• Indigenous peoples in Uganda

    Indigenous peoples in Uganda

    The indigenous peoples of Uganda include the Benet, the Batwa, the Ik, the Karamojong, and the Basongora, although they are not recognised specifically as indigenous peoples by the Government of Uganda.
  • Population

    Batwa peoples: 6,700
    Benet peoples: 8,500
    Ik peoples: 13,939
    Basongora peoples: 15,897
    Karamojong peoples: 988,429
  • Rights

    2007: Uganda is absent during the voting on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Challenges

    Indigenous peoples in Uganda experiences many different challenges revolving land and marginalisation

Indigenous World 2019: Uganda

Indigenous peoples in Uganda include former hunter/gatherer communities, such as the Benet and the Batwa, also known as Twa. They also include minority groups such as the Ik, the Karamojong and the Basongora who are not recognised specifically as indigenous peoples by the government.

The Benet, who number slightly over 8,500, live in the north-eastern part of Uganda. The 6,700 or so Batwa, who live primarily in the south-western region, were dispossessed of their ancestral land when Bwindi and Mgahinga forests were gazetted as national parks in 1991.1 The Ik number about 13,939 and live on the edge of the Karamoja/Turkana region along the Uganda/Kenya border. The Karamojong people live in the north-east numbered 1,025,8002 at the time of the 2014 national census. The Basongora numbering 15,897 are a cattle-herding community living in the lowlands adjacent to Mt. Rwenzori in Western Uganda.

All these communities have a common experience of state-induced landlessness and historical injustices caused by the creation of conservation areas in Uganda. They have experienced various human rights violations, including continued forced evictions and/or exclusions from ancestral lands without community consultation, consent or adequate (or any) compensation; violence and destruction of homes and property, including livestock; denial of their means of subsistence and of their cultural and religious life through their exclusion from ancestral lands and natural resources; and resulting in their continued impoverishment, social and political exploitation and marginalisation.

The 1995 Constitution offers no express protection for indigenous peoples, but Article 32 places a mandatory duty on the state to take affirmative action in favour of groups that have been historically disadvantaged and discriminated against. This provision, which was initially designed and envisaged to deal with the historical disadvantages of children, people with disabilities and women, is the basic legal source of affirmative action in favour of indigenous peoples in Uganda.3 The Land Act of 1998 and the National Environment Statute of 1995 protect customary interests in land and traditional uses of forests. However, these laws also authorise the government to exclude human activities in any forest area by declaring it a protected forest, thus nullifying the customary land rights of indigenous peoples.4

Uganda has never ratified ILO Convention No. 169, which guarantees the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples in independent states, and it was absent in the voting on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007.

Extensive land debate in Uganda

The year 2018 was characterised by extensive land debate in the media and rural communities. Land grabbing kept the Commission of Inquiry into Land Matters busy. People are worried over the ongoing demand by the state to amend the Constitution and the Land Act to allow compulsory acquisition of land by government for public investments without prior consent of the land owner. The Uganda Constitution of 1995 (Article 237) vests land in the citizens. It provides for four land tenure systems under which land can be owned as customary, freehold, Mailo, or leasehold. The Uganda National Land Policy (2013) and the draft Rangeland Management Policy are the documents that deal with land issues of pastoral communities. Both underline that the state shall exercise the power of public regulation of land use in the interest of socio-economic welfare and development.5 The National Land Policy affirms that the land rights of pastoral communities will be guaranteed and protected by the state, among other things, by ensuring that pastoral lands are held, owned and controlled by designated pastoral communities as a common property under customary tenure.

The land situation of the Karimojong people

Karamoja sub-region in north-eastern Uganda occupies 27,000 square miles and is currently inhabited by approximately 1.4 million diverse people – most of whom speak the Nga’karimojong language. It is environmentally, socially, politically and economically different from the rest of Uganda. Being largely dryland, its economy has traditionally been based on livestock complemented by opportunistic crop cultivation.

Since colonial days, the government of Uganda has gazetted 40.8% of Karamoja land for wildlife protection, 12.5% for forestry conservation and as of 2010 had given mining concessions on 24.8% of the land according to a 2010 report.6 Other lands are now covered by urban centres, schools and health centres. Although the above land uses overlap, it is evident that the Karimojong are substantially deprived of their land.

In Karamoja, over 99% of the land is under customary land tenure. Most Karimojong have hitherto not had land titles under any of the tenure systems. The situation is beginning to change though. For example, during the Karamoja Cultural Day on 1 September 2018, the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development issued over 168 Certificates of Communal Ownership to clans in the Kaabong district. The event was attended by about 5,000 people from Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda. Other activities included dialogue on land, pastoralism, gender and culture.

