Property Rights: Church Turns Militant

Published on 10th July 2018

In the 1960s, my dad, the Late Lazaro Kabwende, worked for the Diocese of Mbarara but lived in Bushenyi at the time. The distance from home to work was quite prohibitive, yet dad loved his job. Dad asked his employers if they could offer him a piece of land to pitch his family. His request was granted and he set up a home in Nsiikye village, Nyamitanga Parish in Mbarara. This is the place where my six siblings and I  were born. My parents wedded at the Nyamitanga Parish back then. We were baptized in the same church and worshipped there every Sunday. 

In the early 1990s (and I suppose the church leaders had been given a tip off on the impending 1995 constitution), the priests approached my dad asking him to vacate the land where he had now lived with his family for over 30 years. Dad had established himself and set up some houses and a plantation that fed his family. But the church leaders insisted they wanted their land back. Left with no option, dad asked the church for compensation for the developments on the land so he could vacate. The church leaders decided to play ping pong with him and the two parties did not reach any substantial agreement. They however repeatedly appeared with police to restrain dad whenever he undertook any further developments on his houses, even simple repairs. Fearing that the church leaders could without further warning throw us out of our home, my dad borrowed money from friends and relatives and built another house on a small plot across the road, as he waited for the compensation to be effected. I remember we moved into the new house round about 1993. My dad died in 2012 before the Diocese could compensate him.

Early this year, almost 28 years since the church leaders first knocked with their eviction plans, and aware that the principle thorn in their flesh, my dad was dead, they returned, this time in full force. They had a clearly crafted plan to achieve decisive eviction at whatever cost. They had worked secured a land title covering even our home. They started by negotiating with other occupants on peripheral smaller portions adjacent to our home, and evicted them after miserable compensation tokens. These people held smaller stakes compared to ours, having lived on their portions for a shorter time anyway, and with far less developments. They had very few options if any, and had to vacate. This was a bait used by the church leaders to claim that other people had been compensated and they left, but we refused. Their compensation package was extremely miserable, and they knew it.

Once the eviction process hit a standstill, the church leaders decided to forcefully evict our tenants, and fenced off the entire land. It ought to be noted that the laws in Uganda require of any landlord evicting a tenant to present a court order, but they definitely ignored this, since they are a formidable power.

It should be noted further, that  the land in question is where my mother, the late Magdalen Nanteza was buried in 2010. Her burial was conducted by the Catholic priests of Nyamitanga. On the same land, my brother Chief Joseph was buried in the year 2000, again the burial conducted by the Catholic priests of Nyamitanga. On the same land, we have a banana plantation where we have drawn food for our sustenance over the years. But the church insists we must vacate, and must remove the graves of our loved ones. 

The church has so much money and wields so much power to compromise even the strongest legal infrastructure in the country.  We opted for peaceful approach and avoided all out confrontation as they fenced off our ancestral home. My brother lodged a complaint in court seeking temporary injunction as we explored possibilities of getting some form of justice. However, in the whole process, it was to no avail. 

Many people we approached openly told us they were not ready to attempt to challenge the church, even when they empathized with our case. We were even told that the judges, who attend prayers in the same church, were very unlikely to challenge their church leaders. Little surprise, the judgment maintained the status quo.  Just this simple ruling came after several costly adjournments, change of court staff handling the case, and the Diocese tactfully skipping one of the mediation meetings. When the mediation meeting finally took place, the Diocese insisted that all they wanted was their land, and that we must remove our graves.

Do these priests understand the magnitude of pain involved in digging out bodies of loved ones buried 18 years back? Isn’t it even supposed to be a criminal offence to disturb the peace of the dead? With all the land in their possession and all their wealth, just why does the church think that evicting us off less than an acre of land means so much to them? How can government let its people be so humiliated just because someone has the power to play around with papers called land title to claim the world at the expense of fellow citizens? And in any case, how do they priests even imagine they have the moral authority to evict a family that has lived on a piece of land for over 50 years? These questions deserve clear answers beyond merely sitting in a court room and having lawyers play legal gymnastics.

If church leaders can afford to inflict such magnitude of misery on my family,  to whom can one go anymore for solace? How shall any of us wake up ever again, and dress up to go to church when our church leaders are on our backs with a haunting demand to remove the graves of our loved ones and vacate our ancestral home?

By  Tumusiime Deo

Writer & International Communications Consultant.

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