Uganda’s land is demarcated into Mailo, Freehold, Leasehold and Customary occupancy, which some consider an irrational land system. Over the years, this tenure has gone through a metamorphosis of traditional, colonial and post-independence vicissitudes; the latter of the three periods, has been tumultuous.
Perhaps, it was only during the pre-colonial traditional cultures that this was not so! Recent and ongoing disagreements illustrate this. The latest is the land-grab in Lusanja in Wakiso District in which more than 630 tenants have been evicted from a nine-square miles piece of land.
Still, land grabbing by powerful individuals and government has affected other areas such as Amuru where there is an ongoing conflict between the Acholi and Madi tribes.
There are other land disputes in Karamoja, the oil rich Albertine Graben region and several other places countrywide.
This is symptomatic of the myriads of land issues that have cropped up from 1906, when the British Colonial administration transferred some of the land in Bunyoro-Kitara to the Buganda Kingdom, the renowned “Lost Counties” of Buyaga and Bugangaizi.
It was on the backbone of the Buganda Agreement of 1900, which emerged after the 1894 Anglo-Buganda War, against the kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara. It ramified all the land of the Uganda Protectorate that came to be known as Crown Land.
The tenure system can be credited to the 1903 Colonial Land Ordinance. Enacted legislation, thereafter, has tried to rationalise this, with little success.
The immediate post-independence governments have indiscriminately adopted this; in 1962 as Public Land; then, in 1969 as the Uganda Land Commission (ULC). It metamorphosed to the 1975 Land Decree and then to the 1993 Land Act; which is still ill-defined by the present National Land Policy.
Probably the latest, most ambitious attempt, with a view to solving this land question is by a group of Uganda exiles in the United Kingdom. It is in the form of the above-titled book. These seven are operating in the organisation, Think Tank Uganda and ALCRA – or, the Acholi-Luo Cultural Academy.
Between 2012 and 2015, the Think Tankers discoursed, researched, consulted, synthesised, consolidated and then hankered down to write a 346-page book to address the “anomalies, imbalances, malpractices and historical injustices”, the Uganda land issue harbours in its cultural and political intricacies.
Edited by Rogers Okot-Uma wod’ Olobo, it is co-authored by six other academically-eminent and professionally astute people who include: Stephen Buntu-Bwona, John Obwona-Lanan, Terence Okello Palto, Opiyo Oryema, Andrew Magoola and Samuel Olara.
The considerably bulky book is broken down into nine chapters, each of which has itemised and numbered paragraphs, which is unique to this intellectual treatment. It has an unusual 83 pages of contents.
Each chapter deals with an overview of a tenure system and its appendages, explains it and passes out 76 recommendations pertinent to singular tribal cases.
Chapter Nine deals with commentaries on the issues. The footnotes are, however, presented in tiny four-point size type that are hard to read. A later edition would do well to correct this!
The authors admit that the main land problem is “not a single land tenure system in use for the whole of Uganda”. (P.10). The British imposed a system that was top-down, contradictory and alien to the Ugandan societies.
It is firstly these legal shenanigans that have brought “confusion and conflict” the authors are grappling with to come up with a tenure system that will bring “peace to re-engineer the future.”
Secondly, looking through issues of the National Land Policy of the government’s interest creates undue consequences by the “single entity of the authority of the Office of the President”. Take the case of the ongoing Justice Catherine Bamugemereire Land Commission botched recommendation of abolishing the Mailo tenure. (N.B: Each of the commissioners has been given a copy of the book.)
Uganda – Land Issues Revisited, states that any such decision has to be anchored in the obutaka (the customary rights of the clans) tenure. Accordingly, in research done and published in the Africa Journal Vol, VI No.2 in 1933, by L. P Mair, the land is for the “heads of kindred groups…side by side with the chiefs appointed by the King”. (Pp. 144-145). Succession was specified by the clan; the notion of buying or sale was absent.
This gives a further insight into issues that pre-dominate customary land, which is the preserve of many of the other ethnic groups in the country. Here, land was essentially not treated as a commodity, but as a cultural heritage. Thus, the case for investment and development flies in the face of such acquisitions.
Public land tenure that underscores co-operatives rather than large commercial value entities. The think tankers delve into the history of land in all the communities in Uganda to draw the divergence with which Colonial Britain dealt with the land question.
The major tribes dealt with are 11. Any other Customary land, specifically in other areas for other tribes, including the kingdoms of Tooro, Ankole, part of Bunyoro, was Crown Land. The customary land tenure was essentially ignored by the British as they could alienate it at will.
This concept has been grafted into the National Land Policy. Lusanja is a re-enactment in disregard as to the entitlement of the tenants holding the land in respect of the envugyo and busuulu entitlement for those in the Mailo land. Such is what the parliamentary Commission of Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises and the courts have declared as having “irregularities and illegalities”.
