We are amending land law to deal with crooked speculators

Saturday November 12 2016
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Lands minister Betty Amongi. PHOTO BY ABUBAKER LUBOWA

There is a serious claim by Dr Kizza Besigye that you are behind a mafia scheme to grab people’s land and that you and your schemers will do this through tinkering with the Constitution and other statutes. What exactly are you proposing to amend in the law governing land?

Currently the Land Acquisition Act Section 7, which had given the chief government valuer and government an avenue to deal with some of the issues that remain unresolved during compensation, was struck off by the Constitutional Court and Supreme Court, leaving no avenue through which government can resolve some outstanding issues related to the amount of compensation when government hits a snag in negotiation of the amount.

Secondly, we have experienced in many circumstances speculators who know the plan of government to purchase land where government has planned infrastructure development and some will buy land in wetlands or forest reserves and demand astronomical compensation and spoil negotiation of the value of the land in the area.

With corruption and inefficiency by the consultancy firms hired to conduct compensation for the local people, it makes the cost of doing business by government and infrastructure development costly and stalls government projects.
So government is amending Article 26 of the Constitution to insert Sub Section 3 to deal with the problem of those who reject the amount of value determined by the government valuer and the rate provided by that district local government.
And the proposal will be that where the land value as determined by a chief government valuer in collaboration with the local government rate is rejected by the owner, government shall deposit the amount approved by the chief government valuer and district in courts of law and acknowledgement of payment by courts shall be deemed to be prior payment and the person shall have a right to go to court if he is dissatisfied with the amount.

Two or three issues from what you have stated. Firstly, is this coming up in the awaited constitutional amendment or you are moving your own raft of changes to our land laws?
This is in the Constitutional Amendment Bill. We would have proposed under the Land Acquisition Act but the Supreme Court held that Section 7 is unconstitutional in as far as it contradicts the principle of Article 26 that talks of prior payment.

Secondly, for a government that chest thumps about a private sector-led economy which is at the heart of free market economics that cherishes the willing buyer willing seller doctrine, where does government imposing value leave the land owner?
It would have been so if both parties were acting in good faith. Under the law, each district is mandated to determine the compensation rate and the chief government valuer uses the district approved rate and other methods to come up with the final compensation price. But because we have speculators who find out what government plans are; they buy, hike the price and reject the government valuer’s price yet the market value would be the same.

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Not all the time is government acting in and with good faith. So to make such a radical amendment in the law based on government’s good faith is to put the land owner at the mercy of corrupt government officials
That is why I want to take them back to Article 26 which defines what public good is, so this amendment is not open to any other government investment outside what is in Article 26 that talks of public good to include public health, defence, infrastructure like roads, electricity and water. So people shouldn’t worry, we shall be guided by what public good is as defined in the law.

Dr Besigye in his article says your statements were confusing and deceitful, specifically in respect to the amendment of the supreme law of the land...
If I may ask, have you not understood what I have explained now? If Dr Besigye didn’t understand anything he should have had the courtesy to call me and ask for a print out of what government is proposing to guide him in his judgment because sometimes journalists report what ministers say as and how they have understood it and it may not be entirely accurate.

He also makes a valid point in asking the question, why the accelerated land registration in northern Uganda. Why now?
This project has been there for the last seven years. The issue of land registration started in 1960s when UPC started from western region to title land, that is why in Bushenyi and other areas land is titled. For the last seven years we have been titling land under customary and mailo tenure.
In fact, Kasese District where the leader of Opposition in Parliament hails from has benefited from this programme and the people there have embraced it. Under the law we can issue customary certificate of ownership or transfer from customary to freehold.

But we are speaking about land registration under and by one of the most corrupt institutions of government. This informs part of the people’s misgivings
I don’t think we can generalise that the corruption is to the level that dissuades people from registering land. Part of the corruption is from outside the Lands office. It is from surveyors and area land committees, but we are examining our own systems to fix the problem using public service regulations to discipline our staff who err.

