A 10-year land wrangle in Chief Kapatamoyo’s area of Eastern Province refuses to go away, and has driven residents apart, threatening social relations and harmony in the community.

An entire village led by Headwoman Wachepa in Kapatamoyo’s domain has been at loggerheads with local businessman Kabalika Nkhwengwe, within which his D115 farm Wachepa’s village is located.

The province is home to usable uncultivated land, yet has seen many villages facing protracted land wrangles.

Experts say because of farmers' inability to prove ownership, legal disputes and land grabs are escalating land wrangles in the country.

On 11 October 2011, bailiffs removed headwoman Wachepa and her subjects following an order from the Chipata High Court. “We have gone through a lot of problems which have also affected our children,” said the 76-year-old headwoman.

Ten years of government false promises

In December 2011, then deputy minister in the office of the vice-president, Edgar Lungu, who later became president, visited the evicted families and promised that government would help them with food and other supplements for the following six months.

But months later, Emmanuel Mwamba, who was then Eastern Province permanent secretary, assured the displaced villagers that they would not be moved.

“Government,” he said, “had bought the contested land.”

But Bert Mushala, Mwamba’s successor, said his office had “no written documents to prove that government had bought the land from Nkhwengwe”.

In 2016, as Nkhwengwe was selling part of his farm, over 500 Wachepa villagers protested at chief Kapatamoyo’s palace.

The chief argued that Nkhwengwe should have waited for the disputed matter to be settled with the government, before proceeding to sell the land.

“I am shocked that he (Nkhwengwe) is selling this land without my knowledge. Now they are surveying the land in the night. That’s why people are upset. This is what is going to bring problems here in my area, “I summoned Nkhwengwe but he is not coming,” Chief Kapatamoyo added.

When Chanda Kasolo was appointed as the new provincial permanent secretary in 2015, he blamed the displaced people.

Kasolo argued that government had done what it could to try and help but that the affected people had not responded.

He added: “We have tried to prepare land, we have put water, we have roads and they refused to move, I made a last offer but they refused, they are not interested, all they are interested in is to stay on the same land but legal rights are legal rights.”

A decade-long land wrangle

More than a decade on, both government and the traditional leadership have failed to find a permanent solution to the escalating land wrangle between the villagers and Nkhwengwe.

Headwoman Wachepa told MakanDay that after the eviction, Mwamba had promised to help.

“So, when he (Mwamba) came, he told us that ‘this is your land,’ stay the way you were staying in the past before the eviction and government has kept some iron sheets for you,” she said. “We were told that the iron sheets that we were going to be given would enable each family to build a two-roomed house.”

One of the displaced residents, Elizabeth Chirwa, said they never saw the things that Mwamba promised and that even the fertiliser which he had promised was not delivered.

At a meeting with Paramount Chief Mpezeni at his palace, she claimed the chief told her that the land in question is theirs and that they should go ahead to build houses.

She also said even the suggestion to relocate to Mnduwi, an area within Chipata district, was not accepted by Mpezeni as it is under the Chewa chief.

But Paramount Chief Mpezeni expressed ignorance when contacted for comment.

The displaced residents complained that the eviction has worsened their living conditions.

“We were living in peace but after the eviction, we met a lot of challenges and there is nothing much that government has done to help us,” said Ms Chirwa.

Current position

A representative of the Nkhwengwe family refused to comment about the ongoing wrangle.

The ministry of lands disclosed that the province is witnessing an increase in land disputes. A source at the ministry who has no authority to speak to the media said “the province has many pieces of land that are in the Nkhwengwe situation”.