raised three pertinent issues for the decision, citing the illegal presence of the cattle keepers, their manipulative approaches to buying communal land, and their failure to fence off their grazing land.

However, a month later, the president in a July 2 letter to Senior Presidential Advisor in Charge of Defense, Gen. Salim Saleh rescinded the eviction of the cattle keepers and extended the deadline to September 30 to allow time for verification. Since then, the President has extended the eviction deadline twice from October 20 to November 15 for verification of the cattle keepers, and the land owners and handling emerging complaints.

This hasn’t however gone down well with a section of legislators from the Acholi Sub-region, the epicenter of the migrant cattle keeper, who allege the move could be a ploy to buy more time for the cattle keepers to permanently settle.

Kilak South legislator Gilbert Olanya alleges that the President has no goodwill in solving the complaints raised by locals on the existence of the cattle keepers , who he alleges fraudulently acquired land.  He says while in other areas the cattle keepers were expelled by the President without much delay, the evictions in Acholi have dragged on for many years.

Olanya noted that the vast land being occupied by the cattle keepers was illegally acquired, yet they are customarily owned and called on the President not to give more time for evicting the cattle keepers.

After the President issued the executive order on evicting the cattle keepers in May this year, the government formed a select committee led by Prof. Jack Nyeko Pen Mogi, the chairperson of the Uganda Land Commission meant to verify the cattle keepers in the region.

Just a week ago, the government formed another technical committee to traverse the entire sub-region where the migrant cattle keepers are operating and assess their compliance with the President’s directives on legal land acquisition and fencing of their land among others.

But Phillip Polly Okin Ojara, the Chua West County legislator suspects the President has over time been fed on lies by leaders entrusted to enforce the eviction, arguing that the plights of locals living in areas being occupied by the cattle keepers have been ignored.

He says while the committee has been reporting to the President that the locals were living in peace with the cattle keepers, the reports on the ground paint a different picture, as many are crying over crop destruction by cattle and land encroachment.

About two weeks ago, a section of the legislators under the Acholi Parliamentary Group (APG) began a mobilization campaign to forcefully evict the migrant cattle keepers away from the sub-region in anger over the deadline extension. Led by Gilbert Olanya, and accompanied by Chua West legislator Philip Okin Ojara, Aruu North legislator Santa Okot, and Agago North legislator Amos Okot, the legislators visited Pader and Amuru Districts.

With the pressure mounting on the eviction of the cattle keepers, President Museveni who had met with leaders from the sub-region led by Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo on October 20 at the State House Entebbe, announced he would be visiting the Sub-region on November 3. Through his official X handle formerly Twitter, the President noted that he would meet both sides (the land owners, and the cattle keepers) to agree on a way forward.

“This week, I held consultative meetings with both the leaders of the Acholi sub-region and the Balaalo group at Statehouse, Entebbe. I have extended the deadline for the implementation of my Executive Order No. 3 from 20th October 2023 to 15th November 2023.  Within this period, I will visit the Acholi sub-region and meet both sides together to agree on a way forward,” He stated.

President Museveni is expected to visit Okidi Parish, in Atiak Sub-county, Amuru District where a large population of cattle keepers own vast chunks of land.

The President’s show of interest for the first time in physically interfacing with the locals, leaders, and migrant cattle keepers in the affected area comes nearly a decade since complaints about the rising numbers of cattle keepers from mainly the Western Part of Uganda came to light.

Just a day before the President set foot in Okidi Parish in Atiak Sub-County, Amuru district which hosts the largest population of cattle keepers, there is a mixed reaction among some leaders if the balaalo crisis will be permanently resolved.

Anthony Akol, the Kilak North legislator also a member of the technical committee instituted to verify the migrant cattle keepers says there is no hope the President’s visit will settle the current balaalo crisis.

He notes that the cattle keepers who are composed of high-profile individuals are currently bribing the local leaders in areas where they illegally acquired land to speak positively about their co-existence to the President.

“The balaalo have gathered money and now distributing it to people, they are intimidating the landowners and local leaders so that they tell lies that the locals are okay with them,” Akol told Uganda Radio Network on Thursday.

Akol notes that about 36 percent of land in Atiak Sub-County is currently being owned by cattle keepers adding that a greater percentage of the land communally owned was illegally acquired.

To address the current crisis, Akol says the government should consider relocating the cattle keepers to government ranches specifically to locations where there are no land problems with the locals.

Santa Okot, the Aruu north county legislator on the other hand blames President Museveni for encouraging the cattle keepers to stay through the extension of the eviction dateline and notes that his visit won’t solve the crisis.

She says the President should stick to his executive order on the expulsion of the cattle keepers to avoid a looming conflict in the region.

The Amuru Resident District Commissioner Stephen Odong Latek however says the division among the leaders who are speaking different languages about the balaalo is likely to jeopardize the president’s efforts. Latek says for the matter to be amicably resolved, leaders should speak from the same script.

“We have taken reasonable measures to try and mobilize the masses to put together what they think is good and will give them total benefit from the President’s coming, however to note is that my experience seems to give me away that we are not speaking from the same plate, the leaders who should represent the interest of the people seems not to be speaking from the same script, different languages are being used and it’s not good,” He says.

Latek notes that while he believes the President’s visit will help to set the pace for a better resolution on the balaalo presence, there is a need for leaders to be truthful.

According to recent verification, Amuru district alone has a total of 194 documented cattle keepers with 92 operating from Okidi Parish in Atiak Sub-county.

While there is no official data on the exact number of migrant cattle keepers occupying the Acholi Sub-region, leaders in the region estimate that there are close to 2,000 of them with about 40,000 herds of cattle in the sub-region in the districts of Pader, Nwoya, Gulu, and Amuru.

In August this year, leaders from the Acholi Sub-region unanimously resolved to halt the sales of customary land in a bid to end the mass acquisition of land by the cattle keepers. The leaders had met in Gulu city to discuss solutions to the growing acquisition of large chunks of land for cattle grazing by individuals from outside the region.

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