Any woman, let alone a group of elderly women, would not just strip before their children and high-ranking government officials; the Amuru women did so in protest against the greatest evil that has possessed Uganda’s and many African governments today.
Land grabbing is that evil. A Google alert I set up on the subject at the beginning of 2014 has so far returned more than 2,000 reports – about 84 per month. The reports show millions of acres, equivalent to midsize European countries, carved out of different parts of Africa, handed out cheaply to large-scale agricultural ‘investors’ from USA, Europe, China, South Africa and Middle East.
These acquisitions have led to evictions of millions of poor populations in the remotest parts of the continent. African parliaments have passed laws to effect these evictions; national armies and police have implemented them viciously and an equally-vicious crop of native speculators has emerged to put the ill-gotten land at the disposal of the ‘investor’.
The reports say that millions of victims have been herded into squalid slums, established not only in towns but also in the jungles, with nothing to cater for their livelihoods.
Ironically, all this is being done for the sake of promoting ‘food security’, according to the reports. In order to end Africa’s hunger, land grabbing is justified by politicians and academics who these days do not think differently from tourists in considering the vast African continent as just a ‘bush’.
That’s why when the Amuru women stood naked before two government ministers, I thought the moment was historic and symbolic. It was historic because the Amuru women represented a new civil society that must be born.
Even as he stood in front of these naked women, Aronda knew that a law to further emasculate NGOs was in the making. Yet here were a bunch of naked women, emerging from a crowd of some 600 Acholi people, and he could do nothing about them, law or no law.
The Amuru woman power signals the dawn of indigenous resistance against land grabbing. The NGO model of Uganda’s civil society that came into existence largely after NRM took Kampala in 1986 is increasingly becoming irrelevant.
This is partly because of the president-for-life project that has found little use for the NGOs, thus the repressive laws to control them. When in 2012 Uganda Land Alliance and Oxfam reported land grabbing in Buganda, Bunyoro, Tooro, Busoga and Acholi (including Amuru), President Museveni was reportedly angry, and Hilary Onek, the internal affairs minister at the time, threatened the organizations with de-registration. Since then, civil society has gone slow on the greatest evil.
Secondly, the encounter was symbolic. Aronda and Migereko represented the historical assault on the native, her land, history and culture. ‘Government of Uganda is the biggest land grabber in the experience of the native’, a professor once said.
Colonial and post-colonial regimes have evicted the native from mountains and forests and plains using the pretext of ‘development’ in order to gazette forest reserves and national parks, to construct military barracks, prison farms and churches.
This explains the stand the Amuru women took and the message they sent to the world, not just to Aronda and Migereko. The ‘world’ that matters is the government of Uganda and the one per cent of world population that will own more wealth than the rest of us by 2016, according to Oxfam.
Faced with falling profits in their businesses, the richest of the world, with the help of most governments, are demanding that the poorest people everywhere surrender land to foreign-controlled commercial agriculture.
‘Capital is now eating labour’, is how the late Prof Dani Nabudere termed this resurgent process of directly driving natives off the land by big business. On that Thursday, the Amuru women rejected and resisted this national and global predatory approach to the native.
Ugandan civil society, or whatever remains of them, should embrace that remarkable signal from Amuru if they have to restore their own relevance. They should build bridges between efforts of these local actors and those of movements from the rest of the world.
The NRM government, on the other hand, has been hijacked by global business interests although it has to maintain the myth of popularity, which it can only achieve through rigging elections.
The ‘people’ of Amuru voted on that Thursday and the rest of Ugandans agreed that they would vote likewise. Aronda and Migereko were witness to this.
The author is the country manager, Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa (OSIEA).