Govt seeks to take over all land

A woman checks out the features on her land title. A professor has called for a new amendment of the Constitution to enable government assume ownership of land across the country. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • A professor says land should belong to the State so that it can be leased to those who can develop it. But, the current law says land belongs to the people.

A top bureaucrat has stoked fresh controversy after calling for a new amendment of the Constitution to enable government assume ownership of land across the country.
The acting chairperson at Uganda Land Commission, Prof Nyeko Pen-Mogi on Wednesday re-opened old wounds as he said expropriation of private real estate remains the answer to difficulties in acquiring land for important infrastructure projects. 

Once the government takes over the land, he said, the country can finally bring an end to costly delays in project implementation arising from time-wasting compensation negotiations.

“Land should belong to the State so it can lease it to those who can develop it. The law says that land belongs to the people yet there are very many people who don’t have capacity to develop the land in urban areas to the required standards,” Prof Nyeko Pen-Mogi said at a city land management conference.

“What we call landlords in the slum areas, for example, simply put up small houses where they get small rent. We can promote private-public partnerships where investors can put up affordable high-rise houses so that those in informal settlements can live in an organised environment,” he added.
He also cited the case of a family in Mpigi District who held back a key road construction project years ago after they asked for Shs500 million in compensation for a tree.
The said family demanded that Uganda National Roads Authority pays them before cutting down the tree to which they claimed cultural attachments. 
If Prof Pen-Mogi’s proposal is taken up, it could leave the country’s recognised land tenure systems in disarray, re-opening heated debate on culturally sensitive and conflict-ridden issues related to private land ownership.

His proposal revisits previous failed attempts by the present government to obtain sweeping legal powers for compulsory acquisition of private land. Under existing laws, the government must pay compensation before acquiring private land for public use.  
The suggestion would also bring back memories of a hugely divisive Amin era executive declaration which, at the stroke of a pen, dispossessed citizens of their right to own land.

At the conference called by Kampala Capital City Authority, Prof Pen-Mogi said the government should consider re-writing a provision in the Constitution which vests land in the people.
That provision in Article 237 of Uganda’s 1995 Constitution stipulates that, “All land in Uganda shall vest in the citizens of Uganda and shall be owned in accordance with the following land tenure systems— (a) customary; (b) freehold; (c) mailo; and (d) leasehold”.

In 1975, deceased former president, Field Marshal Idi Amin, took the country by surprise when he abruptly announced the Land Reform Decree 1975 which his government said was to overhaul Uganda’s land tenure system. 
Under the decree, all land in Uganda was summarily declared to be public property. In abolishing private rights to land the decree converted mailo holdings to 99-year leases. Land previously owned as freehold real estate, was converted to leases under government.

Reacting to questions about the official’s proposal, the government’s chief legal advisor, Attorney General Kiryowa Kiwanuka yesterday declined to pronounce himself on the matter, saying it has not been formally brought to his attention.
“I can’t say I agree or disagree with him because when you are commenting on a legal issue you need to understand the context under which the person spoke from,” he said.

None of the Lands ministers under whose docket ULC falls answered repeated calls for comment.
However, Buganda Land Board (BLB), which as an agency of Buganda Kingdom, manages vast tracts of institutionally-owned land under the Mailo tenure system, objected to the proposal. 

“We do not agree with the chairman of the land commission. We don’t think land problems are tenure-related.  Mailo tenure is less than 10 per cent of the land mass in the country. So, we don’t think that all Uganda’s land problems are on that 10 percent,” Mr Juma Bashir Kizito, deputy head of BLB, told Monitor.

2017 Bill
Prof Pen-Mogi’s suggestion comes almost six years after the government faced a backlash over the controversial Constitution Amendment Bill No. 2 of 2017. 

