Kaguta’s blindspot; the ugly story of soil in Uganda

Mr Charles Onyango-Obbo

What you need to know:

For Museveni, the challenge is how to govern in ways that don’t produce the backlash of the past when he departs the presidency...

I have just re-read President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni’s 25-page long writeup, “Mistake Makers and Opportunists Let us Alone”, written on November 10, 2023.

It’s a big dive into Ugandan and world history, as a backdrop for him to comment on the contentious issues of the balaalo (itinerant cattle keepers/nomads) in Uganda, and broadly the nearly-explosive question of land in Uganda.

President Museveni is on the money, but two things perplex and unsettle me. This is about the 10th such long “missive” he has written in the last year to respond to several national and global crises. This time he delves into pre-1900s “Uganda”, and casts his gaze even to Argentina, which, he notes, by 1900 was the 10th richest country in the world. Today it’s an economic mess with inflation nearing 140 per cent. He says the mistake Argentina and other Latin American countries made the mistake of not creating their own Latin American common market.

However, the man for whom history and social science are nuclear weapons hates the arts and social sciences. He’s made it his lifetime commitment knocking down the arts and social sciences. The people who teach them are mocked and paid peanuts, and the prime salaries are paid to science teachers. However, when he is battling his imperialist foes, the opposition, and other ideologically “bankrupt” forces, history and the social sciences are his weapon of choice. He can’t have it both ways.

The other matter was how selective in his examples of Ugandan land history, and didn’t go far in offering solutions. I am one of those who used to take the idealist view that there should be a free land market. But I am alive to how emotive land is.

The president curiously doesn’t refer to a sticky land issue close in his backyard; the Ankole Ranching Scheme. Launched by the  Milton Obote (I) UPC government in the mid-1960s, the project took off in 1965. It set up just over 120 ranches, each of about 3,000 acres and leased to tenants: for 49 years. About 96 ranches were in Ankole and three in Masaka district. Among other things, the scheme was located to serve the beef-deficient DR Congo and Rwanda, as well as Uganda.

Many of the farms failed for market reasons, as Museveni would rightly argue. There was also some discontent that some Ankole elite got concessions because they were linked to UPC. There, however, were a handful of averagely successful farms.

When Museveni and the ruling NRM took power in 1986, they faced in Ankole a region where the population had grown dramatically; there was rising agitation over landlessness; and the political climate was against the “old order” who were sitting on 3,000 acres. Museveni led a political assault on the Ankole Ranching Scheme, and it was dismantled, despite the legal and property rights of the holders. It is all history now.

The fate of the Ankole Ranching Scheme pointed yet again to a bloat in Ugandan history. There are few significant land transactions, or economic fortunes built, however honestly and legally, which have survived more than two regimes, if the local sites on which they are established feel the owners enjoyed a special economic or political privilege.

After the fall of Amin in April 1979, along the Mbale-Soroti road thriving and creative communities of Nubians in Kachumbala and Bukedea, were run out, their homes reduced to ashes. These were people whose history in Uganda dates back to the late 1800s, but they were persecuted as “Amin’s people”.

Field Marshal Amin led a seizure of Asian businesses (and their expulsion from Uganda), partly presenting them as beneficiaries of colonial privilege. Most lands bought in Bombo, Mukono, and other parts of Uganda by senior figures in Amin’s regime were forcefully taken over, most of them during NRM’s rule. Claimants who resisted were scattered into exile or arrested.

I know individuals from Eastern and Northern Uganda, who were associated with Obote II who were chased from their lands in Luwero, Kakiri, Luwero, and parts of Busoga after the fall of his regime. A lot of focus was on the hated UPC politicians in these areas whose heads were cut off with chainsaws, untold is the story of what happened to their land.

These events are not our proudest hours. However, we can put an end to them. Once, I thought the free market and legal title were enough. I’ve since learnt that the law doesn’t help. Indigenous/native nationalism is deadly. Only politics, and taking the right lessons from history, will. For Museveni, the challenge is how to govern in ways that don’t produce the backlash of the past when he departs the presidency or his government collapses, against land bought and farms established during his reign. Fortunately, he loves history – though be it only for himself.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3