Uganda is the biggest land grabber. It grabbed land from the peoples of the first nations – the Iteso, the Karimojong, the Baganda, the Banyoro, the Acholi, the Lugbara and many others who occupied and owned the land within the geography that is now known as Uganda. The formation of Uganda was not negotiated amongst the first nations, but rather it was in line with the colonialist principal of effective occupation. The British who colonised our forefathers needed to have effective political and territorial control, so they formed Uganda.
At its formation, Uganda had no land. Prior to colonialism, all land within Uganda was owned and managed by the first nations under their own laws - rules, regulations and authorities. Indeed, all land within Uganda was prior managed under communal land tenure systems that followed the laws of the first nations. Within kingdoms, such as Buganda, the ownership and authority over their land was held in trust by the institution of the Kabaka and not the individual Kabaka. Within the first nations which were without kingdoms and were governed under the clan system, such as in Teso, the ownership and authority over their land was held in trust by collectives of clan leaders.
The colonisers wisely appreciated that they could not ignore the laws of the first nations, neither could they allow the laws of the first nations to operate in parallel with the law of Uganda - state law, which in reality was the law of the colonisers. In order to acquire land for Uganda, the colonialists needed to and they deliberately subjugated the laws of the first nations. They did so, Prof Mahmood Mamdani argues, by coining the terms ‘customs’ and ‘customary’ to categorise and relegate the law of the first nations as inferior to State law.
To further undermine the first nations, the colonialists created their own versions of ‘customary law’ – taking from existing laws of the first nations, those which the colonialists could ‘civilise’ and integrating them within State law; and outlawing those which the colonialists considered ‘barbaric’- basically laws that would interfere with the colonialists’ interests. This means ‘customary law’ as currently recognised within State law is, as Mamdani contends, an artefact of political power - first by the colonialists and subsequently by the successive Governments of Uganda (GoU).
‘Customary law’ currently within State law serves colonialists and GoU interests and not necessarily the interests of the peoples of the first nations, now citizens of Uganda.
To legitimise State law, the colonialists coerced our forefathers to sign treaties, which became part of State law, and which effectively disempowered the authorities of the first nations, particularly in matters to do with land tenure. At a stroke of a pen, using State law, the first nations were dispossessed of their lands, which were taken over by Uganda and which are administrated under a colonialist imposed land tenure system which introduced individual land ownership – freehold, mailo and leasehold.
As of 2010, Uganda has grabbed from the first nations 60 per cent of their land. Only 40 per cent of their land is still under communal land tenure over which the authorities of the first nations have a say. The widest land grabbing has occurred in Central Uganda where 99 per cent of the land is no longer owned and administrated by the first nations; it is individually owned under unregistered freehold mailo, registered freehold mailo and leasehold. In comparison, 76 per cent of land in the north, 54 per cent of land in the east and 47 per cent of land in the west is still owned communally and the authorities of the first nations have a say in how it is administrated.
This status quo – land grabbing sanctioned by State law - is the root cause of raging land conflicts in Uganda – amongst families, clans and ethnic groups. Sadly, the Uganda National Land Policy 2013 embodies the hallmarks of Uganda State law - undermining the first nations – thus it effectively facilitates land grabbing. Its provisions, such as titling of communally owned lands, sanction accelerated land grabbing of the remaining 40 per cent of the first nations’ land still communally owned. Those whose names appear on the title can sell the land with ease.
Ms Owaraga is founding Kigo Thinker