Inside Uganda’s options out of the land mess

Locals at Juka Trading Centre in Apaa Parish where they relocated following clashes between the Madi and Acholi in 2019. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • In this third and final instalment of our series, our reporter Esther Oluka examines the pathway for Uganda to take, including borrowing solutions from regional neighbours, in order to address land conflicts, which are legally costly to resolve, breed violence and delay financing and investment decisions.

If it is not threatened citizens returning to law school to learn the intricacies of rights, laws and transactions relating to land, in order to defend their ownership of land, then it is Uganda government attempting to patch up the law as a panacea. None, of course, is one-size-fits-all. 

Mr Peter Baleke Kayiira of Mubende District is among tens of individuals who have returned to class with a sole purpose of learning the law to fight encroachers and land grabbers.

As he put it, ignorance fuels land conflicts in Uganda because wealthy and powerful “people take advantage of those who don’t know [the law]”.

It is for this reason that Mr Kayiira, 59, enrolled for a diploma in law at the Law Development Centre (LDC) in Kampala from 2013 to 2014.

“I felt that I needed some enlightenment on the law after forcefully getting evicted from my land in 2001,” he said, adding: “Sometimes one may have a lawyer who may notably advise, and so if the client has a bit of knowledge on the law, the duo can combine and share ideas from time to time.”

Mr Peter Kayiira Baleke has been seeking justice from the time he was evicted from his land in 2001. PHOTO | ESTHER OLUKA

Mr Kayiira, a teacher, is not the only one who has returned to school to get legal training so as to be accustomed with laws, including about land. There are many others who are no longer sitting on their laurels.

In a story published on April 3, 2019, this newspaper reported that Mr Jordan Kinyera was inspired to become a lawyer after his family drifted to the edge of losing their land through a dubious scheme.

After going through years of legal training and becoming part of the legal team, the High Court finally ruled in his family’s favour.

Ms Bernadette Bakkidde, the director of access to land justice at Land Network or Landnet, a land rights advocacy organisation in Uganda, argues that if one does not know what needs to be done, including what the law does in a field they are not conversant with, it gives room for other people to manipulate and exploit the system.

As a way of resolving the issue at hand, she urged the Ministry of Lands to undertake mass sensitisation on land-related laws.

“Landnet Uganda and other Civil Society Organisations play a complementary role when it comes to sensitisation. The paramount issue is that we can have the government actually doing this role. They receive a lot of money from different agencies, but then how much is allocated for awareness because the majority of Ugandans do not know the law,” she said.

Ms Bakkidde said the land conflicts are not only limited to the Mailo land tenure system.

“There are many evictions taking place in places such as Nwoya and Amuru. Families and clans have been evicted, yet most of the land [t]here is customary tenure. It still comes back to knowledge information. How much do these people know? What are they supposed to do? Do they even know that they have a right to form a communal land association?” she said. Nwoya and Amuru, two districts in Acholi Sub-region in northern Uganda, an epicentre of the near two-decade Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency, are reeling with unending land conflicts sixteen years after the guns went silent. Land in this part of the country is held mostly under customary tenure. Unlike elsewhere, millions of the natives here were at the height of the LRA war huddled into Internally-Displace People’s (IDP) camps, leaving soldiers fighting the insurgents in-charge vast tracts of rebel-infested land.  Some land owners died in the camps. When the war petered out, survivors who returned home were confronted with failure to locate their own land boundaries as thickets blanketed the place while others found moneyed individuals had, allegedly through connivance with notable natives, taken over expansive tracts for commercial agriculture.

The land question gained political currency, leading in one instance to women in Amuru stripping before a government minister to express their displeasure over perceived attempts to grab their inherited land.

But it is not only in Acholi that conflicts have fertilised on customary land. In West Nile, marauding pastoralists, otherwise called Balalo, perceived to be forerunners for land grabbers, were evicted.

Bunyoro Sub-region turned a hotspot of showdown over land once the government confirmed commercially-viable quantities of oil, triggering a scramble for land by the wealthy and speculators.

