By PATRICK JARAMOGI
KAMPALA, Uganda|SHIFTMEDIA| The battle to save Bugoma forest rages on. The latest in the case is the quitting over hearing of the case by “controversial” judge Justice Musa Ssekaana.
Ssekaana is the Head of the High Court Civil Division, a post he took over recently.
There was thunderous applause and merry moments when Justice Ssekaana announced that he was pulling out of the case.
The climate and environment activists led by lawyer Eron Kizza and Counsel Hussein Muyinda had for long felt ‘cheated’ by having Ssekaana hear the Bugoma forest case. They felt he would be biased.
The hearing before Justice Musa Ssekaana at the High Court Civil Division located In Kampala on Wednesday followed a case filed by Resource Rights Africa(RRA), The Environment Shield and Uganda Law Society(ULS).
The above on May 18th 2021 suit, served Hoima Sugar, National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) Uganda & other Respondents in the right to a clean and healthy environment suit.
The lawyers among others sought for 20 declarations and 4 orders including an environmental restoration order provided by The National Environment Act, 2019 that Hoima Sugar Limited not only has consistently breached but also refused to even reference in the deeply flawed and falsehoods replete Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) report it submitted to NEMA on 6th July 2020.
The observed that NEMA hastily approved the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) on 14th August, 2020 – without public consultations and the public hearing of the controversial land use change of BUGOMA FOREST it okayed merited – allegedly due to COVID-19 strictures.
Why the rush to approve the project?
The deforestation of Bugoma Forest landscape has since 2016 been riddled with impunity. “Heights of repression trigger heights of resistance.”
“The earth and its pristine natural resources like Bugoma Forest is our home, medicine, food, health, and livelihood. We have to defend it against the powerful and greedy enemies after its assets as had played out in the deforestation of the transboundary natural asset called Bugoma Forest,” noted Eron Kizza.
The activists noted that most sins against BUGOMA FOREST landscape have been committed by Hoima Sugar Limited and its agents like MARTIN ARYAGARUKA but equally sinning is the government and her environmental watchdog NEMA that have turned a blind eye as the company violates law upon law, Regulations upon Regulations and directives upon directives with undisguised impunity and contempt for the law and the people of Uganda.
Hoima Sugar has even failed to adhere to the very low standards set by NEMA on 14th August, 2021 – again – with undisguised impunity. It has refused to obtain the relevant approvals and technical guidance from the concerned government agencies and departments.
“We need to stand up for our forests, land, lakes and other natural resources against the criminal gangs in government and private sector,” echoed the activists.
The Bugoma Forest Deforestation lawsuit and violation of the rights to a clean and healthy environment was filed on 18th May 2021 in the High Court of Kampala with reference cause 151 of 2021 by Uganda Law Society, The Environmental Shield and Resource Right Africa versus Hoima Sugar, NEMA, the Attorney General and Martin Aryagaruka.
The case was born out of gross irregularities in the way Hoima Sugar acquired a certificate of approval by NEMA on 14th August 2020 which allowed the company to start the deforestation of 5,779 hectares out of the total 41,144 hectares of Bugoma Central Forest Reserve. While up to date the land title of Hoima Sugar – Omukama of Bunyoro for 5779 hectares is still pending the request of cancellation by https:/Ministry of Water and Environment the Uganda Land Commission as published on the newspaper on 27th August 2021, Hoima Sugar went ahead to deforest Bugoma Forest.
Why Ssekaana’s quitting is good move
On the same date of 18th May when the lawsuit was filed, a High Court (Civil Division) Registrar allocated the matter to Hon. Justice Boniface Wamala.
However, months later Hon. Justice Musa Ssekaana, who had already decided a related matter on Bugoma Forest, called and allocated that matter to himself without consulting or involving any of the parties on record.
