Alleged Land Grabs and Governance: Exploring Mistrust and Trust in Northern Uganda – The Case of the Apaa Land Conflict

Lioba Lenhart

Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies, Gulu University, Uganda




Rumours of land grabs by wealthy investors, well-connected political and military figures and government actors have been rife in northern Uganda since the late 1980s. The displacement of more than 90% of the Acholi population in camps for internally displaced people (IDP) between the mid-1990s and 2008, during the war between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Government of Uganda, is still seen by many as the beginning of an attempted land grab. Allocations of large areas of land in the post-war period, justified in the name of economic development, feed into a local paradigm of mistrust based on perceived oppression and exploitation by outsiders.

This paper examines the case of Apaa, a remote village on the fringes of the Acholi sub-region, and the scene of one of the innumerable land disputes afflicting northern Uganda since the return of the population from the camps. It looks at the recent evictions of people from Apaa by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) to explore how trust and mistrust interplay in the governance of conflicts over large-scale land acquisitions.

The Apaa conflict involves the local people, the UWA, security forces, national government, local councils, investors, politicians and powerful individuals. In the view of the local people, the area around Apaa is customary land and part of Amuru District, whereas the UWA argues that it is gazetted (state-owned) land that belongs to East Madi Wildlife Reserve in Adjumani District. The parties to the conflict have tried to solve the problem by providing maps to establish the exact boundary between the two districts, and thus to ascertain whether Apaa village is located within East Madi Wildlife Reserve or outside the conservation area.

However, this paper argues that the demarcation of the boundary can only be a first step in resolving the conflict, which is equally about issues of social belonging and identity associated with the land, and about landownership, livelihood security, wildlife protection, and investment for the development of northern Uganda. The conflict challenges institutional capability, and the greed of – and trust or mistrust in – individual, politically connected actors who claim to speak in the name of the community of Apaa and who have brought ethnic differences between Madi and Acholi into play, after decades of harmonious relations, and who have been widening the extent of the disagreement. The paper points to historical and recent political, economic and social divisions in the north of Uganda and across the whole country which underlie the conflict, and it questions whether or not large-scale land cases may also be promoting new alliances based on newly appreciated common interests.

The paper is based on a review of the literature on land conflicts in northern Uganda, daily newspapers reporting the Apaa issue and some interviews. Part 1 looks at the meaning of land for the Acholi people and different types of conflict over land in post-war northern Uganda. Part 2 describes the Apaa land conflict by highlighting the multiple and overlapping points of conflict raised by a range of different actors, the chronology of the conflict and attempts at conflict resolution. It further outlines the visible core problem of the disputed boundary and the underlying issues, i.e. whether to prioritise human livelihood security or protection of wildlife and investment for development, from the point of view of those involved, and looks at the growing ethnicisation of the conflict. Part 3 focuses on mistrust in the governance of the conflict by listening to local voices expressing perceived threats to their livelihood security and social belonging, which are discussed with reference to the concepts of risk, uncertainty and vulnerability and against the background of the political and economic framework conditions. Part 4 considers approaches and challenges to conflict resolution by reviewing the visible core problem, underlying causes and the effects of the conflict. In the conclusion the question is raised: Who benefits? >> View Full Text (PDF)