Elsewhere, in the east, wrangles over land led to a spate of bloodshed and only subsided after some of the perpetrators were tried, convicted and imprisoned following an exposé by this newspaper in a 2017 investigative series, Teso Murders: Gun, Blood and Politics.

If it is not individuals in tango over land or a multinational corporation/foreign investor displacing rural hamlets, it is inter-clan or district feud over a border parcel or human-wildlife conflict in fringe gazette game reserve or national park.

Graft at Land office

Before and after Independence, entities superintending the entity today called Uganda have grappled with myriad land holding challenges and attempted many solutions --- many successful, most unsuccessful.

The colonialists doled out land in Buganda to mainly the royals and chiefs to reward loyalty and set up a system where the owner and settler on Mailo land had protected stakes under the 1928 Busuulu & Envujjo law.

President Idi Amin then stripped landlords of ownership rights when he nationalised all land in the country through the 1975 decree before framers of the 1995 Constitution decided in the supreme law that land belongs to the people who could hold it under four tenures: customary, mailo, freehold and leasehold.  

But as demonstrated, the problems have not gone away and instead multiplied with rising population and urbanisation, both of which have piled pressure on land amid spiraling demand and prices.

The teething question is where Uganda should go from here to resolve the land question and, with it, the internecine outcomes.

The propositions on this vary, depending which individual, leader or institution is responding, which in itself spotlights the lack of a national consensus on the issue of land question.

One proposal already on the cards, which President Museveni based on the recommendations of a government commission of inquiry on land matters, is to abolish Mailo tenure.

Mengo, the administrative seat of Buganda kingdom where most land is held under Mailo, has flatly rejected this option, dismissing it as an attack on the culture, identity and politics of Buganda.

To Mr Peter Mulira, a veteran lawyer and Mailo land proponent, land-related headaches will persist unless there is an overhaul at the national land registry in the Ministry of Lands, home to original land titles in the country.

That rot has included double and multiple titling for the same land, disappearances of original land documents, some allegedly plucked out of files to create room for manipulation of records and ownership as well as exchange of cash to facilitate falsification of land documents or entry of wrong particulars on original titles.

Mr Mulira said he lost his sister to Covid-19 in July and she owned 27 acres of land in Mukono District, east of the capital Kampala.  

However, when they tried to file for letters of administration, they discovered “the land is not there, it is in somebody else’s name”.

 The speedy transaction, insiders at Lands ministry admit, was likely a result of forgery oiled through bribes.

 Officials told Mr Mulira and his brother that their sister sold the land in February, five months before her passing on, but the pair found out that not only was her signature on the purported transaction forged, but it has been dated August, a month after she was buried!

 “How can a dead person witness her own signature? That is the fraud there,” Mr Mulira said, adding that they were dump-founded to find that the grabbed land had already been advertised for sale online at Shs250m.

 Fraud and forgeries have, for instance, meant a mailo landlord holds a title and a settler is also issued a freehold title on the same piece of land, creating a legal conundrum and ownership paralysis.

As a result, banks turn away a freehold title holder on Mailo land and it is speculated that affected and more powerful freehold title holders are behind the push to abolish Mailo tenure, which Landnet’s Bakkidde described as the “safest”.

The string of corruption in land transactions webs brokers, lawyers, bankers, politicians, security operatives, surveyors and land title registrars, with the latter making the final entries of ownership particulars.

Responding to allegations that Lands officials are corrupt, the ministry spokesperson Dennis Obbo, said: “Each issue needs to be looked at on a case-to-case basis. For a transaction to take place in the land registry, somebody from outside the office ought to have brought papers and submitted them to us. And, sometimes, when people bring papers, they come with mistakes that are inserted in the land registry. Our role is not to question, but rather, register. Fraud comes from outside the office.”

That explanation from the face of it suggests that the registrars at the Lands offices have no obligation to do due diligence on documents files with them, which lapse would potentially open the floodgate for forgery to thrive.

