Bulakati Airstrip, also referred to as Lukaya Airfield, is a disused airfield located in Lukaya town. In June 2008 it was reported that the army planned to evict people it claimed were ‘encroachers’ on Bulakati Airfield. Ssali Kiddu, Lukaya Town Council chairperson, said the affected people had not yet been notified about the planned eviction and was unhappy because of the uncertain future of developments that had emerged on a part of the land, including a multi-million market, a playground and a health centre.
In 2009 an army detachment was established on the Bulakati airfield land. After a violent raid on Juma Cell village, which took place on 22nd March 2011, residents petitioned and protested demanding removal of the army detachment. The residents suspected Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) soldiers of participation in the raid.
Violent crimes were committed during the raid. On the night of 22nd March 2011 a large gang of men armed with machetes and guns invaded the Juma Cell village area of Lukaya town. Three women, one of them a student of Wagwa Secondary School, were raped. A prison warder, Rose Namutebi, was severely injured by a deep cut to her arm. Her husband was shot in his stomach after he attempted to protect her. Both were admitted to the hospital in critical condition. The raiders also broke into 20 homes and stole property worth millions of shillings. One of the robbery victims, Elais Sempungu, said he was awoken by people breaking down his door; gunmen threatened to kill him if he did not hand over his money. They beat him severely before moving on to another home. The following day victims of the raid gave statements to the police, including two of the rape victims who had not yet had access to medical care. Secretary of Defence in Juma Cell, Richard Mujuzi, said some residents had identified the robbers as soldiers from the Lukaya army detachment. More than 300 people stormed the UPDF detachment in Lukaya town to protest the raid on their village. They demanded the release of soldiers suspected of the crimes into their hands.
A dispute arose between the police and the army over how to deal with the matter. The District Police Commissioner of Kalungu said the raid was a police matter but the army wanted to handle it with their own disciplinary measures. Intelligence Officer of Masaka Armored Brigade, Captain Frank Mukula, refused to hand over a suspect and said the army would conduct its own investigations. After the raid on Juma Cell village Lukaya residents gathered signatures demanding the removal of the army detachment from their town. Sheikh Bulu Kasule, the Imam of Lukaya said that insecurity in the area had increased since the establishment of Bulukati army barracks and he had received numerous complaints from residents. After a speedy trial a soldier attached to Bulakati, Private Patrick Edema, was sentenced to five years in prison for participating in the robberies and dismissed from the army in disgrace. Bashir Jingo, one of the robbery victims, said the speedy trial and sentencing were a cover-up to stop the prosecution of other UPDF officers. He said he had seen three soldiers dressed in army uniform and they had threatened to shoot him.
Plan to evict more than 200 residents In February 2017 the UPDF announced plans to evict more than 200 residents who had settled on Bulakati Airstrip land. The Ministry of Defence issued a notice of eviction to tenants through the district authorities instructing all ‘enroachers’ to vacate the land immediately. The land in question measures 463.43 hectares and comprises Mwota Block 181, Kirinnya Block 184, Lukaya Block 185, Kalungi Block 145 and Kawanda Block 146. The spokesperson for Masaka Armored Brigade, Lt Ninsiima Rwemijuma said, “What I know is that the land belongs to us [army] and we have a detachment on it. Anybody who claims ownership over it or its part is an encroacher.” He said the UPDF was working closely with all parties involved to ensure that all encroachers vacated the land peacefully. One of the affected residents, Edrisa Kigozi, said the land had initially belonged to the army, but Lukaya Town Board took over management of part of the land when the army abandoned it in 1979. He said, “The residents and I, then bought pieces of this land and we acquired general receipts from Lukaya Town Board, which was the care taker”.
Bonny Kiddu Ssali, former chairperson of Lukaya Town Council and one of those facing eviction, said the town council has passed a resolution in the 1990s to use the land and established the market on it. He said “Lukaya Town Council irregularly parcelled out 115.8 hectares and allocated part of it to individuals who put up residential and commercial houses, while part of the remaining land was used to establish public facilities”. Mr Kiddu insisted that residents had never encroached on the land as claimed by the army as they had been given the plots by Lukaya Town authorities.
After being used as a training base from 1969 to 1979 the airfield had fallen into disrepair. The disused runway was full of potholes and was being used as a pathway for Kulungu district residents travelling to and from Lukaya. The UPDF detachment consisted of five grass thatched huts. Spokesperson for Masaka Armored Brigade, Lt Ninsiima Rwemijuma, said that although the airfield land appeared neglected UPDF was still conducting military activities. Former Lukaya Town Council chairperson Kiddu Ssali said several acres of airfield land were allocated to businessmen based on a 1972 land reform decree giving local government power to take over public land. He said over 2,000 people had applied for the plots which were given out to a few successful applicants at costs ranging between 1-5 million Shillings. Uganda Radio Network saw minutes of meeting between Lukaya Town Council and the Military Land Board which agreed that residents should be allowed to use part of the airfield land.
