By Mark Michael
St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Ndeeba, Uganda, a Kampala suburb, was demolished overnight on August 10 as the climax of an ongoing dispute over the title to the land on which it was constructed. Three local police officers who had been dispatched to guard the building have been charged with failing to provide security. A further 11 people found at the scene were arrested for malicious damage to property and violation of COVID-19 related curfews. An excavator discovered at the church has been impounded by police.
“This barbaric act of destruction is evil,” said Archbishop Stephen Kazimba, the Ugandan primate, who gave an on-site press conference on August 11. “If an action can’t be done in broad daylight, then there is something deeply wrong; we have lost respect for God. This destruction of the House of God took place in the darkness of night during a curfew; and the security forces, who are supposed to uphold the law and guard against destroyers, were allegedly complicit in the destruction of a House of God.”
The church demolition has caused an uproar across Uganda. The country’s lands minister Betty Kamya vowed that “all those involved would be dealt with decisively because their actions were terror intended and causing hate against government.” Kampala’s lord mayor, Erias Lukwago, called on police to punish the officers who had failed to protect the site, and said he planned to petition the nation’s parliament about the matter.
The Church of Uganda’s Diocese of Namirembe says the property was a gift of the late Evelyn Nachwa, a princess of the former Kingdom of Buganda. The large brick church on the site was constructed 49 years ago. However, according to the Kampala Independent, the administrators of Nachwa’s estate lodged a suit against the Diocese of Namirembe in 2008. They maintain that title had never been properly conveyed to the diocese, and that the land had been fraudulently registered by church officials.
Ugandan high court judge Eudes Keitirima ruled in favor of the administrators of Nachwa’s estate in August 2019. The diocese was required to return its duplicated title to the estate, and to vacate the church premises. Judge Keitirima harshly condemned the church’s actions, stating that “fraud is such a grotesque monster that the courts should hound whenever it rears its head and wherever it seems to take cover behind any legislation. The transfer of the suit land (from Nachwa) is clearly tainted with fraud which court cannot condone.”
St. Peter’s School, associated with the church, was demolished in March, as was a garage on the site. Teachers, however, have continued to gather their classes under makeshift tents on the site, and the church had apparently never fully complied with the high court order to vacate.
More recently, the administrators for Nachwa’s estate requested a court order to demolish the church. Judge Keitirima granted permission on July 10. The Capital City Authority of Kampala also approved the application for demolition, though it required that the space be fully vacated in advance and local residents notified. Kampala developer Dodovico Mwanje, it is rumored, plans to construct a hotel on the land.
In his public statement, however, Archbishop Kazimba argued that the church’s right to the property remains secure, and he urged family members who know more about Evelyn Nachwa’s original gift to share any information they have about the dispute. He also claimed that the site’s many decades of use by the church establishes its own claim under Ugandan law. “Squatters have rights after being on land for 12 years, and yet St. Peter’s Church has been on that land for 40 years,” Kazimba said. “We call for a serious and impartial inquiry into this matter.”
Police statements about the matter declined to parse the possession of the property, focusing instead on the failure to notify police about the demolition and the way in which the action violated local restrictions on evictions during coronavirus lockdowns. Police spokesman S. P. Onyango said, “We want to warn the general public who are planning to evict people during this period of COVID-19 that they risk being arrested and charged in courts of law if they go ahead with their intentions.”