The  Bill had sought to amend Article 26 of the Constitution which guarantees the right to own property, and also stipulates that there must be prompt payment of fair and adequate compensation, prior to the taking of possession or acquisition of private property for public use.
Despite President Museveni’s concerted and countrywide sensitisation efforts, sustained public opposition to the bill forced the government to drop the idea in 2018.
A year after the Bill was shelved, the then minister for Lands, Dr Chris Baryomunsi, spoke about protecting the wider public interest in reserving government’s right to acquire land.

“You may find a situation where the government wants to establish a public project and all people accept compensation but only one refuses, claiming huge sums of money. This is the situation we want to rectify,” he said during the ruling party’s manifesto implementation week.
Overall, reaction to Prof Pen-Mogi’s proposal was varied. 
Noted city lawyer, Mr Luyimbazi Nalukoola told Monitor that the proposal is an impossibility and could provoke civil unrest if it became law.

“Land plays a big role in our economy, in regards to transactions, it acts as collateral for loans acquisition, people trade with land between each other, we have the biggest population depending on agriculture and even the foreign investors will also be scared,” he said.
At the Ministry of Lands, the acting director for land management, Ms Naome Kabanda, said the solution lies in efficient and equitable utilisation of land in urban areas.

For example, she said putting up modern and affordable housing in areas occupied by informal settlements could protect the vulnerable urban poor as opposed to the government taking over.
With land ownership being a touchy matter around the country, the re-opening of this debate comes at a time when Cabinet is due to look at the summary of findings from a judicial inquiry into the lands sector.

The findings captured in the report of Cabinet sub-committee come off a larger report compiled by the 2017 commission of inquiry into land matters appointed by the President, and led by Justice Catherine Bamugemeire.
Among its recommendations which included proposals on  how to ensure security of tenure, was a proposal for a tax to be introduced on idle land as a measure designed to encourage productive use of real estate.


Buganda Land Board position
    Mr Bashir Kizito, Juma, the deputy Chief Executive Officer and Head of Corporate Affairs at BLB, responded thus:   “The Katikkiro (prime minister of Buganda Kingdom) presented these issues to the commission of inquiry led by Justice Bamugemereire and we will continue to repeat them. We do not agree with the chairman of the Land Commission. We don’t think land problems are tenure-related.  Mailo tenure is less than 10 per cent of the land mass in the country. So, we don’t think that all Uganda’s land problems are on that 10 percent.

     We believe that there is a need to end corruption by land management agencies such as the police and judiciary, and end the slow services at these agencies. Security agencies such as police and military meant to protect people are abused by those with power. There is a need to improve capacity and efficiency in land offices. 

      ULC has not done a good job. They have failed to win the trust of Ugandans. If they have failed to handle the small stock they have, why should we put more land in their control? Even when President Idi Amin declared that all land belongs to the State, land problems persisted. We believe available land laws are enough but the implementing bodies must pull their socks up. Let us, for instance, put up land tribunals to handle land matters expeditiously.’’

     Proposals by Uganda Land Commission 
- All land should be owned by government.
- All idle land in urban areas should be developed through promotion of public-private partnerships

     Some proposals from Justice Bamugemereire
- Mass registration of all lands
- Introduction of a customary freehold
- Introduction of a tax on idle land
- Establishment of a national land bank
- Enhance tenure security.

About Uganda Land Commission
       The Commission was established by the 1995 Constitution under Article 238 to hold and manage any land in Uganda vested in or acquired by the government in accordance with the Constitution and such other functions as may be prescribed by Parliament.

  About Buganda Land Board
The board was set up by the King of Buganda to manage land and property returned to the institution under the Restitution of Assets and Properties Act of 1993.

Uganda’s land tenure systems
• Customary: land ownership is based on customary rules formed from norms and cultures of clans, families or communities. 
• Freehold:  owners of land have a deed/title to their land which authenticates ownership.

• Mailo: Came into being when Buganda Kingdom signed an agreement with the British-administered Uganda Protectorate in 1900 and created a system of landlords and tenants (bibanja holders).
• Leasehold:  A land owner grants another person undisturbed.