Ugandans Resist Land Grabbing and US-backed Dictatorship: an Interview with Phil Wilmot
“One man essentially wants to exploit all the wealth of the country for himself.”
Eighty-four percent of the population of Uganda are rural subsistence farmers. They are resisting both rampant land grabbing and US ally General Yoweri Museveni’s attempt to rule for life. I spoke to Phil Wilmot, an American-born activist who now lives in rural Uganda.
Ann Garrison: Could you tell us how you came to live in northern Uganda?
Phil Wilmot: In 2009, I started studying at Uganda Christian University and I fell in love with another student there, Suzan Abong, who is now my wife Suzan Abong Wilmot, and she comes from northern Uganda. We got married and settled in Lira, a major town in Lango region, and had two children. I not only became an in-law in the community but also adopted its traditional way of sustaining life. We farm the typical crops you find in Lango like groundnuts, simsim, fruits, sweet potatoes, etc.
So my decision to stay in Uganda didn't really have anything to do with its political reality; it had to do with love. But living here and seeing what was going on with the dictator, Yoweri Museveni, who has stayed in power for 31 years, my wife and I became activists. We could see the police brutality in our community and we could see the regressive tax regime, including excessive taxes in the local markets, and the extreme poverty. But the poverty exists neither because there is no land or natural resources nor because Ugandans are lazy or anything like that. No. It's just because one man essentially wants to exploit all the wealth of the country for himself.
AG: OK. Tell us about that man.
PW: General Yoweri Museveni came to power in 1986 through the gun and has stayed in power through the gun. And he's a big ally to the Western world, the Global North, and especially the United States. The US gives Museveni hundreds of millions of dollars every year in military and security support, which he then uses to evict people from their land and even to make war in other countries like DR Congo, South Sudan, and Somalia. He basically does the bidding of the US and fights its “War on Terror” on the African continent.
“We started Solidarity Uganda to resist these evictions and land grabs.”
AG: And what about the land grabbing?
PW: The land grabbing is one of the manifestations of dictatorship in northern Uganda and not only northern Uganda—all across Uganda and in much of Africa. A multinational company or a foreign investor or even a huge domestic investor, maybe a member of Parliament, maybe Museveni himself, will have their eye on a piece of land or maybe a mine, and then they will work with the government or other governments in Africa to forcefully evict the people who live there.
AG: So how have you organized against it?
PW: In 2012, we started Solidarity Uganda to resist these evictions and land grabs. We started in a district called Amuru, which borders the River Nile in northern Uganda. This is an oil rich and very fertile area. Over the course of several years, we worked with the community there to chase away land grabbers and multinational corporations. One was the Madhvani Group, which wanted to plant sugarcane on their land, but there were also a number of oil companies. The oil companies usually operate behind obscure shell companies that do “research” and survey land. Ironically, they’ll sometimes contract with the Uganda Wildlife Authority to survey land for oil drilling or some other form of resource extraction. This is very common, and we've worked with a number of communities across Uganda who have been able to protect their land from these land grabbers.
AG: Did you actually stop the Madhvani Group? I’ve been reading about land grabbing in northern Uganda for years and the Madhvani Group has always been identified as one of the primary culprits.
PW: Madhvani recently announced that they are backing out of all efforts to develop sugarcane projects in Amuru. They said that the environment was "too hostile" to carry on with business there. It was a big victory, but the battles aren't over because there are plenty of foreign investors and multinationals still interested in taking their land.
“It’s encouraging to see Ugandans standing up for themselves against dictatorship.”
Amuru's people deserve the credit for liberating themselves. Solidarity Uganda merely played a supportive role in terms of training, organizing, and on occasion providing resources to the local people, plus national and international advocacy.
AG: What does this rural population share in common with the opposition MPs who got into a brawl with security forces in Parliament last week?
PW: There are two main issues happening in the country. On one hand there is resistance in Parliament, sometimes even physical brawls, because Museveni is trying to entrench himself in power by scrapping presidential age limits from the constitution; he is now 73 years old and the current age limit is 75. This has also caused uprisings in towns across the country and in rural areas, and it’s encouraging to see Ugandans standing up for themselves against dictatorship.
The other big issue right now is a series of land reforms that are very neoliberal. They are basically trying to say that no displaced people should be compensated until the land has actually been grabbed, among other things. So we're trying to nationalize the struggle rather than working on one-off cases of land grabbing; we’re trying to unite people across the region to stand up together against the land reforms, and against land grabbing. There is no real rule of law here, so the land grabbing would keep happening even if the best laws were in place.
“There is no real rule of law here.”
AG: OK, one last question. I see on the Solidarity Uganda Facebook page that your wife Suzan was arrested on October 5 during Museveni's crackdown on those protesting his amendment eliminating the presidential age limit. Has she been released?
PW: In the course of five days, we had two police raids on our office. Eleven people were arrested on bogus charges, including Suzan. Many were illegally held by police for more than 48 hours, and eventually released due to the pressure applied locally and internationally, but that is never the end of the story. They are supposed to have a court hearing this week and will likely go to jail until they can afford bail. The judicial system is a tool that the Museveni regime uses to thwart those who criticize him, even if he cannot ultimately sentence them. In 2014 I spent a brief stint in Lira Central Prison where 80% of the inmates were there on remand—without charges. Some had been there for more than five years without being convicted of any crime, but their cases were being adjourned every month and they simply could not afford bail. We are trying to use this moment of intense police brutality to leverage our power. Those who wish to support Suzan and her comrades can do so through our crowdfunding campaign at www.firefund.net/solidarityuganda. It is a moment when the political consciousness of Ugandans across the country is awakening, and we have to tap into that to maximize the potential of this struggle.
Phil Wilmot is a farmer and an organizer with Solidarity Uganda. His accounts of organizing to stop land grabbing and dictatorship can be read on the websites of Waging Nonviolence and Sojourners. He is also the author of “A Wolf Dressed in Sheepskin: A White Guy’s Dilemma in a Ugandan Jail.” He can be reached at [email protected].
Ann Garrison is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. She can be reached at [email protected].