The 200 affected residents vowed that they would never vacate the land, saying they had purchased it from Lukaya Town Council, the lawful custodian of the land. Lukaya Town Council had attempted to acquire part of the contested land from the Uganda Lands Commission in 2010, but the matter was referred to the Ministry of Defence which said it still needed the land. Lt Ninsiima Rwemijuma claimed that residents did not have rights to the land, saying “That land is for the Ministry of Defence under the custodian of UPDF. All those who illegally settled on it are land grabbers and I don’t think they deserve any compensation”. Kalungu Resident District Commissioner, Mr Abubaker Kaddunabbi, said he would convene a stakeholders’ meeting to look into the matter.
Stalled development and a proposed industrial park At the time of the eviction notice in February 2017 construction of a number of buildings on the disputed Bulakati land had stalled; at least 90 residents demanded a refund from the authorities after they had been unable to acquire pieces of land that they had paid for. The affected residents, in possession of general receipts issued by Lukaya Town Council, complete with signatures and seals, demanded a refund complete with interest covering the seven-year period since their money was collected in 2012 following release of a special audit report on sale of the land. One affected resident said UPDF soldiers had stopped him carrying out development on the land. Lukaya Town Council and UPDF remained embroiled in the dispute over ownership of the land and affected residents who had been issued with an eviction notice were considering legal action. In September 2017 government plans to use the contested land for an industrial park were announced. President Museveni, urging the public to support a contentious law allowing for compulsory acquisition of private land for public use, said some of the Bulakati land should be used for an industrial park as there was a need for independent industrial towns. He suggested that one of these new towns should be established at Bulakati. Newly elected Kalungu District chairperson Mr Richard Kyabaggu said the initiative would bring the benefits of more revenue for district coffers and create employment opportunities. However, Mr Joseph Ssewungu, Kalungu West MP and district Democratic Party spokesperson, described the proposed industrial park as another “fictitious pledge” to the people of Kalungu. He pointed out that a proposed industrial park in nearby Bukakkata, unveiled in 2015, had failed to materialise. Residents occupying the piece of land at Bulakati Airstrip, who had been pleading with the army and government not to evict them for a long period of time, were still fearful as the President did not say anything about their fate. Habitat International Coalition (HIC) included details of the threat of forced eviction from Bulakati land on their website.
On 27th March 2018 the body of Mr Tamal Muhammad, resident of Bulukati and Lusango villages and leader of Bulakati residents’ struggle against eviction by UPDF, was discovered in a pool of blood. According to his colleagues he had been kidnapped and then killed. Land committee chairperson Mr Bonny Kiddu Ssali confirmed that Tamale had been serving on the committee as a coordinator. Tamale’s murder left Lukaya residents in fear of their lives. Members of the land committee refused to speak to journalists but few residents of the Lukaya area spoke anonymously to Vanguard News, who alleged that some committee members had previously been arrested and threatened by UPDF for standing up to fight for the land which houses Bulakati Airstrip. Mr Tamale Muhammad had been expected to be a lead member as residents threatened with eviction were scheduled to appear before the Bagumemereire Land Commission (a Commission of Inquiry into Land Matters appointed by President Museveni on 8th December 2016 and led by Justice Catherine Bamugemereire). Tamale was working as a commuter taxi driver on the Kampala-Masaka highway; his staff identity card was found in his wallet. His murder left residents uncertain over what to do to continue their land struggle, that he had championed. Tamale’s body had been discovered in the village of Nkoni, a few kilometres west of Lukaya. He was survived by two wives and nine children.
Bulakati residents protested a move by UPDF to repossess the disputed land. Residents were banned from ‘trespassing’ on the land, chased away by soldiers, and sand mining activities on the land were halted. People caught trespassing were flogged by soldiers. A teacher and resident of Lukaya Town, Mr Gashom Nkulanga, said “We know very well that part of this land belongs to residents and they started using it in the early 1970s during late President Idi Amin’s regime. So, it is not good for the army to chase away lawful occupants”. One affected resident, Hajj Ziyad Ssewaya, claimed to own a title on part of the Bulakati land and said he would sue if UDPF evicted him. He said, “This land, belongs to us, let the army bring any document showing that we were paid to vacate this land. The biggest portion of Bulakati land belongs to residents of Lukaya Town Council; UPDF only owns 180 hectares. We need justice”. Lukaya Town Council chairperson-elect Mr Charles Tamale said residents should be allowed to continue accessing the land, “The residents have been using footpaths on the airstrip land for years and blocking them now causes suspicion”. Maj Flavia Terimulungi, spokesperson of the Masaka-based Mechanised Brigade at Kasijjagirwa, claimed that the disputed land belonged to the army which had a detachment on it. She said, “Those who claim to own the land do not know its history; we are working closely with all stakeholders to ensure that all encroachers leave that land voluntarily”. She warned soldiers at Bulakati army detachment against beating up residents trespassing on the land, saying that such actions tarnish the image of defence forces. Agriculture minister and Kalungu East MP Vincent Ssempijja said the government was seeking investors to establish industries in part of the land, but during the 2021 General Election campaign he has said the controversy over Bulakati land had been resolved and that residents who had acquired plots were free to develop them. At this time he had said, “We had several meetings with the President and UPDF officials and we agreed that we allow all residents who encroached on this land to use it while the other remaining part be utilised by investors to start up an industrial park”. Chairperson of Juma Cell (the village that was raided on 22nd March 2011), Me Edward Ssentongo, said people would only be sure of their safety on the land if they received documents from the government regularising their tenancy.