Inherited land wrangles: A reality check

Author, Muniini K Mulera. PHOTO/FILE 

What you need to know:

  • Do you not wish that parents would leave no material possessions to their educated, intelligent, and able-bodied offspring? I do.

Dear Tingasiga:

There is nothing new about inter-personal land wrangles in Uganda. Growing up in Kigezi in the 1960s, stories of fights over plot boundaries, land ownership, and land inheritance were part of our informal education. In those days, Kigezi and Bugisu were leading theatres of homicides triggered by fights over land ownership. For the most part, these wrangles and killings occurred among the illiterate peasants whose only economic resource was the tiny plots of land they had inherited from their male elders.

 Those conflicts were often amicably resolved through an efficient and largely just system administered by uncorrupt local chiefs, police force, and Judiciary, without political interference. In the case of Kigezi, people took advantage of a well-established emigration programme to find large tracts of land in sparsely populated areas in northern Kigezi, Ankole, Buganda, Bunyoro, and Tooro, where they were welcomed with open arms. Uganda’s population was small, numbering only 9.1 million in 1969. Any failure to migrate to “greener pastures” was not a consequence of lack of opportunities, but a cultural attachment to “one’s people”, to the familiar, and to one’s ancestors’ graves.

 The situation in 2022 is so different that people of my generation are stunned by the state of land utilisation, competition, wrangles, injustice and all else that has become part of Uganda’s land ownership crisis. The educated elite have joined the peasants in the war of greed for something they were never born with. The rapid appreciation of land value in the Kampala-Entebbe area and other urban centres in the country has fueled an unprecedented scramble for land, with serious disputes among claimants of inheritance rights.

  I am very underqualified to offer a description and analysis of this land ownership crisis. I am even more underqualified to offer practical solutions to this crisis that I believe will soon reach a critical point, with explosive consequences. What I, and most conscious Ugandans, can say with confidence is that an inefficient and corruption-infested land registry system, corrupt and inefficient police force, a dysfunctional Judiciary, complete with many corrupt lawyers and judges, and pervasive political interference in land allocation, compensation, and dispute resolution, is the perfect prescription for a deepening crisis. With an estimated population of 49 million people in 2022, and a projected population of 100 million by 2050, it does not require the abilities of Nyakairima ka Muzoora, the great 19 Century seer and prophet, to predict a human catastrophe in our beloved country.

 What I wish to address today is a narrow aspect of land conflict, namely, claims and fights by offspring and other real and self-proclaimed relatives of a dead patriarch. Of late, we have read and watched scandalous pamphlets, news reports and videos that have appeared designed to litigate cases of inherited land claims in the court of public opinion. Some of these conflicts are among people with whom we shared our childhood and youth, people whose parents we held in very high esteem because of their personal character and public service. Some are our friends. Some are children of parents who were murdered by presumed state agents and political opponents. Their offspring are now busy murdering their murdered parents’ names and legacies.

 Common to all these public displays of greed and uncivilised conduct is the use of the phrase “my land” or “my property” by the contending parties. This is a fallacy, rooted in the mistaken belief that being born to so-and-so entitles you to their possessions. I am fully aware of the legal aspects of land and property inheritance. I understand the intent of the laws and the reality that a dead person’s property must become owned by one or more natural persons or entities. What I dispute is the premise that my parents’ property is mine. I reject the notion that land that my mother and father acquired through sweat and sacrifice is mine. I believe with full clarity and conviction that my parents’ land and development thereon is theirs, even in their death. Their land and property are not mine and will never be mine.

 How can it be mine when I never contributed even one cent to its acquisition and development? How can I claim something for which I ought to be a mere custodian on behalf of my dead parents? How can I claim something that my siblings have as much right to, and responsibility for, as I do? How do I even remotely consider disenfranchising my siblings from continued access and enjoyment of land and property that belonged to the very same parents we shared? My land is only that for which my wife and I have worked very hard to acquire with our money.

 I strongly believe that there is an urgent need for a mindset change, with abandonment of the false claim that dead parents’ land “is mine.” Here is a reality check. It is not your land. Never been. Never will be. It is their land. You and your siblings – both male and female – are equal partners as temporary custodians of that land, not owners. Obviously, your dead parents cannot put their land to use. In life, they most likely hoped that their offspring would use the land and property to support themselves and each other, not to engage in war and strife over it.  They probably hoped that you would pass it down the generations, as a family asset to serve their progeny, not to be a source of misery, regret, and fratricide.

 Yes, we live in a new era of unprecedented greed. Land in Uganda has become a precious commodity for sale in exchange for mega-dollars. Sadly, land and other property left behind by very hardworking people has become a source of deep distress, discord, and death in families. The shameless public display of these wrangles has exposed the parasitic nature of the generations that were supposedly raised in the period of enlightenment in our country. We have seen greater attachment to land and property than to the lives, welfare and dignity of siblings and others that were dear to the real owners – their dead parents. Are you not saddened by all this? I am. Do you not wish that parents would leave no material possessions to their educated, intelligent, and able-bodied offspring? I do.

Muniini K. Mulera is Ugandan-Canadian social and political observer.       [email protected]

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