Thousands of villagers in Apaa, a 320-square-mile stretch of remote territory in northern Uganda, will be barred from voting in the country’s elections on Jan. 14, according to a December briefing released by Human Rights Watch. The National Electoral Commission failed to include Apaa during its update of the voters register last year, and people who have come of age since Uganda last held elections in 2016 will not be able to cast their ballots this week.
Reports of voter suppression are only the latest in Apaa residents’ woes. For the past decade they have accused state security forces, including the Ugandan military and the Uganda Wildlife Authority, of burning their homes and looting food stores in an attempt to force them to leave the area, which the Ugandan government maintains is part of the East Madi Wildlife reserve.
Villagers have been beaten and even killed. The Uganda Wildlife Authority acknowledges that one man was shot dead by a stray bullet in 2012. Residents, and Anthony Akol, a local member of Parliament, assert that another man was killed by soldiers during evictions in 2018, which the army denies. Residents also say a four-year-old child also went missing amidst chaos caused by forced evictions that year.
Apaa has a long history of upheaval. During the colonial era, British governors uprooted residents in an apparent attempt to control “sleeping sickness,” a fly-borne disease in sub-Saharan Africa. Apaa was later used for hunting. As brutal conflict broke out with the Lord’s Resistance Army in the 1990s, the government herded 90 percent of the population of northern Uganda into overcrowded internally displaced persons camps, where they would live for more than 10 years.
When Apaa residents slowly returned to their homes after the war in 2008, they were told the land was now a wildlife reserve. They were no longer welcome, but had nowhere else to go.
Peaceful demonstrations have shone a national spotlight on Apaa and the plight of its inhabitants. In 2015, elderly women stripped naked in protest as shocked ministers and government surveyors arrived to mark the boundaries of the wildlife reserve. Three years later more than 200 demonstrators pitched tents and set up cooking stations in the United Nations compound in the northern city of Gulu, occupying it.
“Our people have been killed and maimed, our homes burned, and our property destroyed and looted by the very forces that should protect us as Ugandan citizens,” Apaa villagers wrote in a letter to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time, adding that more than 840 homes had been destroyed between late 2017 and June 2018 alone, according to research from Human Rights Focus, a Ugandan non-profit.
The demonstrators left after a month with verbal assurances that evictions would cease. But reports of violence continue to emerge from Apaa, with suspected wildlife rangers and other unidentified officers in military uniforms accused of destroying homes during Uganda’s nationwide measles vaccination program, and amidst the country’s April coronavirus lockdowns.
President Yoweri Museveni has also created multiple committees to investigate land disputes, which at first offered to compensate about 340 families with 10 million Uganda shillings (about $2,700), 20 iron sheets, and 20 bags of cement each. Apaa residents rejected the early 2019 offer, saying no amount of compensation could convince them to leave their ancestral land.
The program also covered only a fraction of the population. A study by the Centre for Governance and Human Rights at the University of Cambridge, England used satellite imagery to estimate that there were about 2,400 households, or 13,000 residents in Apaa as of 2019. According to a recent door to door census conducted by community members, the population of Apaa is even larger, numbering around 26,000.
In July, a separate parliamentary committee recommended that all evictions cease, and urged the government to ensure the land needs of residents were adequately met.
Meanwhile, clampdown on the political opposition seems to escalate each day as Uganda’s elections approach. Seventy-six-year-old Museveni, has ruled the country for 35-years, amending constitutional term and age limits with support from his National Resistance Movement. He faces 10 challengers, but the most formidable is Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine. At 38, the fiery pop-star-turned-opposition-leader is just half his opponent’s age, and has been campaigning under a volley of pepper spray and bullets. He was dragged from his car and apparently tear gassed while speaking to members of the media during an online press conference on Thursday, and has sent his children to the United States for protection.
With the vote just days away, even residents of Apaa who have not been excluded from the voter registry may face challenges at the polls. In 2018, the Electoral Commission said that as a wildlife reserve, Apaa was closed to human settlement, removing it as an electoral area, and putting the status of the three polling stations there in jeopardy. Some Apaa residents have now been assigned to polling locations as far as 30 miles from their homes.
The Electoral Commission also failed to update the data for previously registered voters in Apaa, or to conduct voter education with residents as required by law. And October primary elections to select representatives of special constituencies, such as the youth, elderly and people with disabilities, never took place in Apaa.
“Excluding the people of Apaa village from participating in elections would be the Ugandan government’s most recent violation of their rights,” said Otsieno Namwaya, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch in a statement released by the organization. “The government should take urgent steps to ensure that people in Apaa are able to exercise their right to vote, while also making every effort to resolve the decade-long forced displacement of residents from the disputed land.”
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