You caused the interdiction of Sarah Kulata, the commissioner land registration, and she continues to fight in the courts. What is her fate now?
The law will take its course, she is one of the people we realised was an impediment to reform. But as the highest ranking officer, she should have been at the forefront of fighting corruption (she was also acting director for land management) but public complaints were enormous. The public had lost trust and confidence in the office and she had to be held accountable for failure to show leadership.

Let’s go back to northern Uganda which is home to at least 30 to 40 per cent of the mineral deposits in this country and that informs the fear of the public; that by tinkering with land acquisition laws the regime wants to grab people’s land through investors working for the interests of the mafia
You are more insecure when you don’t have a title for your land because the law states that conclusive evidence of land ownership is the land title. So to have no title doesn’t mean it can’t be grabbed. It can still be grabbed with a title, but with the title no one can force you to sell or throw you out of your land.

If your proposal sails through, this is what you will actually achieve; a situation where government identifies land, asks the owner to surrender it at a fee determined by the same government and if he rejects you forcefully pay him and start work
The amendment is not for all land in Uganda, but that which is needed for government projects as defined in the law. Local government plans for roads and other projects and the central government can only develop infrastructure requested for by the district in consultation with the sub-county.

What happens if government is broke or, thanks to bureaucracy, the deposit is not even made as we saw in Nigeria a few years ago?
That is why my proposal is beautiful because we are saying government deposits money in courts of law and it is that receipt that is deemed as proof of payment. Government won’t do anything before depositing money in court.

Why should a land owner be subjected to the costs of hiring a lawyer and the pain of dealing with the justice system that takes ages to deliver justice
Because we would have had an agreement with the owner and there is procedure to come up with that value and we shall be certain with the district that we offered the best market value and you are only being stubborn. That is why we shall proceed with the works. This proposal will work only where majority have accepted.

Do you notice that this actually violates the letter and spirit of contract law that holds dear the aspect of two parties agreeing, what in law is called a meeting of minds?
This is not governed under contract law but the Land Acquisition Act which is acquiring land for public good not for personal use of any individual. That is why the law is separate.

In any case why would any well-meaning government dash to deposit money in court after a land owner has rejected the value offered?
No, it is recognising that we are dealing with human beings and some are crooked so much as to make money from government projects. Isn’t it strange that you have an entire community agreeing to a project and the compensation is offered with some even donating land and one individual frustrates that project by giving government headache and constraining service delivery? You need a law to deal with such characters.

If the matter is still in court, it is not only good manners but also a legal obligation for government to press the hold button until the matter is disposed
It is because we don’t want few people to stall government projects. We have seen scenarios such as the Katosi Road where someone had the grave of the mother and blocked the road from passing there and government had to return to World Bank to have the road plan redesigned. Now that is one person stalling a project that will accelerate development.

Granted, but that doesn’t still answer why, if the matter is still in court, you want to proceed with work
You see that principle is on other civil or criminal matters not government projects.

Wait, are you suggesting government projects are governed under some unique, alien legal system?
The law governing government projects is different from the normal law governing contract.

So what would be the essence of one going to court?
It is only on value of the land. In other words this person is saying I accept my land to be used for a government project but I feel the value offered is not satisfactory so can court determine this dispute over the value.

Moving on, how are you coping with your new role in Cabinet as UPC member? Don’t you feel an odd woman out?
I am coping. I don’t feel odd because we don’t discuss parties in Cabinet, but Uganda.

Come on, you are among strangers
How can people I have worked with for years in Parliament be strangers? There are many countries where secretaries are appointed from the opposition so there is nothing strange.

Do you still attend to UPC party affairs?
What do you mean by UPC party affairs?

We see Mr Joseph Bossa and Jimmy Akena still fighting for the party’s flag, for instance, and as a senior member that should give you headache?
You mean there is a Bossa in UPC?

Yes and I repeat, are you still active in the UPC?
I am not answering that question and don’t put it in the papers.

I shall report it and say you refused to answer
(Laughter)

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