Western Uganda based sugar manufacturing industry; Hoima Sugar Limited has come under scrutiny in the ongoing land inquiry following allegations that its proprietors unlawfully evicted over 4,000 residents before establishing a sugar plantation.
In acquiring 3,000 acres of land in Muziranduru village, Kizirafumbi sub county Hoima district for the plantation in 2015, it is said that thousands of bonafide occupants were displaced, their crops destroyed and houses set ablaze.
As a result, a total of 4,700 affected persons sought asylum in Kijayo internally displaced (IDP) camp where they still live in despair to date.
Hoima Sugar Ltd owned by Kenyan investor Sarbhjit Singh Rajima purchased the land in question from a one Prince Herbert Kimera Lwakiswaza in 2011 for its planned sugar project in Hoima district.
However, evidence brought before the commission indicates that prior to this, in 2002, Prince Kimera began to harass occupants of the land, claiming that he was the lawful owner.
Muhereza Asaba, 57, a resident of Muziranduru told the Justice Catherine Bamugemereire commission on Wednesday that in 2013, he was evicted from a price of land that formerly belonged to his grandfather Tibanywana.
He said that he had occupied the 94 acres of land customary since his birth in 1960.
“We were surprised that Kimera was alleging to have claim on this land yet we had settled there for years without any dispute. He then came with police officers and they started evicting us, burning our houses and seizing our domestic animals,” Muhereza told the commission.
Following interventions from the local leaders, it was discovered that Kimera had used an Ex parte judgment to illegally evict 700 households and subsequently, Muhereza and others regained their land.
However, eight years later in 2010, the controversy reemerged with Prince Kimera yet again claiming the land.
“He returned to distort our peace. Again, he brought police officers who burned people’s houses and in the process, many of their documents were destroyed. We sued Kimera in Masindi High Court for illegally claiming our land and maliciously damaging our property,” Muhereza said.
Unfortunately, Kimera died in the course of the court case and his relatives carried on the claims on the Muziranduru land.
Muhereza, a father of 10 said that the destruction of crops went on until 2013 when eventually heavy machinery including graders came and razed down houses and crops that were still standing.
Later, they discovered that Hoima Sugar Ltd was behind the destruction.
“The land has been used to grow sugar cane. We are suffering. We are living in a makeshift IDP camp as if we are not Ugandans. We can neither afford medicine nor food and land is expensive to hire for cultivation,” the witness lamented during Wednesday’s hearing in Kampala.
He said that their (evictees) demands to be compensated by the sugar company have fallen on deaf ears and the court process has delayed to deliver justice to them.
“Since they destroyed our property, we demand to be compensated. If possible, this commission should assist us to have the land valued so we can be relocated. We are not against development,” Muhereza said.
However, when Rajasekaran Ramados, the Senior Agricultural Officer with Hoima Sugar Ltd later appeared before the commission to respond to the claims, he denied allegations that people were evicted by the company.
Rajasekaran said that upon purchase of the land, the terms of agreement with Prince Kimera provided that Kimera compensates the claimants. He told the commission was ready to negotiate and compensate only those people that were either still living or cultivating on the land.
“We have not evicted any resident or destroyed property. We are ready to compensate those with legitimate claims. We consulted local leaders to ascertain the binafide claimants so far 146 individuals have been compensated,” he said.
He accused the ‘evictees’ of presenting inconsistent lists of affected persons that demand compensation.
Justice Bamugemereire queried Rajasekaran as to why Hoima Sugar Ltd is particularly interested in compensating only those with gardens on the disputed land as opposed to “negotiating with an open mind”.
Interestingly, information before the commission shows that some of the recipients of compensation received as less as Ush 30,000 for their land area.
“Where did you get the values? It is important that you respect the law of the land in compensation so that you don’t cheat people. In rural areas, someone 10 by 15 metres house but that’s their livelihood so by paying them a one off Ush 30,000, you’ve actually destroyed their livelihood,” Bamugemereire said.
In his response, the witness said that the commission’s concerns including relocating the legitimate claimants to another area would be deliberated by the relevant stakeholders.