For the one month, a probe committee into land issues in Uganda has been meeting several people as it seeks to find a solution to the land-related challenges in the country. Constituted in September 2016 by President Yoweri Museveni, after several notable incidences of land wrangles in the country and delays in the land acquisition for government projects, the committee is expected to table a comprehensive report that provides a solution. It is led by Justice Catherine Bamugemereire
Why was the probe committee instituted?
Land issues have not entirely been new to Uganda. There have been several land wrangles written by the media dating from as far back as writing the 1995 Uganda Constitution. The 1995 Constitution (Article 237) brought about four land tenure systems in Uganda. The three are; Freehold (holding of registered land in perpetuity), Mailo (a tenure predominantly in Buganda premised on the 1900 Buganda Agreement), Customary (most of Uganda’s land is owned through communal means) and Leasehold (a tenure system where the landlord agrees to lease land for a given period).
To operationalise the Constitution, the government passed the Land Act in 1998 (amended in 2010) but as time progressed, gaps continued to be found.
These gaps are visible in the 2013 Uganda National Land Policy where it recommends several amendments to the Land Act. The policy attempts to address the issues Uganda facing with land; ranging from historical injustices, a multiplicity of land tenure systems, multiple rights and overlapping interests, a heritage of evictions and arbitrary disposition, disputes beyond boundaries (tribal and ethnic too) and the rights of vulnerable people. Both the National Land Policy and Land Act address issues in different modes. The issues being: tenure security, land administration, management and enforcement in the protection and conservation of the environment and natural resources in Uganda.
The probe committee appears to be addressing issues already taken care of in the Land Policy of 2013. In fact, the Land Policy traces the history of Uganda’s land problems to the colonial era that ushered in the 1900 Buganda Agreement and Idi Amin’s 1975 Land Decree where the government nationalised land ownership.
However, what the committee is likely to address are the wrangles that arose from the discovery of oil the Bunyoro region.
What are the terms of the probe committee?
The President initiated the probe committee in order to find out the following;
Investigate and inquire into the law, process, and procedure by which land is administered and registered in Uganda
Inquire into the role of the Uganda Land Commission in the management and administration of public land.
Review the effectiveness of the relevant bodies in the preservation of wetlands, forests and game reserves.
Inquire and solicit views on the role of traditional cultural and religious institutions who own large tracts of land
To assess the legal and policy framework on government land acquisition
To identify, investigate and inquire into the effectiveness of the dispute resolution mechanism available to persons involved in land disputes
To inquire into any other matter connected with or incidental to the matters aforesaid.
It should be noted that the 2013 Land Policy does indeed comprehensively address most of the terms of reference provided to the committee. The drafting of the land policy took in excess of 3 years with consultations made to the same stakeholders expected at the probe committee.
What is the government aiming at achieving?
According to Lands Minister, Ms Betty Amongi, on top of proposing reforms, the committee shall issue “administrative and criminal sanctions against persons found culpable of wrongdoing in all the process.” This is important in addressing some of the injustices faced by Ugandans especially land evictions.
One of the more pronounced ambitions of the government is to make changes to the compulsory acquisition of land.
The government has been complaining about several projects being delayed by a hectic land acquisition process.
The government wants the right to use the land for a project as disputes are being handled in order to avoid project delays.
In a statement issued in August 2016, Betty Amongi mentions that “There are scenarios where 90 % of a community who want services have accepted the value government is paying, then 10% rejects it and the project is compromised or abandoned and monies returned or not utilised.” This she says informs the proposed changes to the law.
Article 237 of The Constitution states that; “Land in Uganda belongs to the citizens of Uganda and shall vest in them in accordance with the land tenure systems provided for in this Constitution.”
In article 26 (b), it reads “the compulsory taking of possession or acquisition of property is made under a law which makes provision for— (i) prompt payment of fair and adequate compensation, prior to the taking of possession or acquisition of the property; And (ii) a right of access to a court of law by any person who has an interest or right over the property.”
For the government to get its mandate to change the constitution, the commission of inquiry should be able to make that recommendation. What the probe committee will find out are incidences of absentee landlords, underhand methods by government entities to underpay, the absence of land titles and for customary land, certificates of ownership maybe missing. These contribute to the delays in implementation of projects.
The other recommendation could be to completely overhaul the Land Acquisitions Act. It is a 1965 law and for some, it is considered outdated. Then again, one of the objectives of the National Land Policy is to ensure harmonization of all land related laws to in order to “strengthen institutional capacity” of government and cultural institutions.
Issues the committee could explore further On 29th March 2017, the 2017 Case Backlog report was released and it indicated that the land case backlog constituted 25% of the entire “delayed justice.” One of the reasons given for the case backlog in was that “Land matters often require locus, yet the mediators lack funding to travel to the villages to meet with the communities.” The probe committee could perhaps explore whether alternative dispute resolution is feasible. The Land Act provided for land tribunals at district and sub-county level whose role was to determine land related disputes.
They were operationalised in 2001 but by 2004 they had been phased out due to inadequate funding. The committee could further find out whether DLB’s could resolve some of the issues that have created the case backlog. Also in part help the government resolve disputes with landlords on compensation rates when carrying out compulsory land acquisition. Interestingly the National Land Policy also provides for the reinstatement of Land Tribunals.
Land administration in Uganda is still considered to be one of the causes of the land rights insecurity in Uganda. If the probe committee could recommend solutions to the fraud, forgeries, and inaccuracies in the Land Registry, then it will improve land administration. It could also bring those involved to book.
Findings of the probe
Often, when such reports are concluded, they are handed over to the President. It is in most cases up to him to adopt the recommendations of the report. The hope is that if the findings of the probe committee recommend some changes – within the public interest -, then they should be implemented.
However, the recommendations might be implemented on the practicality instead of moral or theoretical considerations. The findings could have overriding implications on land related laws in Uganda. From mining to petroleum, electricity supplies and wetlands management, it could affect all and they require amendments.