By PATRICK JARAMOGI
ATIAK- SHIFTMEDIA- When the word Atiak is mentioned, it rings a bell, perhaps you will (for those who have been around) remember it for the infamous April 2005 massacre (Atiak_massacre) when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels stormed and abducted scores of children, before executing hundreds of others.
Or, perhaps the mind rings for Atiak Sugar Factory, and recently of the Atiak Sugar fires.
For today I will mainly dwell on the latter, the Sugar factory, and the fires. In the scope of less than 24 months, the Atiak Sugar factory located in Amuru district has suffered seven different fire attacks with no clues, or arrests made so far.
This is the reason we pitched camp in Amuru, and surrounding areas to dig deeper into the main cause of these “mysterious fires”.
But why are we so interested in these fires anyway? Mainly for two reasons, when Dr. Amina Harsi, mostly known by many as the proprietor of Oasis Mall, and the posh Laburnum Courts in Nakasero decided to start the Atiak Sugar factory in 2012 as she was being recognized by the Uganda Women Entrepreneurs Association (UWEAL), she promised that women would be at the rim of the factory.
The second reason is that this plant located some 85kms along the Gulu Nimule highway received public funds to the tune of over USD17.4m (Ugx64b) after behind the scene negotiations.
When the project delayed due to inadequate funds, President Museveni instructed that government owns shares through the Uganda Development Corporation.
Finance Minister Matia Kasaija confirmed to us that in May 2018 government invested in shs20billion to own 10.1% and again invested further shs45billion to raise the shares to the current 32%.
So we are talking of investment to the tune of over shs130billion (tax payers money). With all these huge investments, it is worthy investigating why the project is dogged with massive challenges including rampant mysterious fires.
The capacity of Atiak Sugar
Sitting on over 6,000 acres of land, Atiak Sugar is supposed to crush at least 20,000 tonnes of cane daily producing over 70,000 tonnes of sugar. The reality on the ground is different. Though the factory was to be officially commissioned in 2016, it was commissioned last year 2020 by President Museveni as he campaigned in northern Uganda.
Amina Hersi Moghe in an earlier interview said the plant would employ at least 1,500 locals and an additional 6,000 out-growers owning over 15,000 acres from the surrounding districts of Oyam, Nwoya, Gulu, and Amuru.
What went wrong?
In 1996 Lanam Okello was 10 years old when she was abducted as a child soldier by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels (LRA). After 8 years of torture, sexual abuse, and mutilation, she managed to escape in 2004. She and scores of others were airlifted back into Uganda to start a new life.
Lanam who talked to us with tears running her face said she was 18 when she returned. She and hundreds of other abductees, many maimed, with either one ear, a mouth, or nose cut begun to start a new life.
“When the issue of Atiak Sugar factory came on board we were optimistic as captives to lead better lives,” said Lanam.
As captives, they formed the War Victims and Children’s Networking that brings together close to 10,000 former captives.
Lanam, who chairs this group and also coordinates other war captives from across Uganda said with hopes high, they were promised “heaven” on earth. “Being poor, we started to toil the gardens. Remember most of our members are widows, some child mothers with kids to take care of.” Lanam said in their database, they have 3042 registered members, of which 450 are registered as out-growers of Atiak Sugar.
“Why should we be tormented twice, even on our land? Our members were promised shs10,000 a day by Amina, but after two weeks of hard labour, they were paid only shs10,000 each,” said Lanam. “Instead of paying them shs140,000, they were paid shs10,000. Many who had left their kids with their husbands were divorced, similarly, the husbands lost wives,” explained Lanam.
She said: “The captives are already wounded, they are in pain, that is why they perhaps opted to burn the sugar cane.” “They said let’s all lose out.”
Indeed Amina’s Horal Investment Company Ltd is counting losses after over 600 acres of its sugar plantation in Atiak sub-county, Amuru district was burnt by unknown people. Sugar-project-suffers-another-fire-incident/
Flex Nyero a politician from Gulu warned that unless the plight of the people in Acholi is addressed, Atiak Sugar project will remain a “white elephant”.
“You can run away from police arrest, but you can’t run away from curses from people. These captives were tortured for years, many were mercilessly raped, others are disabled due to torture, and you joke with their hard-earned money,” fumed Nyero.
He castigated Hon Dan Kidega the former East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) Speaker, who is the Board Chair for Atiak Sugar Works for not minding his people.
“Kidega and Amina’s son Mohammed chewed the money meant for these innocent war captives. These are curses, Kidega has so far suffered two fatal accidents, does he know why?” he said.
Nyero told this reporter he had personally presented a dossier to president Museveni regarding delayed payments of the war captives.
“When the President received my report, he called Amina, but Amina said Kidega and her son would be in a better position to explain the missing funds,” said Nyero. Our efforts to get a comment from Amina, whom we gathered is out of the country remained futile. Though she received our queries on her whatsup number, she didn’t respond to them.
How much is being demanded?
According to Lanam, the 450 members are demanding shs902 million for the services offered in years. “Initially we were promised shs40million for each block of sugarcane planted. Sugar cane takes 18 months, we have never been paid fever since the project began,” said Lanam.
She said unless what they are demanding is paid, nothing much will happen. ”Our sons and daughters were promised jobs but now we see mainly Somalis in the factory, this is wrong and must be addressed.”
“Currently they are now importing canes daily from Kamuli to ensure the plant remains running, but think of the costs here, is it sustainable?” asked Lanam.
Though Dan Kidega said he can’t rule out acts of arsons by people or competitors opposed to project, Daily Monitor., he perhaps needs to sit and hold dialogue with his people, especially even when issues of land compensation still remain unresolved.