Kampala, Uganda
Religion Unplugged

Ugandans woke up Monday morning to some shocking news: a large church built in 1980 by the Anglican Church in Kampala was demolished overnight.

Eyewitnesses told Religion Unplugged that court bailiffs stormed St Peter’s Church at 11:30pm with hammers, axes, hoes and machetes and razed down the structure.

The bailiffs used the cover of the 9pm to 6:30am curfew that the government imposed in March to contain COVID-19.

St Peters Church demolition Kampala

People look through the rubble of St Peter’s Church in Kampala, Uganda. PICTURE: Courtesy of St Peter’s Church.

Heavily armed police officers guarded the bailiffs as they demolished the church, according to witnesses. But Kampala Metropolitan Police Spokesperson, Patrick Onyango, later told journalists that the police only arrived at the scene at 1am after learning about an eviction.

Onyango rebuked the court bailiffs for failing to follow the legal procedure of notifying the police first before conducting any eviction.

Dozens of Christians gathered at the scene after hearing the news on Monday and cried seeing their church in rubbles. On Monday, scrap dealers were scavenging through the ruins.

“We have been building this church for the last 40 years using our little savings, but someone has demolished it in just one night,” said one woman at the site. “This should be someone powerful in government.”

Most of Monday morning, police officers monitored the activities of the premises from a distance to deter any violence.

In March, the Ugandan government banned all land transactions and evictions during the COVID-19 lockdown. The lockdown is still on and the ban has not been lifted.

By press time on Monday, 13 people including three senior police officers and 10 court bailiffs had been arrested in connection with the demolition of the church, according to the police. Onyango said the court bailiffs will be charged with malicious damage of property while the police officers will face charges related to neglect of duty.

The land in question was donated to St Peter’s Church by a man named Dunstan Nsubuga 49 years ago, but after his death, his children sold it to a wealthy city businessman only identified as Dodovico.

Many people who have donated land to the Church of Uganda never gave land titles to secure the church’s property, but land disputes used to be minimal, so the church never cared.

After purchasing the land, Dodovico secured an eviction order and directed the church to relocate peacefully, but his order was ignored. The church members insisted that they were the rightful owners of the land.

Early in March, the businessman demolished St Peter’s Church of Uganda Primary School, which was also on the land, and warned he would also raze down the church.

The school served 300 students, mainly from the surrounding low-income neighbourhood.

Kampala’s Mayor Erias Lukwago, who visited the scene on Monday, described the church’s demolition as a scandalous and brazen act of criminality that any reasonable person with a human heart would condemn.

Several church leaders in Uganda also condemned the act, but the Church of Uganda had not issued any officials statement regarding the demolition by press time.

The Bishop of Mukono Diocese, James William Sebaggala, referred those who demolished the church to Psalms 51, also called “The Sinners Guide", that shows how sinners can repent their sins and turn to God.   

In Uganda, many land disputes have centred on prime land belonging to churches and schools run by religious institutions. Land grabbing is also rampant outside the church. There have been many cases of businessmen and politicians who earn wealth from corruption and purchase or are given land that is in dispute, then forcibly evict tenants, calling them squatters.

In 2016, the then Archbishop of the Anglican Church Stanley Ntagali and 38 other bishops survived a mob’s attempt to lynch them when they went to inspect the church’s land in Ntawo, Mukono District that was being encroached on. Sensing danger, the bishops jumped back into their bus and their driver sped off. 

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has often warned Ugandan elites against land grabbing, but the practice has persisted under his 36 year rule.  As Uganda heads to the 2021 general elections, land policy will likely be an issue voters care most about.