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‘Five decades down the line, we shall not relent…’

27 August 2020

By Eunice Nsikak Olembo, Africa Legal Officer at Minority Rights Group Africa

The Benet people, one of the indigenous minority groups in Uganda that have occupied the slopes of Mount Elgon since time immemorial, continue to demand their land rights.

The Benet land question dates back to 1936, when the community lost their ancestral land to the Colonial government through gazettement the whole mountain and forest area into a Central Forest Reserve. This area was eventually converted into a National Park in 1963 after the Ugandan Government was established after independence.

Despite the Ugandan Government’s establishment, the Benet people’s plight was never considered. If anything, the situation has worsened: the gazettement of Mount Elgon as a Central Forest Reserve and eventually a National Park failed to take into account the rights of the Benet community, its source of livelihood for the community, and the indigenous knowledge that the community has in safeguarding the ecosystem.

The Boundaries

Attempts to resettle the Benet People started in 1983 (hence creating the ‘1983 line’) when a part of the community was moved into what the community refers to as the 6,000-hectare reserve. However, this resettlement exercise was not carried out properly. Members of the Benet community from the Yatui Parish were left out and ended up enclosed within the National Park, in what the Community refers to as the ‘Yatui Temporal Settlement’. Due to the temporary nature of this Settlement, the Community is not allowed to put up any permanent structure, therefore lagging in terms of education, infrastructure, health and social services.

The government set up another boundary known as the ‘1993 line’, further reducing the area where the Benet were allowed to settle permanently. In 1993, the whole mountain was made into a national park, thus increasing the number of restrictions to protect the National Park.

The ‘1993 line’ hives off 2,500 hectares from what the Government had initially given the Community for permanent resettlement in the ‘1983 line’. It is within these 2,500 hectares of land that the Community has been subjected to human rights abuses in the form of forced eviction, loss of property and loss of life at the hands of the armed Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) wardens.

The Consent Judgment

In 2003, the Benet People took the Government of Uganda to court through the Attorney General and UWA (Miscellaneous Cause No. 0001 of 2004 in the High Court of Mbale), seeking enforcement of their fundamental right to use their land. The Case was settled out of court after two years, and on 27 October 2005, a Consent Judgment was issued in which the Benet Community was recognized as the historical and indigenous inhabitants of Benet Cub County, Yatui Parish, Kabsekek Village of Kween County, Kwoti Parish of Tingey County.

In his judgment, Justice J.B. Katusi ordered that the Benet people be left to stay in their said areas and carry out agricultural activities, including developing the same undisturbed. The Consent Judgment directed the Respondents (UWA and the Attorney General) to take all necessary steps to de-gazette the said area as a Wildlife Protected Area or National Park after physically inspecting the boundary with the Benet Community.

Fifteen years later, the de-gazettement has not been done, and more than five decades later, the Benet Community is still seeking justice – the ever-so-elusive justice.

Elusive Justice

During this Covid period, the Benet Community was not spared by the ravages of the pandemic. Their already dire situation has been further compounded by the human rights abuses the community endured at the hands of UWA wardens, such as an increased number of forced evictions, loss of property and loss of life.

From April 2020, the community has registered at least seven shootings that allegedly involved UWA Rangers. On 25 July 2020, at Cheptiya Village, Kiretei Parish, two community members, Simotwo Leornard and Moses Kameteke, were allegedly shot by UWA rangers when their livestock strayed into the moorlands of Mount Elgon National Park. Unfortunately, Moses Kameteke succumbed to his injuries on 27 July (the Matter is currently under investigation at Mbale District level).

Protest following the shooting of Moses Kameteke and Simotwo Leonard on 27 July 2020 (credit: Alex Yesho)

This comes against the backdrop of a visit to the Benet Community by the Permanent Secretary (P.S.) in the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development on 27 to 30 July 2020, where the P.S indicated that the Government would allocate an additional 2,000 hectares to the 6,000 hectares (1983 line) that had been de-gazetted in 2002 as a temporal settlement for the Benet community members who had been evicted from the moorlands*. To the community, this is nothing short of a campaign gimmick that the Government has used over some time to secure votes from the Community:

‘The Benet Community feels that the Government has continuously made promises to the Benet Community, with the latest being the statement from the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Lands where they promised to de-gazette an additional 2000 hectares to the 6,000 of the temporal settlement that was de-gazetted by an Act of Parliament in 2002. Such pronouncements, however, are merely tokenisms that usually come during elections as campaign promises to secure the community’s vote. But once the elections are done with, the community is once again left to contend with perennial evictions, human rights abuses and harassment at the hands of UWA wardens. When does it stop? As Community, we are only demanding for what is rightfully and legally ours as stipulated in the Consent Judgment.

Mungech Chebet, Benet Community Human Rights Defender and Land Rights Activist

Despite having a Judgment that recognizes the rights of the Benet community, it seems the government has opted to adopt more stringent measures against the community. Through an Act of Parliament (the Uganda Wildlife (Mt. Elgon National Park) Regulations, 2019) that prohibits any grazing in the Mount Elgon National Park, fines have been imposed on livestock that strays into the Park. Fines range from 50,000 Uganda Shillings (£10.30) for a cow to 20,000 Uganda Shillings (£4.10) for a goat. This legislation was passed without input from the community and fails to consider that no buffer zones have been provided for the community, which relies heavily on livestock farming as its main economic activity.

‘All that we demand is that the government fulfils the contents of the judgment. We can’t keep landless in our own country, yet we are Ugandans and pay all the relevant taxes. As a community, we shall not relent, nor shall we tire in seeking to enforce our rights.’

Elder Moses Kiptala, Benet Community Elder

*As of November 2020, the web page previously linked here seems to have been permanently removed.

Photo: Still from a video of a protest following the shooting of Moses Kameteke and Simotwo Leonard on July 27, 2020. Credit: Alex Yesho.