Strategic Litigation delivers Justice
For eight years Mariam Kyomuhendo moved from one government office to another seeking redress for her land problem. For the most part, the widowed mother of seven begged and borrowed money for transport fare from Ntungamo to Mbarara, a distance of about 70 kilometres to attend meetings at the Administrator General’s office. She was seeking letters of administration for her late husband’s estate after a Local Council III Court declared her and her children the rightful owners of a piece of land in Kamuri, Bwongyera sub-county in Ntungamo district .
What she did not realize was that her monthly appointments in Mbarara were meant to wear her out energies and drain her meager resources. In the end, her in-laws would make the final swoop and subdivide the land that was meant for her children.
The case created additional financial hardship for Kyomuhendo. Allher seven children dropped out of school. The mother -in-law and her sonwere using a forged a will claiming that Kyomuhendo’s father-in-law left her no property and therefore they were the rightful administrators for the estate.
“I would ask them why they never read that will when my husband was still alive. If my late husband had not been given anything, how come his father who died before him, left us on the same land where my late husband later died and we buried him,” Kyomuhendo would ask. They would tell her that she was too poor to make such arguments and no one would listen to her in the end.
The Administrator General, who had initially seemed understanding, later started changing positions. He asked her to make many trips to his office for a period spanning eight years with no resolution. He eventually asked her to provide money for travel his to Ntungamo to assess the land wrangle. “He told my in-laws and I to give him 800,000 Uganda Shillings (266 USD) for him to come and see the land. I pleaded with him that even my children were out of school, I could not afford such a sum of money,” she narrates. Eventually the in-laws provided the money and he decided in their favor.
In 2012, while she calmly waited at home for a final resolution, without any knowledge of the Administrator General’s position the calm erupted into a storm. “One afternoon, my in-laws showed up with a District Police Commander and many armed policemen. They had papers. The District Police Commander ordered me to shut up and sign the papers,” she narrates. She hardly read the papers, but was forced to sign anyway.They started sub-diving the land and planting boundary markers.
She was left with a small piece of land on which her house was standing. Even her pit latrine was not spared. It was parceled and handed to someone else. Her eldest son was building a small house on the land. That too was given away. Within a blink of an eye all the land she had cultivated for more than 20 years was gone.
Kyomuhendo’s neighbours who had been to one of the community outreaches organized by UGANET were furious about complete dispossession of a widow they had lived with for many years. “Someone advised me to go to UGANET. They told me that UGANET would help me recover my land without charging me any money,” she says.
According to Alice Namara, UGANET’s Legal Officer for Western Uganda, what got her attention in relation to Kyomuhendo’s case was the fact that she was a vulnerable widow, whose land had been subdivided into six pieces and redistributed amongst relatives. “She did not have money to hire a private lawyer while the in-laws had money. I really felt that she needed her land back. She needed justice,” saysNamara.
Since she had already been to various government offices including the Chief Administrative Officer’s office, the Administrator General’s office and the police had actually helped in the subdivision of the land, the legal officer decided to file a civil suit in the courts of law.
“We had a full process of hearing, we brought witnesses who gave evidence that the land was given to her in 1989 while the in-laws were saying that their father left a document which was sub-diving the land in 1991. We took the magistrate to the land to verify the boundaries and talk to the neighbors. He eventually gave a judgment was given in her favour,”says Namara
In addition to the land the magistrate awarded Mariam Kyomuhendo 6,000,000 Uganda Shillings (2000USD) as damages for the inconvenience she suffered over eight years, costs of the law suit, an eviction order for her in-laws to vacate the land and a permanent injunction restraining them in-laws from accessing the land again.
Kyomuhendo says that she feels like a big load was lifted off her shoulders. She is still exploring ways of returning her younger children to school.