BIG INTERVIEW: Lubigi evictions were a painful necessity to prevent greater disasters - NEMA boss.

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BIG INTERVIEW: Lubigi evictions were a painful necessity to prevent greater disasters - NEMA boss.
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NEMA boss defends leaving fuel stations and factories in wetlands but says poor people staying there will endanger the population

BIG INTERVIEW | The recent demolition of homes and evictions carried out by National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) in Kampala’s Lubigi wetland has ignited debate over the fairness and legality of these actions.

While protecting environmentally sensitive wetlands is a legitimate objective, critics argue that NEMA pursued this goal in a highly selective and potentially unjust manner, raising concerns about the rights of ordinary citizens.

In an interview, NEMA's Executive Director Akankwasa Barirega acknowledged the challenges posed by displacing people. He said it was necessary to enforce the law to maintain order, noting that affected individuals had been notified as early as 2016 and 2021 to facilitate peaceful relocation.

Excerpts;

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Why evict the poorest Ugandans in Lubigi now? What's the rationale behind targeting them?

It is sad seeing people being inconvenienced. It is not nice displacing people who are already settled, but as you know, we are required by the law to enforce the law. It is very sad, and we commiserate with the affected people, but if we don’t take this move, the costs are much higher for them and for others.

For example, you saw what happened in Kenya recently; we lost three hundred lives, people were swept away by floods.

So, whereas it is sad to inconvenience people from their shelters, it could have been worse if we got a flood that could claim their lives. We need to do this, however painful it is. It is for the common good of the very people who are inconvenienced and also other Ugandans.

What benefit is there for people like the woman who lost her home after returning from up-country?

Like I said, nobody can be happy with inconveniencing other people. But if we cannot enforce the law, then we shall have anarchy, and everything will be in disarray. Now, it's unfortunate that people were given the notices as far back as 2016, as far back as 2021, to prepare themselves so that they could leave peacefully without all these inconveniences.

But as you know, despite reminders, despite written notices, despite continued awareness, people have not heeded the call to leave peacefully. So we had no choice but to apply inconvenience to have them leave for the benefit of them and the general population.

How many people are being displaced since notices were issued from 2016 and 2021?

Everyone who is within the wetland. I can cross-check the number, but it is more than 300 households.

How many individuals do the 300 households represent?

They could go up to a thousand people, and it is going to cover the entire Lubigi ecosystem. We have a wetland map, which is a historical map with clear boundaries. We follow the boundaries of the ecosystem, and that boundary guides the enforcement. We issued them notices, and they are aware. We have talked to them, and we have put announcements on radios, but despite all these, some people don’t pay heed to leave peacefully.

NEMA ED Barirega Akankwasah

Could you provide a summary of the affected areas?

Lubigi extends to the areas of Busega roundabout, Nakuwadde, Ssentema roundabout, Nansana, Ganda, Naluuma up to Kawaala, Kiwumbiro, Nabisasiro, Bwaise. Those are the areas.

Why did your team enforce the law selectively in Nakuwadde, leaving the police station and fuel station standing, amidst criticism of inconsistent evictions?

There is a different category of infrastructure that is not yet down, but it does not mean that it will not go down. First of all, the operation is still ongoing, so we cannot conclude beyond reasonable doubt that anyone has benefited so far.

Some of these people with such infrastructure received the approval of NEMA in the past; the petrol station has a certificate issued by NEMA in 2017, 2011, and 2020. Now, when the same institution issued these certificates, the same institution cannot come and demolish the structures. That becomes a challenge.

I cannot go and enforce where the law has not been broken. And that is what people are calling selective enforcement, but in our view, it is not selective enforcement because selective enforcement would mean you have committed a crime, and you are left untouched.

Where is the fairness in evicting people with land titles issued by authorities, despite your statement that enforcement only applies to lawbreakers?

The question of land ownership does not arise in our operations because a wetland can be on public land as well as on private land. Since 1995, when the constitution first mainstreamed the protection of wetlands, people have not lost the ownership of their titles.

We are not concerned with who owns what. You can have a valid title to your land, but as long as there is a wetland on that land, the law protects the wetland, and you are stopped from using that wetland the way you want.

How do land titles affect evictions from wetlands? Is this fair?

