The government’s ambitious plans to develop the Source of the Nile in Jinja have triggered a significant controversy, as they involve the acquisition of land and properties, including homes, hotels, and industries. This proposed acquisition, if approved, could become the largest compulsory land acquisition in the country’s history, with the affected landowners claiming potential losses in the trillions of shillings.
Exactly 165 years after John Speke’s historic discovery of the Source of the Nile, Doreen Katusiime, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Tourism, penned a letter to Njeru LC3 chairperson outlining the government’s development plans for the same location. However, the contents of Katusiime’s letter have left the Nile’s landlords fuming with anger.
Katusiime’s letter detailed plans for infrastructure improvements to diversify tourism offerings and promote the site as a premier tourist destination. The government proposed acquiring land within a 10km stretch and 400m from the water banks, encompassing areas like Bugungu prison and Rippon Falls, where developments would be situated. However, landowners vehemently oppose these plans.
Landowners argue that the government has not provided sufficient information about the project, making it unclear how it aligns with the requirements for compulsory land acquisition outlined in Article 26 of the Constitution. They also claim that the acquisition is a fraudulent scheme orchestrated by influential land grabbers in the government to dispossess them of their private properties and sell them to developers at exorbitant prices.
Government officials, including Ms. Katusiime and Mr. Daudi Migereko, the chairperson of the Uganda Tourism Board, deny allegations of land grabbing and emphasize the adherence to constitutional guidelines.
The Source of the Nile in Jinja, despite its global geographical significance and tourism potential, has remained largely undeveloped. Makeshift structures serve as the primary tourist attractions, and the iconic Ripon Falls are now submerged due to the construction of Owen Falls Dam in 1954.
Amid this desolation, there have been disputes over land ownership, with a retired Supreme Court judge unsuccessfully attempting to claim land from another individual, backed by a high-ranking military general. Many parts of the riverbank downstream remain undeveloped and decked with canopies as they were in John Speke’s era.
Approximately 25km downstream, Busowooko Falls, a growing tourist attraction, lacks infrastructure and proper facilities for visitors. It has come to light that politicians, including a member of the First Family, have acquired land along the riverbank at Busowooko Falls. The government has recently initiated a Shs15 billion project to construct a glass-viewing pier extending into the Nile waters from the Source.
Despite the untapped potential, tourism in Jinja has been left to develop on its own. Nonetheless, the tourism sector has experienced steady growth, attracting an estimated 1.5 million tourists annually and contributing 7.7 percent to Uganda’s GDP.
To address land ownership and valuation concerns, Ms. Katusiime introduced Strategic Friends International (SFI), a consultancy firm, to undertake a resettlement action plan. However, the River Nile Land Grabbing Frontier, an association of landowners, criticized SFI for starting mapping activities without prior consultation.
The group’s frustration escalated when SFI began marking properties in areas like Amber Court, which included various companies and hotels. This prompted the landlords to challenge the government’s intentions, especially concerning the 400m radius of land acquisition.
The government maintains that the valuation process will determine the appropriate compensation for landowners. They are currently conducting town hall meetings with the community to explain the project’s concept and process.
The River Nile Land Grabbing Frontier asserts that SFI’s activities in Nalufenya Parish, Amber Court, Kimaka, Jinja City, and Naminya North Parish amount to trespass. They are determined to challenge the ministry’s plans within the legal framework.
Land ownership disputes and protests over land issues are not uncommon in Uganda, with Article 26(1) of the Constitution emphasizing the right to own property. However, it allows expropriation only for “public use,” subject to specific conditions. Some landowners argue that tourism development can occur without displacing people unless it serves national defense or public safety purposes.
The government faces the challenge of managing land acquired from citizens, which often remains underutilized. The landlords argue that the Tourism Ministry should first focus on developing the immediate Source of the Nile before considering the acquisition of private land.
According to Ms. Katusiime, the construction of a glass pier is a pivotal project to transform Jinja into a world-class tourism destination. However, the controversy surrounding land acquisition remains a significant obstacle to this vision.