Nelly Bassily | February 22, 2010
Beatrice Okayo is standing near her kitchen hut, preparing to do some farm work. She cleans mud from the blades of her farm tools. Nearby is a small piece of land where she grows cassava and maize. She points to another plot of land. “Are you seeing that piece of land from there to there?” asks Ms. Okayo. A soldier from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA, took it from her by force, she explains.
Ms. Okayo lives and farms in Nimule. It is the chief town of the Madi community in Southern Sudan, bordering Uganda. During Sudan’s long civil war, the Madi community hosted SPLA soldiers and people displaced by the violence. Ms. Okayo allowed a soldier from the SPLA to live on a piece of her land.
Sudan’s peace agreement was signed in 2005. Displaced people returned home. But in a hangover of lawlessness, many Southern Sudanese have seen their land illegally seized. The land in Madi is known for being fertile and free from mosquitoes. This made it a prime target for land grabbing.
Ms. Okayo asked the soldier to vacate her land so that she could resume farming. But he refused. He threatened to kill her if she reported him to any authority. She says there is too much grabbing of other people’s land in Nimule.
Another case involves a Somali petroleum company. The company built petrol stations on communal land reserved for farming activities. It is alleged that Major General Wilson Deng, a commander within the SPLA, sold the land to Somali investors.
The Madi community was determined to stop the company. Community elders summoned Mr. Deng, but he refused to make an appearance.
The community formed a group to follow up on the matter, headed by their chief, Alfred Gore. They issued a press release, hoping to encourage the government of Southern Sudan to intervene. The Juba Post published the community’s statement. This provoked Mr. Deng to arrest the journalist, who was later released with the help of media advocates.
Mr. Deng was reached for comment at his home in Juba. He said he fought for the rights of the people of Southern Sudan as part of the SPLA. “How can I again turn my back against the same principles of liberation which I risked my life for?” he asked. Mr. Deng dismissed the accusations against him as ethnic politics meant to taint his name.
At the time of publication (June 2009), Mr. Deng had yet to respond in court to the alleged land grab. It was clear to the Madi community that land grabbing was on the rise, and that the government of Southern Sudan had yet to formulate and enforce policies to stop it.
Chief Alfred Gore did not believe that the legal system would solve the problem. He said the community was prepared to demonstrate if the government of Southern Sudan failed to act on their behalf.