No person shall be compulsorily deprived of property or any interest in or right over property of any description except where the conditions are satisfied…” This is Article 26 of the 1995 Constitution.
This article provides that while government might enjoy the right to acquire property for use in the interest of the public – for development of infrastructure like roads - people cannot be forcibly removed without fair and adequate compensation. The same article further provides for right of access to a court of law by any person who feels aggrieved by the acquisition.
The Constitutional Amendment Bill 2017 purposes to change this. If passed, it will amend Article 26 among others.
The proposal aims to grant the government – both central and local – power to compulsorily take over property in public interest without prompt, fair and prior compensation.
With this amendment, the government will be able to immediately take possession of property upon depositing the determined compensation without waiting for the court process.
The government will have permission to do whatever they want to do with property while any aggrieved parties battle it out in court.
Government has claimed that the amendment is necessary to mitigate the current problem of delayed implementation of infrastructure projects arising from disputes from acquisition processes. And while this is true and the development processes may stall from the long and often unending court processes, this is not the fault of the ordinary citizen.
The reality is that government is its own enemy. It is State officials who stall these projects as they are privy to contracts and are aware of which land is profitable. These officials continue to seek obscene figures and not the ordinary citizens who will be the most affected if this Bill is passed.
If the owner of a property genuinely contests government’s proposed value for their property, she or he must be guaranteed a right to seek justice in a court of law prior to losing possession of the land.
This proposed amendment exposes the inefficiency and poor planning by the government. In hand with a development plan that goes up to 2040, there is no excuse as to why the same government would set out to sign contracts well aware of the effect on people’s land and property without involving the owners of the said land in a clear compensation process.
Furthermore, our government does not have the best compensation track record. For years, embattled people have been crying out for compensation owed them and many still continue to languish in courts of law in pursuit of some semblance of justice. To ask that we trust this same system is to ask us to dig ourselves into an even deeper hole.
It would threaten livelihoods and a critical pillar of the 1995 Constitution – the right to own property.
If we can learn anything from the current Land Commission, it is that the same government officials are majorly responsible for the current land grabbing, most of it illegal. Why wouldn’t we expect that the same government officials will abuse the power that comes with the proposed amendment?
The biggest problem with this amendment is that it places an enormous burden on the citizens, who do not have the same muscle and financial standing as the State.
It strikes at the heart of the right to own property and completely overhauls the process of fair acquisition and process of compulsory acquisition of land in favour of the State.
The majority of citizens can barely afford the costs and timelines that come with court procedures, and should not then have to carry the cross of dealing with inefficient systems.
In a country where most people have only their land to use as a means of survival, it is irresponsible for the government to propose such an amendment. Government is better advised to fix the loopholes in the established systems on compensating property owners to avoid any delays.
Ms Twasiima is a feminist lawyer, currently working with Chapter Four Uganda