Three years ago Parliament Speaker Rebecca Kadaga lamented that “public land has become the first target of theft in this country”. She said Parliament was “requiring all public land to get land titles.” It was on the basis of local government land “grabbed” in Mbarara District by the “so-called investors”. Similar investments have taken place in then-forest reserves such as Namamve and Mabira, unmindful of the climatic impact.
When Land minister Betty Amongi said the land can be taken for “development”, it meant that the government could alienate that land at will.
In the terms of the 1903 Crown Land Ordinance (and 1958 Crown Lands Adjudication) Rules, “the people occupied this land at will of the Crown….”
Public Lands Ordinance
This was translated down to the 1962 (1969) Public Lands Ordinance (Act) that created the Uganda Land Commission, which Mr Baguma Isoke, the ULC chairman, has declared, “does not work”. It in turn gave rise to the 1975 Land Reform Decree of Idi Amin which mandated occupancy as “tenants of the State at sufferance”.
It bred the justification for unscrupulous government operatives and other powerful “untouchables” grabbing land. In Karamoja, for instance, the land deemed to be game reserves or forests has been taken at will, irrespective of the tribal land systems. For the Karimojong, this land, outside the manyattas, is used for grazing, hunting, scant cultivation and shrine worship.
For Wang Jok Payaa (Murchison National Park), the degazzeting of the land area in 1975 (Decree) led to “land grabbing” that continues today – “as no institutional entity would stand to challenge a presidential prerogative” for those in the customary or game reserves. (P. 32).
This would fall under Chapter IV on the natural habitats. As much as this, and Chapter V, are under the ambit of land, in their own intricacies, these would merit a treatment of their own.
The think tankers study of the 1995 Constitution Article 237 and the 1998 Land Act and Tenure systems seemed to revert to the Colonial 1903 Land Ordnance that delineated the land to the four categories yet it advocated for the setting up of a “good land tenure system” (P.57, 62). Even then, the first, Customary Land tenure, has its own problems.
Specifically, as the think tankers observe in P.53: “It quickly became a source of land conflicts between families, clans and tribes; communities and government; and communities and public institutions…it is with Customary Land and Mailo Land systems of tenure that one finds a proliferation of land conflicts and land disputes in Uganda today.” And, therefore, a recommendation of the Customary Freehold Tenure system is that it be registered under the collective family, and not, individual names.
This incisive Land Issues Revisited volume delves into the core of Uganda’s land tenure system. Any institutional analyst would ignore it to their own disturbing policy and administrative myopia.
Outline of 19 land probe commission interim recommendations
1) The multiple land administration, management and conservation agencies be merged into two super bodies.
2) District land boards and area land committees be dissolved and their mandate passed on to the proposed Land Authority.
3) Legal and policy reforms undertaken to facilitate the restructuring of the land sector’s institutional arrangements, enhance accountability, and address historic land distortions.
4) Reduction of current land tenures from four to perhaps three; freehold, customary free hold and leasehold. All government land to be held under freehold by the State.
5) Implement a nationwide survey and titling of all land, including customary land, with government support through the land fund.
6) The ULC [Uganda Land Commission] be abolished and its functions under the new authority be limited to holding public land only.
7) A futuristic land bank be developed to relieve government of heavy financial burdens and delays associated with land acquisition for public works.
8) The land fund be purposively capitalised and restructured to work effectively under the Land Authority.
9) The office of the chief government valuer be restructured, and streamlined, and merged under the Land Authority.
10) Strong and punitive accountability and anti-corruption mechanisms in the land sector should be urgently put in place and implemented, in line with a zero tolerance to corruption policy.
11) All land fraud investigations should be broadened to include the participation of the Financial Intelligence Authority, the Inspectorate of Government, and other key criminal justice agencies.
12) All illegally allocated and acquired government and ‘public land’ be recovered through cancellation of illegally acquired land titles and holding all those found culpable to account.
13) Government to urgently halt the illegal encroachment on protected forests and wetlands, and restore these to the status of 1990.
14) A consolidated and validated national database be urgently developed, that includes the NFA map data, the Wetlands Atlas, and government institutional land.
15) Strengthen pre-land transaction identification processes by mandatory use of national identification for citizens, and relevant documentation for foreigners.
16) The re-establishment of district land tribunals as full time dispute resolution mechanisms with an expanded membership, and chaired by a Grade One Magistrate.
17) Mediation function provided under the Land Act be re-structured to provide for the option of disputing parties to each appoint an additional mediator.
18) The 2012 Draft Legal Aid policy be expeditiously considered and passed by cabinet.
19) Interests of cultural institutions, religious bodies, and women must be represented in the composition of district based land administration.