Uganda election: Politics and land rights collide in the country's oil-rich east

How to tap Uganda's relatively new oil finds is dominating politics in the country's oil-rich east ahead of Friday's presidential and parliamentary election.

Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
Uganda's main opposition presidential candidate Kizza Besigye addressed his supporters Tuesday during his campaign rally in Uganda's capital, Kampala. Ugandans vote Friday in a presidential and parliamentary election.

Alice Kazimura’s home stands atop some of the oil reserves that should change her family’s future and that of her country, Uganda, for ever. But no one seems to be talking to her about it.

On Friday, Mrs. Kazimura – along with millions of other Ugandans – will vote in the country’s first presidential and parliamentary elections since huge oil deposits were discovered along Uganda’s western border with Democratic Republic of Congo.

As a stream of candidates – from longtime President Yoweri Museveni to local politicians – have campaigned in the area, Kazimura says few have done much to allay her concerns about the future.

“They have kept quiet; they have not talked about oil. They say oil is a government issue and a person is not supposed to talk about oil,” Kazimura says, as an oil company truck rumbles along a nearby dirt road. “All that creates fear because if the politicians don’t talk about oil we don’t know where we are going next.”

Kazimu is right to be apprehensive. Oil will radically alter Uganda.

2.5 billion barrels of oil?

Since the first big oil finds in Uganda roughly two years ago, estimates for how much oil lies beneath the fertile soil have risen to 2.5 billion barrels. That means the country's foreign earnings could triple when production starts in the next few years, according to the London-based civil society group International Alert.

But the embryonic oil industry remains secretive, with contract details kept from the public and few politicians offering a clear vision on how oil will impact the local community, campaigners say.

“They can’t show people the benefits they are getting out of oil, they just make more promises and people don’t want just more promises,” says Dickens Kamugisha, director of the African Institute for Energy Governance in Uganda's capital, Kampala. “No candidate has come up with a concrete projection of how they will share the income with the local community.”

While the future multi-billion dollar oil bounty has raised the stakes for the country’s corruption-addled ruling elite at the upcoming polls, it has not resonated with a population struggling with the daily concerns of grinding poverty.

“To the politicians and president the discovery of oil means it’s a lot more important to win,” Mr. Kamugisha says. “But for the citizens it has not yet become a big issue.”

Land rights issues

While they may not be talking directly about oil, politicians in the region are talking about something far more tangible – land.

After finishing a noisy campaign rally, Stephen Mukitale Biraahwa, ruling party Member of Parliament for Buliisa District, told the Monitor that he's popular because he helped evict more than 600 cattle-herding, pastoralist families who moved to the area more than seven years ago.

But Grace Barooroza, one of the pastoralists, says her people were unfairly uprooted by politicians like Mr. Biraahwa in collusion with corrupt government officials looking to clear land in the oil region.

Ms. Barooroza’s home used to stand atop Uganda’s oil reserves. In just a few hours on Dec. 12, after a lengthy and sometimes violent dispute in the courts and on the ground, armed soldiers led by a top general cleared her and hundreds of other cattle-herding families from their land, scattering them across neighboring regions without compensation.

Now dispossessed, Barooroza has no doubt about why the families were evicted from land they thought they bought legally from locals way before any oil had been found.

“It is the oil they know is there now,” she says. “It is all about the oil.”

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