A combination of historical factors and the lack of a clear policy on settlements are to blame for the ethnic tension and recent violence in Kibale District, southwestern Uganda, according to senior government officials.
The New Vision government-owned newspaper reported last week that at least 200 people had fled Kakindo village in Kibale District following an outbreak of violence over land between the indigenous Banyoro and the relatively more recently arrived Bakiga. Several houses were burnt and banana plantations destroyed during the fighting, which lasted over six hours, it said.
The New Vision quoted sources as saying that the clashes followed increased tension between the two communities after the parliamentary and local council elections of mid-2001.
"We have been expecting this to happen in Kakindo, Nkooko and Kasambya [all in Bugangazi County of Kibale District]. Our security is enough to contain the situation," it quoted Patrick Paliddawa, the Resident District Commissioner, as saying.
Kibale District police commander Fabian Drazi said 11 people had been arrested in connection with the clashes, which began on the night of 31 March, according to the paper. Several pangas (machetes) and spears which had been recovered by the police during the arrests would be taken to court as exhibits, the report said.
Baguma Isoke, Minister for Lands and Member of Parliament for Kibale, told IRIN that the conflict in Kibale stemmed from the lack of a clear policy on resettlement in the country.
"It all revolves around policy. The Kibale scenario would not have come up if there was such a policy," he said.
Isoke expressed concern that local decision-makers were taking sides in land issues, further fuelling the tension in the area, and urged international organisations to intervene "before the situation gets out of hand".
"The government is too shy to deal with the problem because community leaders and decision- makers are partisan," Isoke said. "Now the army has been deployed there, with riot police. There are roadblocks, and people cannot go about their business freely," he added.
The government has deployed the Mobile Police Patrol Unit at Kakindo trading centre and at Kijaji, in Kakindo sub-county, to quell the clashes and some alleged instigators have already appeared in a local magistrate's court, the New Vision reported on Saturday.
Ethnic tensions began to take root in the region due to the increased influx of new residents, who have since come to outnumber the indigenous Banyoro, according to humanitarian sources.
One such source told IRIN that the latest flare-up of ethnic animosity in the district had been sparked by the victory of Bakiga candidates during the 2001 local parliamentary and local council elections.
"These people say they fought hard to get their land back from the colonialists. Now they are saying they are ready again to shed blood for their land," she said.
John Nagenda, presidential adviser on media relations, told IRIN on Wednesday that, historically, the Kibale area was the stronghold of the Banyoro Kingdom, which reigned from as far back as 600 years ago.
"The government should find out how to accommodate all the stakeholders: the landowners, the new population and the Banyoro people," Nagenda said. "We must work out a system where everyone is included."
According to Isoke, who is a member of the Banyoro community, the land problem in Kibale has built up on the historical context, going back to colonial days under the British administration, which "punished" the resisting Banyoros and "rewarded" neighbouring, collaborating communities with large tracts of land in the area.
After independence, successive governments set up settlement schemes for various groups from other overpopulated districts, he said. In 1972, for example, the government, through the Ministry of Local Government, brought about 30,000 Bakiga people to Kibale, settling them in a scheme known as Rutete.
The Bakiga, an industrious agricultural community who originally came from the neighbouring densely populated district of Kigezi, had been encouraged by the government to go to Kibale, which was relatively sparsely populated, according to Isoke.
Similar settlement schemes were set up in the area in 1974, 1992 and again in 1997, a trend which had resulted in the settlers gaining numerical superiority over the Banyoro, he added.
"In one of the counties, six out of the eight sub-county seats were taken by outsiders. Important decisions are made at the county and sub-county levels. They make laws, they collect funds and determine development," Isoke told IRIN.
The local community recently resisted attempts by the Ugandan government to resettle a group of 3,000 returnees expelled from Tanzania.
Martin Owuor, Assistant Commissioner in the Ministry of Disaster Preparedness within the office of the prime minister, told IRIN that the government had initially offered to resettle the returnees in Kikagati, in Kibale District, where it had allocated some 100 sq km of land for a new camp, but the plans had been bogged down by ethnic animosity and politics within the community there, which resented the idea.
Although the current Banyoro-Bakiga tension is concentrated in Kibale, there are similar social feelings in neighbouring Kyenjojo, Mbarara, Kamwenge, Hoima, Masindi and Kabarole Districts, according to local sources.
"Kibale is only the epicentre of the settler problem but, over the years, the tension has spilt to other surrounding districts," Isoke said.
Although the government has tried to address the historical land problems in the region through the new constitution, drafted in 1995, and the Land Act of 1998, settlement schemes were superimposing new problems on the old ones, he added.
The current Ugandan constitution permits any Ugandan to settle in any part of the country, but this law is not supported by specialised policies on preparing local communities and settlers from outside to live in harmony and equitably share sources, Isoke told IRIN.
"The settlers were brought in without considering the disequilibrium this would bring to the area," he said. "Most of the resources were diverted to the new people. The new people renamed the rivers, roads and places and gave them migrant names."