One way to solve the problem of ownership authentication is to spread the government’s pilot scheme of titling customary land and giving owners titles for free. This, experts argue, will be a game-changer as it will open property boundaries upcountry, assign documented ownership and empower land owners to, for instance, stake the titles to borrow money from the banks for more entrepreneurial land use.

Another option has been the Land ministry digitalising all titles to secure them and ease retrieval to safeguard against falsification, but Mr Obbo said the automation and plans to undertake countrywide sensitisation about land rights and the law have been hamstrung by budget cuts since 2010.

“It is good that at least this year, the government is going to prioritise the issue of land amendments and evictions, which requires a budget. So, at least we are sure that we shall have more money than what we previously had in order to be able to carry out sensitisation,” he said.

Speaking about the customary land tenure system, Mr Jimmy Ochom, the land rights coordinator at Oxfam, argues that certificates of customary ownership (CCOs) have been suggested and may provide the best option for creating security of tenure. 

“CCOs are a good thing because customary land ownership is the only tenure system that depends on your word against mine,” he argues.

Mr Ochom, however, warns that the registration of customary land may come with disadvantages too. “The disadvantage is land fragmentation…when land gets a title, it ceases to be customary. Someone in Kampala can buy acres he wants in Acholi provided he has money,” he said.

Other institutional roles

According to lawyer Mulira, the government needs to divest itself from managing land and return it to the citizen “who own it, know it better, and have managed it for centuries”.

“There is no reason why the central government should get involved [in land matters], except in maintaining registers and providing other logistics like surveying land,” he said.

The problem of land is an economic drawdown since disputes over ownership take long to resolve, holding up investment and financing decisions. At personal level, evictions, as have been documented, lead to clashes and deaths evictions, destruction of property, landlessness, and psychological distress.

To stem the tide, the government has partnered with Civil Society Organisations to continuously educate the masses about their land rights and the law, including establishing a toll-free telephone line 0800100004 to report transgressions.

Mr Sam Mayanja, the State minister for Lands, said a unified tenure system can be helpful in resolving land conflicts.

“There is an international evaluation body, part of the World Bank, advocating for a single tenure system for each country, something I agree with because it is where the world is going. When everyone has the opportunity to have a (land) title, it will become the value of the country,” he said.

Land crime, way forward

The Annual Crime Police report shows that 319 cases of land-related crimes were reported in 2020, which was a year of Covid-induced lockdown, slightly down from the 345 cases reported the previous year.

Registration by false pretence as well as forgery and uttering a false document topped the crimes, averaging 72 and 55 respectively, in 2020 and 2019.

About half of the land-related cases filed with police last year related to obtaining money by false pretence, followed by criminal trespass and concealing title deeds.

As a way forward, the Criminal Investigations Directorate spokesperson Charles Twiine suggests the need for collective responsibility to address the issue of corruption, multiple land registration, and quick disposal of land cases.

“It is not the police that effects evictions. An eviction that is lawful is executed by a court official appointed and assigned by the court. Our role as police is to verify whether the eviction order is authentic and issued by a competent court, to verify whether the bailiff is an official of court and with a valid operating licence and to provide security at the time of execution (of the eviction),” he said.

Lessons from Kenya

A 2014 report conducted on land tenure security in selected countries shows that Kenya has three systems: private, communal, or public tenure.

“Kenya has consequently individualised its tenure systems, being perhaps the best example of an African country, which has attempted to establish a European-style cadastral system for its land registration programmes,” the report reads in part.

It adds: “This was achieved through systematic adjudication of existing traditional rights. The formation of the National Land Commission to specifically deal with public land; [it] safeguards it and ensures its proper management. The compression of the various land laws into the two main comprehensive land acts, i.e. the Land Act 2012 and the Land Registration Act 2012, also simplifies land matters.”

Further, the authors note that Kenya has established an open market economy where individual property rights in land are well-documented and respected. The country has promulgated a new Constitution that tries to address current land issues, its allocation, distribution, acquisition, and ownership.

Uganda’s level of tenure security, according to the same report, is “weak” and that getting more secure levels of tenure country-wide is still a long way off due to political and ethnic issues.