In August 2018 it was reported in The Daily Monitor newspaper that “Rupa locals and residents of Moroto district accused the President of grabbing land using local elites”.7 This was because some investors, ministers and local leaders were allegedly using the head of state’s name to create fear among the local people. The protesting residents rejected a plan by one Mr Kodet to Ateker Cement factory on a piece of land measuring 442 hectares on the mineral-rich land in Rupa. Residents insisted they had not been consulted about the project. Attempts by the Minister of State for Ethics Hon. Fr. Simon Lokodo (himself a Karimojong) to address residents on the issue failed as the people turned rowdy and accused the President of using Mr Kodet to grab their land.8

Criminalisation of land actors

During 2018, several people were accused by security agencies of allegedly fuelling the land rights demand for rural people. One Lokiru John Bosco, the Chairman of the Loyoro sub-county, was alleged to have mobilised the local community to boycott the demands of Ateker Cement Limited to start extracting limestone before prior consultation and environmental impact assessment were conducted. In Rupa sub-county, Mr. Nangiro Simon, the Chairman of the Karamoja Elders Association and the coordinator of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) political party, was accused because of doing land rights advocacy for the Karamojong people. He was accused by security personnel of promoting insecurity in the area.

Situation of pastoralists living in mining sites

Despite the abundant resource wealth of Karamoja (livestock, minerals and people), people still live in abject poverty depending on relief food during most of the dry seasons. The minerals are extracted by both locals and non-locals and no value is added locally. The processing takes place in other parts of the country like Jinja, Tororo and Mbale.

The local population can only access lowly paid manual work where even children are employed. For example, in the marble quarry and many other mining sites of Karamoja most of the activities are done by children below the age of 14. Children are paid a small amount of UGX10,000 (about USD2.7) per truck to crush stones and load a five-ton truck. To make matters worse, payment is made in the form of sachets of a local potent gin. The involvement of children to work in the mines is contrary to Ugandan as well as international labour laws and policies as well as international soft laws like the ILO Minimum Age for Employment Convention No. 138 (1973), which sets the minimum age for children to work at 15 years. For work considered hazardous, the minimum age is 18.

During the Karamoja Policy Committee Dialogue in the C&D hall in Moroto on 6 December 2018, Hon. Achia Remigio the Member of Parliament for the Pian Constituency called on the Ministries of Karamoja Affairs and Minerals and Energy Development to stop issuing and activating mining licenses in the region without the knowledge of the Karamoja Parliamentary Group (KPG).

Defending indigenous Batwa rights

It is now 28 years since the Batwa were evicted from their ancestral lands without free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) and their situation is still very precarious. They continuously face human rights violations like rape, defilement, torture and abuse. In 2018, their situation continued to be characterised by landlessness, poverty, marginalisation, very poor levels of education and inadequate representation at all levels.

In view of the violations listed above, the Batwa in 2013 filed a petition in the Constitutional Court of Uganda (C/s No 003 of 2013). The petition was largely a call to draw the government’s attention to the Batwa’s prolonged and continuous suffering since their eviction from the forests in 1991 affected unspecified numbers of Batwa families. Unfortunately, this case has been delayed.

The Batwa now have very limited access to the forests, and in the rare cases when they are allowed to enter the forest to collect firewood or medicinal plants, they are always accompanied by a guard. Anyone violating the rules risks being shot at or being punished heavily including imprisonment.9

Positive actions in 2018 have contributed to defending Batwa rights – even though these have not been adequate to wipe out the above violations.

The United Organization for Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU) has put up some measures to reduce the human rights violations of the Batwa. In 2018 it trained Batwa women rights defenders from each of their communities so that they can fight and reduce human rights violations at the community level by working hand in hand with the local leaders and the police.

There were no Batwa in positions of influence that can speak for their people. For the first time though, the village council elections of 2018 saw a few Batwa elected as their village representatives.

The ongoing review of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) Bill looks among other things at addressing conflicts between wildlife and people in the vicinity of the National Parks. However, the draft does not address the indigenous peoples’ issues.

Those who defend and fight for the rights of indigenous peoples put their lives at stake as they end up being threatened, tortured, imprisoned, interrogated, falsely accused and even have their bank accounts frozen. During the last district council meeting of 2018, one of the councillors pointed out that the UOBDU receives a lot of funding and thus should be audited. This is not the only accusation in recent years. Several politicians have threatened to have UOBDU closed on allegations that it does not fulfil its obligations to the Batwa.

These allegations have been overcome by the UOBDU through the sharing of its budgets, activities and work plans with the district authorities who in turn have found that the UOBDU is implementing its obligations.

Despite the existence of various actors like Defend the Defenders, the Uganda Human Rights Network and many others that aim to protect human rights defenders, the majority of them are situated in the capital city and have little presence upcountry so that they are unable to adequately advocate for players at the local level.

The situation of the Basongora people

The Basongora people live in the Kasese district of Western Uganda. They occupy the lowlands to the south and south-east of Mt. Rwenzori. The year 2018 was characterised by unfulfilled promises on the part of government as far as the community was concerned. In June 2018 the Prisons Service communicated that in 2007 it had ceded 3,500 acres previously used for two prison farms of Ibuga and Mubuku in the Kasese district and had given it to the landless Basongora community.