To build a home on dry land, you don’t require it. It depends on where you are going to build it. If you are going to build it in a lake, yes; if you are going to build on a wetland, yes; if you are going to build on a mountain, yes; if you are going to build in a forest, yes.

How can ordinary people determine where they can legally build?

First of all, unlike forest reserves and national parks where you can find bare land and you may not tell this is a national park unless there are demarcations, for wetlands, God made it easy for everyone to see because a wetland is a place that is seasonally or permanently flooded with water, so you can see that this place is wet.

What distinguishes the situation of a poor woman in Lubigi from a factory owner in Mbale?

The difference is that the factory owner applies to the government, and the government is responsible for regulations of land use as established by law. The factory followed due process and got approval from the government to establish there.

Now, these other ones encroached, in other words, they unlawfully established there. The difference is in the breach and compliance with the law.

Is it fair that along Bombo Road and throughout Luwero, those building factories do so on wetlands?

As I have said before, we use the past to learn and improve how we do things in the future. We cannot dwell on the mistakes of the past to justify a wrong. What you are referring to was a government decision. From September 2, 2021, the decision was taken to protect all the remaining wetlands in Uganda and recover all those that are recoverable where there is illegal encroachment.

Now, the factories which were already established legally following due process of law were exempted from eviction because they did not break any law.

Who suffers and who benefits from environmental abuse?

All of us pay the price for environmental abuse. We now have the capacity through satellite technology to see how a place was up to as far back as 1962. That is why we dispute those claiming that they have been on this land for 60 years, or on this plot for 40 years.

It is not true; we have satellite images that can tell us how this place was 10 years ago, who was there, how many people were there.

NEMA is adamant it will enforce Lubigi wetland restoration to the letter | Courtesy

Who can you evict under the law?

We evict those who have breached the law, and we leave those who have not breached the law. It is as simple as that. For us, we are not looking for the rich or the poor; we are looking for those who have breached the law. So it does not matter to us whether you earn well or have economic power.

Despite the 2021 decision, how are you mitigating environmental impacts from legally established entities?

The effects on the environment, unfortunately, are the same, but you cannot rewind time. You can only recover what you are able to recover. Garden City, Oasis Mall, and Lugogo Rugby Club, all these areas used to be wetlands, but the population has grown.

So now we cannot rewind time, but we cannot say since we have already damaged here, let's also damage the remaining areas. We would be condemning ourselves to death because humanity cannot exist without the ecological services that come with these ecosystems like wetlands.

Are you not disadvantaging poor people in Lubigi compared to those in places like Garden City and Oasis Mall?

As I have said, I cannot rewind time, and I wasn’t there, so I cannot answer for those actions that took place in the past. Before a decision is taken, there are considerations. The decisions that were taken then had considerations, which is why they received a certificate on environmental and social impact. It would mean that the environmental and social impact of that project were assessed and confirmed to be non-detrimental or mitigatable.

There are warehouses established in wetlands along the Northern Bypass, what's the plan for them?

If they were established illegally, they should also be removed, but if they were established legally, I am in support.

You witnessed the recent flooding in the Lugogo area, and it affected high-end locations, including the Mbale factory.

Shouldn't that serve as a lesson for us to learn from and take action?

How can we, as members of the public, support you in this crusade?

We cannot live on this planet without healing it. You have observed the extremes of heat and flooding, not only in distant countries but also within East African countries. You have witnessed the waves of floods.

In fact, God has been merciful to us because we are prepared. We thank God that we are still in the position we are in. What occurred in Kenya, Rwanda, and South Sudan could happen here.

Can you confirm that, during your time at NEMA, you have not issued any licenses to factories?

Absolutely, except for Namanve Industrial Park, which had already been converted, and the areas that had already been backfilled. It was a government decision. For areas where the land was still intact swamps and had not been backfilled, the decision was made to protect the remaining swamps in Namanve.

Therefore, we will not issue certificates, even in the industrial park where the land still consists of intact swamps.

You serve under defined terms, and the office can be held by anyone. Your term could end, you could be reappointed, not reappointed, or dismissed. Can the same policy still apply if your term expires and isn't renewed?

Whether I am at NEMA or not, this is a government position. So it doesn't matter who is at NEMA. The person in that position will still implement government policy unless the government itself changes the policy, which is when the question arises.

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