Justice Musa Ssekaana on 7th May 2020 issued the ruling on Cause number 239 and Cause number 255 of 2020 by WEMNET, NAPE and Africa Institute For Energy Governance (AFIEGO) versus National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) and Hoima Sugar Limited in which the Court dismissed the application stating that it was based on “unsubstantiated allegations to win public sympathy” and trying to mislead the court.
The Court while analyzing weather NEMA committed irregularities in the application of the Regulations governing Environmental Impact Assessments, states that the relevant stakeholders were consulted by NEMA and their opinions were taken into consideration. The stakeholders include National Forestry Authority (NFA), Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), 81 residents in the area of Bugoma forest (Nsozi) and even the civil society organizations themselves.
“We couldn’t allow the same Judge who judged the case against Hoima Sugar in favor of Hoima Sugar and who denied any urgency to protect the environment hear the same matter,” said the Earth Rights Initiative (ERA) Executive Director Hussein Muyinda.
Eron Kizza said; “We request that Justice acts fast and protects the citizens of Uganda against the destruction of Bugoma Forest. It is not tolerable that such an urgent matter is not dealt with the urgency that is required.”
Hoima Sugar before acquiring the certificate to operate a sugar cane project in Bugoma Forest didn’t obtain the opinion of the relevant stakeholders, including UWA. NFA and Kikuube District.
On 21st July 2020 UWA wrote to NEMA that the area of Bugoma Forest under the proposed sugar cane project is very rich in biodiversity with key wildlife species and strongly and unanimously condemned the conversion of the natural forest into sugar cane plantation.
Scores of chimpanzees, residents killed
Since the deforestation of Hoima Sugar started in August 2020 a lot of criminality and illegalities have become rampant in the whole of Bugoma forest area, as a direct consequence of the degradation caused by Hoima Sugar.
Endangered chimpanzees were killed on 27th September 2021 and a case of wildlife crime is open by Uganda Wildlife Authority. Unarmed civilians have also been killed by the military personnel of Hoima Sugar only because of making communal use of some forest products, like the killing on 25th October 2021 of Byenzi Christopher from Kyabasara village, who was shot dead while collecting mushrooms unarmed in the forest.
Illegal logging looms
The current situation regarding Illegal logging is so alarming.
Hoima Sugar is openly providing space, protection and logistic for the criminal business to prosper. “We would like to further request the Government of Uganda to take action as following: Uganda is now a signatory of the COP26 Glasgow agreement engaging countries to end deforestation by 2030 as a matter of climate emergency to mitigate climate change.”
“We would like to request the Government of Uganda to start committing to the already signed agreement by stopping the deforestation of 5770 hectares of Bugoma Forest by Hoima Sugar and any further deforestation,” noted a joint communique issued after the court case.
Vikman Proscovia from the Climate Action Network (CAN-U) urged media not to relent but keep reporting about the save Bugoma forest. She also urged development partners such as World Bank to prevail against Uganda to halt any further forest destruction at Bugoma.
Who is Justice Ssekaana
Justice Musa Ssekaana is the new Head of the High Court Civil Division. , He is charged with the responsibility of allocating the suits filed in the court to appropriate judges for adjudication.
In December 2019, the former Principal Judge Dr. Yorokamu Bamwine transferred Justice Ssekaana to Mbarara as resident Judge. However, his predecessor, Dr Zeija reversed the transfers after receiving numerous petitions.
Ssekaana bounced back to the High Court Civil Division. Prior to his appointment as a Judge in 2018 by President Yoweri Museveni, Ssekaana was practicing law in his private firm “Ssekaana Associated Advocates and Consultants in Uganda.
Ssekaana holds a Bachelor’s of Laws Degree from Makerere University, Master’s in Law from the University of the West Indies- Cave Hill Campus in Barbados and a Diploma in Legal Practice from the Law Development Centre in Kampala.
He has delivered various judgments during the current Covid-19 lockdown. His recent judgment was on a petition challenging the 2016 police raid on Nakasero mosque in Kampala. He faulted police for raiding the mosque without a search warrant contrary to the Police Act.