Although there was a cabinet directive for the land to be allocated to the Basongora, no efforts were made to survey it, boundaries were not demarcated and titles were not issued to those who were to be its owners. Consequently, the Basongora have never accessed said land, notwithstanding a court order of 30 August 2016 to the Uganda Land Commission. As a result of the delay, it was noted by the KTA Advocates, who are the lawyers representing the community, that serious conflicts had arisen which threaten peace. In a letter from the KTA Advocates to the Uganda Land Commission dated 19 December 2018, lawyers observed that it has also led to the “rising of several court cases by unscrupulous people as a way of grabbing these lands assisted by corrupt elements in the Local Government administration.” It is not certain when the community will be able to access the land.

Dialogue with government

The Government of Uganda made efforts in 2018 to understand the situation of the indigenous people. On 20 February 2018, the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, conducted a one-day workshop in Kampala. It sought to enhance the development of its indigenous population in accordance with its Vision 2030 policy under the theme “Leaving no one behind”. The workshop was partnered with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA).

After the meeting, the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development conducted community consultations across the country to establish who the indigenous peoples/communities in Uganda are, their numbers and aspirations. On 25 and 26 April 2018 follow-up meetings were held in Benet and Bukwo whereby the community gave its input on matters of concern, including especially land rights. They also proposed possible solutions to the issues.

From 12-14 June 2018, the Ministry had a national dialogue with the indigenous people of Uganda at Labamba county resort where a position paper was presented to the State Minister for Gender, Labour and Social Development, Ms Peace Mutuso. In her remarks she said that the indigenous people should enrol their children in schools if they are to get involved in development. She also said that it was not possible that the indigenous people like the Benet and Batwa get back their forest lands, but that they should continue dialogue with government. This statement conflicted with an earlier court judgement that called upon government to allow the Benet access to the forest.

On a positive note, a National Dialogue on the Rights of Indigenous Communities/Populations and Extractive Industries in Uganda was held from 27-28 November 2018 in Kampala. It was spearheaded by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), co-hosted by the Uganda Human Rights Commission and supported by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA).

The dialogue was attended among others by commissioners from the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, the Justice Law and Order Sector (JLOS), the Equal Opportunities Commission and other government representatives. The dialogue noted challenges affecting indigenous communities in Uganda and made several important recommendations to the Government of Uganda as well as to other stakeholders.10

Notes and references

  1. United Organisation of Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU), Report about Batwa data. August 2004, Uganda, p.3.
  2. Uganda Bureau of Statistics 2016, National and Housing and Population Census 2014. Available at: http://bit.ly/2T99r4L
  3. Minority Rights Group International (MRG), 2001, Uganda: The marginalization of Minorities (p.9), Available at: http://bit.ly/2T8RFOU
  4. Land Act (1998), Articles 2, 32; and National Environment Statute (1995), Article 46.
  5. Uganda Constitution 1995, Uganda National Land Policy 2013 and Draft Rangeland Management and Pastoralism Policy
  6. See “Tenure in Mystery: Status of Land under Wildlife, Forestry and Mining Concessions in Karamoja Region, Uganda,” available at: http://bit.ly/2T8KcQ2
  7. See The Daily Monitor, “Moroto residents accuse president Museveni of grabbing their land,” available at: http://bit.ly/2DIzcON
  8. See The Daily Monitor, “Moroto residents accuse president Museveni of grabbing their land,” available at: http://bit.ly/2DIzcON
  9. See Survival International “Uganda: Batwa “Pygmy” faces prison in the name of conservation,” available at: http://bit.ly/2T3XInX
  10. For the Final Communique of the National Dialogue please, see: http://bit.ly/2Tc8MzC

AU (African Union). 2010. Policy Framework for Pastoralism in Africa: Securing, Protecting and Improving the Lives, Livelihoods and Rights of Pastoralist Communities. African Union, Addis Ababa. Available at: http://bit.ly/2T7nxnf

Stites, E., and D. Akabwai. 2009. Changing Roles, Shifting Risks: Livelihood Impacts of Disarmament in Karamoja, Uganda. Feinstein International Centre, Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Available at: http://bit.ly/2T6noQQ

Uganda Bureau of Statistics, 2016 Statistical Abstract, Kampala 2017.

Benjamin Mutambukah is the outgoing Coordinator of the Coalition of Pastoralists Civil Society Organisations and has great passion for the equality and equity of marginalised peoples.

Contributions from: Yesho Alex Arapsamson (Chairman, Mt. Elgon Benet Indigenous Ogiek Ndorobos), Mungech Chebet (Coordinator Mt. Elgon Benet Indigenous Ndorobos), Loupa Pius (Project Officer, Dodoth Agro-pastoralist Developement Organisation), Penninah Zaninka (Coordinator, United Organization for Batwa Development in Uganda) and Edith Kamakune is a human rights and conflict resolution practitioner in Uganda.



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

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