How impunity and justice-for-sale breed land conflicts

Mr Geofrey Agaba, the chairperson of Mpokya Young Initiatives in Bugangaizi and a resident of Rwembunga Cell-Kisiita Central ward-Kisiita Town Council in Kakumiro District during an interview.  PHOTO | ESTHER OLUKA

What you need to know:

  • In this second installment of our three-part series, our reporter Esther Oluka interrogates the underlying triggers of land conflicts in the country, which have imposed untold suffering on citizens, especially the poorer.  

Geofrey Agaba has always regarded his land in Kakumiro District as worthless after being evicted from his home in Kibaale District that he built in a game reserve. 

The land where his new place of abode lies and the neighbourhood has recently attracted interest from several people who are claiming ownership.  

The 40-year-old Agaba lives in Rwembunga cell, Kisiita Central Ward, Kisiita Town Council, in Kakumiro District, whose history is tied to the carrot-and-stick British colonial legacy and post-independence history.

Kakumiro is part of the two lost counties out of the seven that were returned to Bunyoro after the 1964 plebiscite during the Obote I regime after locals in Buyaga and Bugangaizi voted overwhelmingly to break away from Buganda.

Mr Agaba said eight people recently laid claim to the land, kicking off a litigation process in court.

“There are about eight absentee landlords claiming my land and the disputes have resulted in us going to court. Some of the cases stretch over seven years,” he said.

Mr Agaba said the renewed interest in his land began after it was announced that part of it straddled the path of the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP).

“These absentee landlords want to be the ones to be compensated. This is why they are forcing me to leave my home,” Mr Agaba noted.

He and neighbours are part of the group that government eventually resettled in Kakumiro district after eviction from Mpokya forest reserve in 1992.

Most of them do not have a land title or a certificate of occupancy to prove ownership or claim legal interest.

“This loophole is what is causing the absentee landlords to take us for granted by continuously asking for proof of the ownership of the land,” he said.

The Ministry of Lands insists this certificate is not necessary for one to qualify as a bonafide occupant.

“Where the problem comes is that our law has provided for our tenants to have a certificate of legal occupancy, but then [the] same law also protects those that do not have legal documentation…” said Mr Dennis Obbo, the Ministry of Lands spokesperson.

Buganda Kingdom, the biggest owner of Mailo land, argues that the criticism towards the land system is diversionary and inspired by a sinister motive. 

The institution has listed seven grounds attributed to land conflicts across Uganda

The kingdom’s Attorney General, Mr Christopher Bwanika, blames the land office, calling it corrupt and inefficient.

“The position of Buganda is instead of focusing on Mailo and its history because it is a Buganda issue as the source of the problem is a wrong approach. These are the issues that need to be dealt with,” he said.

The problem of land question is not just about the opprobrium related to Mailo tenure. There are widespread conflicts across the country, such as double or multiple titling and rival ownership claims, on land held under other tenures; leasehold, freehold and customary.

Dr Paul Kyalimpa, the deputy director-general at the Uganda Investment Authority (UIA), said they have no control over foreign investors who lease land. Rather, the challenge may arise with other parties showing interest in the same land. 

“A conflict may arise with the investor who is leasing the land and some encroachers who stubbornly refuse to vacate even after receiving compensation, hence causing issues,” Dr Kyalimpa said.  

He says often investors take long to occupy and utilise the land. 

“Someone gets the lease, but is taking years to use the land. This is because he may still be mobilising money, getting approvals and construction plans and, so, within that time, people may think that the investor got the land and gave up. For this reason, some people decide to get onto the land illegally. Not forgetting, others may decide to use this opportunity to sell off the land to other unsuspecting people which in the end creates conflicts,” Dr Kyalimpa said.

The investment prefect said UIA does not necessarily govern all the land given for development to investors as it only controls land it owns in its name.

According to accounts by different insiders, the existence of mineral wealth, or the potential for such extractives, fans land conflicts despite the fact that such natural wealth, according to the Constitution, belongs to the state that holds in trust on behalf, and exploits it for the benefit, of all citizens.

At the household level, land conflicts have manifested in family members sparring about what use to put a plot to and whether or not to sell off inherited land as demand and prices rise with rapid urbanisation.

In multiple interviews, residents told Daily Monitor that courts of law have exacerbated land conflict by delaying to dispense justice.

“Those courts! I have been in and out of court for several years trying to find a way of not getting evicted from my land, but all has been in vain,” Mr Agaba said.

He added: “I have come to a realisation that the more money one has and the more powerful they are, the better their chances of winning a land case in court.”

The legal conundrum has also rested on the shoulders of alleged corruption at the Lands Registry, the national register of titles, leading to issuance of multiple ownership documents to different claimants and unending fights.

Mr Sam Mayanja, the State minister for Lands, has turned a vocal internal critic of his technocrats and he shut the busy Wakiso Zonal Land Office at the end of last month, reopening it only last week after firing and replacing dozens of senior and junior staff accused of graft.  

However, Mr Obbo said land-related complaints in the country, ranging from double or multiple titling to forgery of titles, will be history once the ongoing automation of the land records and retrieval is completed.

Responding to criticism that justice on land matters appears on sale and delays are orchestrated to prolong extortion, Judiciary spokesman Jameson Karemani attributed the delays to fewer judicial officials and case backlog.

“People who bring them (land cases) to court expect us to resolve their disputes, but, sometimes, we have not been able to handle them on time because of different challenges including a limitation on human and financial resources,” he said.

Many rival claimants over land are wealthy, powerful or well-connected individuals that they on occasions involve security and intelligence officials in the stand-off in a manner that borders on impunity and abuse of office.

This has included soldiers and police, sometimes acting without eviction order duly issued by court. 

The army, which was the tool used in the 2001 violent evictions in Mubende and later in other parts of Uganda, said its officers engaged in such exercise act as wayward individuals.

“Where it has happened, we allow the complainants to petition the matter and investigations are carried out in order to get to the root of the problem,” said spokesperson Brig Flavia Byekwaso.

For Mr Agaba and Mr Peter Baleke Kayiira, 59, whom we profiled in yesterday’s installment of this three-part series, the Land Tribunal at village level would be their savior. 

But as lands expert, Dr Margaret Rugadya, argues in her paper on Escalating Land conflicts in Uganda, the absence of these institutions has also created gaps that breed conflict.

“There is a multiplicity of land dispute resolution institutions working in parallel, which many times leads to ‘forum shopping’ by aggrieved parties, without a clear hierarchy – this has created overlaps and conflicts in land disputes processing,” she writes.

Landlords, especially Buganda’s nobles, who own large tracts of Mailo Land, accuse the government of harbouring a scheme to strip them of their property.

In 1916, a law was introduced to stop foreigners from acquiring Mailo land from Baganda, but instead acquire leases, which can last up to 99 years. 

Lawyer Peter Mulira says “a lot of big people acquired leasehold titles over Mailo land, but they can’t use it to borrow money in the bank so they are in the fix. Now because they are powerful, they say let’s abolish Mailo land.’

Karamoja situation

In a 2014 report titled, Beyond the reach of the hoe: The struggle for land and minerals in Northern Uganda, Karamoja is flagged as home to deposits of 50 different precious metals.

These include gold, copper, iron, limestone, and marble to silver and other gemstones, but the borders of the mineral-rich land are not clearly defined.  

About 18,000 Karimojong engage in small-scale mining activity, mostly for survival, and the suspected mineral wealth has resulted in the influx of mining companies and land buyers and speculators. The government has, amid allegations of collusion with foreign firms, issued many prospecting and exploration licences, creating the potential for conflicts over land ownership and land use as well as labour rights and exploitation.