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Acholi residents turn to witchcraft to settle land cases as court systems fail

Residents sit during a local council court hearing to settle a land dispute. People in Acholi sub-region say courts take long to settle land matters resulting in fights and withcraft. 

Judicial officers in Gulu High Court Circuit on Friday asked stake holders and local leaders to sensitise the community on the benefits of mediation to reduce case back logs and hatred among people in Acholi sub-region.

This call comes at a time when judicial officers and local leaders are battling land conflicts which leaders say has stifled agriculture in the region as most time is spent fighting and using witchcraft to win cases.

Speaking during an interface meeting between the formal and informal justice structures at Doves’ Nest Hotel in Gulu, the Grade one magistrate Selsa Biwaga said court is overwhelmed with cases that could be successfully concluded through mediation at lower levels before reaching the formal court.

The meeting was organized by Action Aid Uganda, Gulu Cluster through Support from Action Aid Australia with funding from Australian government to implement a three-year project in the districts of Amuru and Nwoya to enhance women’s rights to land, peace and justice.

Biwaga believes that court is overwhelmed by land-related cases because mediation has not been embraced to serve its purpose to peacefully resolve conflicts.

“I have about 600 cases to hear and 90 percent are land-related. But there are people who come to court when they are very negative about mediation. We are supposed to hear at least one witness per case but you find a case having 10 witnesses. That means 10 adjournments. This causes delay in justice and a huge backlog for the judicial officers since we are few,” Biwaga said.

Biwaga added that such perception can only be handled through constant community outreach programs to educate people about how court processes may take long to deliver justice due to procedures involved.

Gulu High court circuit has two Grade One magistrates handling civil cases at the Gulu Court Division that serves the entire eight districts of Acholi sub-region.

Biwaga explained that the formal court system may not favor the poor in attaining justice.

“A lot is paid in court which can be avoided through mediation. People who go through mediation are happier. So organisations and leaders should help sensitize on mediation,”

Meanwhile, Matthew Otto, the Kitgum district senior land management officer, said there is a ‘clash’ between the legal and traditional understanding of land which is causing conflict among the educated and the uneducated class of people in Acholi.

Thomas Oloya, a resident of Amuru centre in Amuru District told the meeting that there are tricksters in the community who are surviving on the ignorance of residents to get money in land-related conflicts.

“There are many trickster lawyers in the villages persuading people to go to court. People do not understand the court system and the language the lawyers use is too confusing for a layman to understand.”

Oloya added that some poor people resort to witchcraft and violence because they do not understand the court system and many land cases take too long to end yet land is the major source of production for the majority poor in the villages.

Gulu Grade One Magistrate Selsa Biwaga says mediations are failing leading to overwhelming cases in court.

“Since 2006 when we started returning to the camps, court cases are not ending and people are killing each other. You find families, relatives, with spears and pangas, fighting because of land.”

Oloya advised the legal officers to have precedents in Acholi land matters to avoid community misunderstanding of cases in court.

“Have precedents in Acholi land matters because our tenure system is different and our culture operates differently from the West where most of the precedents in land matters are set.”

Patrick Okello Oryema, Nwoya district Local Council V Chairman called for truth telling among elders for smooth mediation in land matters since they often act as key witnesses.

Mediation is an alternative dispute-resolution mechanism that allows parties entangled in a dispute find a quick solution with the assistance of a neutral third party.

The introduction of mediation in Uganda court system in 2013 was expected to help in swiftly settling cases.

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