Six families in Nyabisindu cell, Remera sector, Gasabo district here in Kigali are desperate. They risk losing their homes and the land on which the houses are built.
A man surfaced in past five years claiming this village is his family’s ancestral land. A first court decision ruled in their favour. The claimant appealed and the High Court agreed with him and he wants each family to pay him Rwf 25m for their piece, or leave so that he sells it to other clients.
What is strange about this case and others which The Chronicles has been investigating, is that both sides claiming a particular piece of land, have legitimate official documents. It is this bizarre state of affairs that risks tearing apart everything built by the current establishment led by the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) and President Paul Kagame.
When Kagame and his RPF rebels were in talks with former government of Juvenal Habyarimana, they introduced a clause allowing Rwandans who had lost their land in first wave of anti-Tutsi expulsions in 1959 and proceeding years, to get it back. However, Habyarimana government position was that only those who had left in last ten years before the talks in 1993, had legitimate claims.
After the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, the RPF and its allies were confronted with a much more complicated situation; on the one hand, more than 2m people had fled RPF arrival and were now back; and on the other side were first time returnees from across the globe. Especially in late 1996 and 1997, the two waves of returnees overlapped.
In September 1996, the Ministry of Agriculture issued an instruction which established communal commissions to find abandoned land for returning refugees and returnees, and allocating it to them on a temporary basis until the return of the owners. By early 2000s, government had put in place a land redistribution scheme called ‘land sharing’.
Under the scheme, post-1994 returnees were given portions of what had been owned by displaced refugees. The returnees also occupied vacant land in Kigali, eastern region and other areas. For those who had left in 1959, they we required not to reclaim all their land abandoned back them.
However, as The Chronicles investigation now shows, the land sharing scheme has for years provoked a bitter, and silent resistance. There are 150 families in another region whom court ordered off their land. Similar cases in other regions.
Back to the 6 families in Kigali, some of them bought the land from people who had legitimately got it under the land sharing scheme. They have central government and Kigali land titles. They found that land completely unoccupied. It was bush.
But then, the claimant showed up and has claimed the land using documents obtained before 1994 granting him ancestral ownership. The land belongs to him because it was family land. And when he presented the case before a court in Gasabo district, the judge concurred.
None of these six families would agree to hold recorded interviews. Privately, some said they suspect the land’s claimant is not doing so because he wants the land. He would have had no problem if the land was owned by “abandi bantu yiyumvamo, atari twebwe” (other people of his preference), they say separately.
To fulfill the seemingly sinister plan, the claimant is using the courts. He is not alone. According to official data from Office of the Ombudsman, the final arbiter after the court system, cases of people contesting the results of the government’s land sharing scheme have been on the rise.
In 2016, the Ombudsman received 2 cases of people who dont agree with the land sharing scheme and want all their land back. The following year, the number increased to 30 cases. And for the 2019, the Ombudsman got 48 cases.
The defiance is becoming ever more open in recent years, and President Kagame is aware of the trend as seen from his angry reaction at a local government retreat on March 28, 2018. On that day, during the interactive session, Mushabe Claudien, Executive Secretary of Matimba Sector, Nyagatare District in north eastern Rwanda, said the courts are causing communal problems by issuing orders which remove land from people who had got it through the land sharing scheme.
Visibly shocked, Kagame interjected and demanded that Justice Minister and Attorney General Johnston Busingye, who was himself in attendance, reigns in the interference of the judiciary in this land sharing policy.
“This was a political issue and was solved politically. It is not a problem to be solved in a court of law,” Kagame said.
“This must stop because if you want to keep it going, then you will reverse everything we have been doing.”
The Minister said at the event that the issue of the judiciary seeking to overturn such a crucial political decision, had been discussed in retreat of all judicial arms held earlier. Busingye said the judiciary had agree to uphold the land sharing policy.
He said: “From Arusha Accords provisions and other laws onward, it is provided that people who fled in 1959, if they come back they will get resettled. We had issues in Nyaruguru, in the West, and East, but we have maintained the initial position.”
The Chronicles probe has found that despite this Kagame reminder that what was decided politically would remain supreme, the courts have not stopped receiving the cases of Rwandans who want all their land as it was before 1994. Some also want all their vast land as they owned it before 1959.
A King’s Chief arrives in Nyaruguru
In Nyaruguru district, southern Rwanda, there is another equally strange case involving over 150 families on one side against four members of a wealthy family on the other side. They are fighting over land spanning over a large area located in Runyombya cell of Busanze Sector. Tempers have flared repeatedly over this land with no end in sight.
The facts of the case are complex and go back topre-independence period when Rwanda was a monarchy. At the time, local chief Sehene from Sovu in Huye was appointed by the King as chief in Nyaruguru. When he arrived there, he grabbed huge chunk of land from local villagers and forced them away.
Following independence, and abolition of the monarch, chief Sehene fled and the land was given back to the people from whom he had grabbed it.
However, in 2010, former Chief Sehene’s son Ntaganda Paul, nephew Ruyonza Assouman and grandchildren Rwabutanga Raymond and Twagiramungu Yohani, all surfaced claiming to have ancestral relations with the chief who owned that land. They petitioned a court which ruled in their favour, and ordered the eviction of the families now settled on the land. This case got so entangled with local politics that bailiffs were brought to evict the hundreds of people. Last year, the families held a noisy demonstration at one point and also allege bribery which we have not confirmed.
The Chronicles was unable to speak to any of former chief Sehene’s family members who want the Nyaruguru land. We also established that the family has more land in Huye. Government ministers have visited this affected Nyaruguru community, but all leave with no answer.
The office of the Ombudsman has failed to find a mutual solution to this Nyaruguru case, like many others. As the situation stands currently, a high-level team with political clout may have to be constituted to solve the fight over this land.
