Why traditional land management methods should be mainstreamed

Sunday November 24 2019


By Norbert Mao

The chaos in Uganda’s land management system is a threat to national stability. Land is a contentious issue and a major source of conflict. We need clear and harmonised policies and legislation. We should also establish mechanisms of resolving related conflicts. I call for an integrated approach.

First, there should be serious research into customary land tenure systems, especially in the areas recovering from conflict. These should be written down and codified. Theoretically, the Constitution puts customary land tenure at par with freehold and leasehold tenures, but in practice customary tenure is considered inferior.

Yet customary land tenure is the dominant form of tenure in Uganda and understanding and codifying it will improve land security among the majority and will spur agricultural productivity and thus enhance food security and improve household incomes.

Second, there should be enhanced advocacy targeting key policy making institutions with the aim of reforming the current legal framework to be more responsive to the needs of rural communities. Third, effort should be made to recognise customary land ownership as a way of enhancing the property rights of rural communities.

Fourth, given the central role of clans in the administration of communal customary land, corporatisation of these bodies and granting the corporate bodies, say “XYZ Communal Land Trust”, the freehold of communal land and the clan trustees can grant leases to those seeking to acquire titles for periods up to 49 years renewable.

As part of this intervention, a pilot corporate body will be registered and granted a tract of land. This model will then be rolled out to other parts of Uganda. The key outcome will be social harmony since the free-for-all land rush will be nipped in the bud by this innovative approach. This approach is currently being used in Namibia to streamline communal land dealings.


In 1863, president Abraham Lincoln introduced the American Homestead Act that helped stem the scramble for land as the country was being settled. The law guaranteed title to whatever land a settler was actively using.

This solved the problem of absentee landlords. A modification of this approach will be the cornerstone of the integrated pro-poor approach we propose.

The clan leaders manage the land through unwritten codes and customary practices. Despite the existence of other tenure systems, customary tenure remains the preferred tenure system in most of northern Uganda and many parts of rural Uganda.

The major threat is the reckless and unbridled commoditisation of land. Many of the rural communities facing financial hardships and without the will or resources to make the land productive put the land on the market at giveaway prices.

There has emerged an unscrupulous land market, which threatens to turn most rural communities into a landless class. In the absence of alternative means of livelihood the dispossessed people will flock to urban centres, creating a lumpen class that can ignite social upheavals and unrest.
This is the situation in Kampala.

Hundreds of thousands of young people turned landless through arbitrary and unscrupulous land sales have converged on Kampala doing odd jobs that keep them in vicious cycle of poverty with no escape route and no road back to their ancestral lands that have been acquired by wealthy elites.

The way to stem this tide of unscrupulous land bonanzas is a massive public education campaign coupled with corporatisation of communal lands. In addition, given that the traditional clan structures have decayed and collapsed due to the long armed conflict, there is need to revive them in order to restore their capacity and prestige in order to make them more effective.

It is not too late in the day to support customary land tenure so that it can grow in terms of acceptance, codification, and stature so that it becomes a way for local communities to control land, which is their most valuable resource.