In Bugesera district, we also found another hot potato. Whereas the evicted Nyaruguru families have spoken passionately about their ordeal, those in Bugesera are unbelievably scared to speak about the man who “owns” the land on which they have settled. To complicate an already complicated situation, the Bugesera land is also claimed by Bank of Kigali (BK)
The land in question is located in Biryogo cell, Mayange sector. Charles Rutete claims that he and his family received the land as part of the post-1994 resettlement. They had returned from Burundi.
On the other side, 7 families claim they bought separate portions of the land from Rutete 10 years ago. However, they accuse him of refusing to give them land tranfer documents that would enable them obtain land titles.
A factory Mayange Rice Industries is also facing its own troubles with Rutete on a separate portion. Originally the factory was established by government which expropriated and paid for part of Rutete’s land and other neighbors. In 2016, the factory was privatised. But then Rutete filed a court case claiming new payment from the factory’s new owners.
According to Celilo Nizeyimana, Managing director of the factory, the court dismissed Rutete’s claim for more payment. To fight back, Rutete has refused to provide land transfer documents (mitation). As of writing this story, the factory was preparing to file a new court case to compel Rutete to release the land.
Interviewed separately, some of these families told The Chronicles that Rutete repeatedly threatens them that they are “genocidaires” and will be prosecuted if they continue bothering him. None of the families would accept to be interviewed for the record.
Adelphine Mukahirwa, one of the victims of this land extortion scheme agreed with Rutete for a price of Rwf 1.2m. However, she has had to pay an additional Rwf 100,000 as a bribe to Rutete so that he doesn’t implement his regular threat of selling the land to other buyers. We have proof of the payments.
We put all these cases and accusations to Rutete himself, to which he responded in a short phone conversation that he did not want to discuss anything about that land in the media.
At the moment, there is pending eviction order by Bank of Kigali (BK), which also claims the land was filed by Rutete and his wife in 2012 as collateral for a bank loan.
Before Rutete arrived from Burundi, this land was uninhabited. He got it through the RPF’s land sharing scheme, then families bought from Rutete, Bank of Kigali also bought it from Rutete, as well as a factory. How the fight over this Bugesera land will end is anybody’s guess.
The cases of Gasabo district, Nyaruguru and Bugesera demonstrate various issues boiling underground which could explode if no agreeable long lasting solution is worked out. The cases also show that though the courts cannot be able to settle them, the cases cannot also be very easily handled en-mass by the politicians. Each land fight will have to be handled individually.
The existing land law regime (Law No43/2013 of 16/06/2013 Governing Land In Rwanda) has no definitive solutions as to how land is supposed to be owned. The law actually recognizes the land sharing policy.
Article 42 reads: “A person who, through fraudulent means, occupies vacant and escheat land or other people’s land, cannot invoke the right to prescription to claim definite right on it, even if he/ she has occupied it for a period longer than the prescription period provided under Article 46 of this Law”.
Article 46 explains the Prescription period; “In land related matters, the prescription period shall be thirty (30) years. The prescription shall be ascertained by a decision of a competent court.”
However, the above articles are contractory with Articles 68 and 70 in same law, as these latter give full rights to people who got land through the land sharing scheme.
Article 68 reads: “Land sharing that was carried out between 1994 and 30th June 2012, when the first systematic registration of all lands was completed, is recognized by the law. Holders of such land shall enjoy the same rights as those under customary holdings. A person who could have qualified for land sharing when it was still ongoing, but did not, because of not being in the Country during the land sharing period, may seek for resettlement by the Government. His/her request shall be submitted to the District Authority where his/her land was located. There shall be no compensation in land sharing”.
Article 70 emphasizes that: “This Law recognizes free transfers on land granted by the State as restricted occupation and exploitation right. Nevertheless, for purposes of land registration, such rights shall be converted into emphyteutic lease, after assessment of compliance with prior given conditions”.
The other problem with the current conflicted land ownership regime is that it will in the long run affect investment. You could for example buy 10 hectares from a person who obtained the land through the land sharing scheme, only for somebody to surface claiming they have ancestral ownership over that land. And the new claim could be validated by a court, meaning you lose the land you rightful own.
Deputy Ombudsman in charge of Preventing and Fighting Injustice, Yankulije Odette dismissed the notion that there could be ethnic undertones behind the wrangling over some land. She also played down reports that those disputing the distribution of what they consider their land may actually be expressing opposition to government.
“The rising cases, of people disputing the land sharing scheme, are a result of people who have not fully understood the policy,” said Yankulije. “People like ancestry so much and will often stand ground that ‘I have to live on all my ancestors’ land’, when in actual sense there is no meaningful economic activity on the land. Even when they win in court, you find the land idle. It is that desire to appear to be owning ancestral land which is making more land cases to appear.”
Another set of cases over land being handled by the Ombudsman that are emerging, are those borne as a result of the mass release of genocide convicts from jails. When they arrive in the villages, they find government has given away their land. When told the land was shared out, “they will resist saying they were not there when the distribution was being done and so it is not applicable,” says the Ombudsman.
The office of the Ombudsman says the only viable way disagreements over land sharing will be solved sustainably is through mediation of the warring parties, and that each land case will need to be handled on a case by case basis.
Yankulije said: “You have to understand that the job of the court is to look at the facts on paper and pronounce who won and who lost. In our society today, with regard to the land issue, there should be no winner or loser. The issue has to be handled in such a way that everyone feels accommodated.”
Meanwhile, back to the 6 families in Kigali highlighted at the beginning of this story, they did not want to speak in detail or be quoted, because they have also petitioned the Ombudsman for intervention to stop the land claimant.