Challenges facing land reform in Uganda

Writer: Cliff Kamuhanda. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • The ideal land policy in Uganda would place the surveyor at the top of the decision-making pyramid. 

Land reform can refer to the continuous improvement in the way land is defined, registered and administered. It is continuous because the demands on land are continuous and constantly changing. 

Land is defined by its size, its location and its shape. It is registered according to the person in whom it is vested, a bundle of rights and privileges that only they can enjoy at a given time. Land is finally administered by the way it is used. It can be residential, commercial, agricultural or administrative.

Historically, land reform has taken a predictable trajectory, determined mainly by population growth. The year 1900 is of significance in Uganda’s land reform history because it was the first time in Africa that a concept of land ownership was introduced. 

The 1966 Crisis, which was a power struggle the prime minister Milton Obote and president Edward Muteesa II, who was also the Kabaka (king) of Buganda, culminated in the Buganda Lukiiko (parliament) issuing an order demanding that the central government vacate Buganda land. The consequences of this crisis still reverberate today.

The Land Reform Decree of 1975 sought to abolish freehold land tenure and establish State ownership of land. However, these policies were met with resistance and led to land tenure insecurity and conflicts.

The Land Act of 1998 introduced a dual land tenure system that recognised customary land tenure and provided for the registration of customary land rights. Subsequent land laws and policies have aimed to address land disputes, promote gender equality in land rights, and support sustainable land management. It is clear from the historical perspective given above that if land reform is handled poorly, it can be used as a tool for persecution. Yet land reform is necessary for development.

The land office in the Ministry of Lands – the custodian of land definition, administration and registration in Uganda – is riddled with challenges. These include inconsistent record keeping, mapping overlaps, double plotting, area discrepancies, missing records, outdated methods of checking surveys and varying data sets as well as acutely incompetent personnel.  

This, in my view, is at the heart of the problem of land reform in Uganda, primarily because it affects the security of tenure of individuals and institutions, which in turn causes rigidity in land administration. A rigid land administrative system is characterised by delays in decision making and high rates of borrowing, because of uncertainty.  

When looked at closely, one realises that this is an accountability problem.  
Land registration (land tenure systems and the regulations that affect them) and land administration (land use which informs planning, zoning and valuation) are functions of legislation.  They are, therefore, more static than they are fluid, with changes few and far between.

Land definition, however, is fluid because it is suited to individual needs. The ideal land policy in Uganda would place the surveyor at the top of the decision-making pyramid.  The surveyor is best placed to determine, and execute the location, size and shape of a parcel of land, in relation to the prevailing laws. In other words, all that is needed is for the surveyor to be at the helm of the land policy architecture, and then make them accountable.

The most effective way to make the surveyor accountable is to register them and have a database of who they are, where they are and what they do.  

This would then be followed by regulations of the standards of work and output. The competence of the individual surveyor is immaterial as these are checked against their colleagues’ competences; thereby inadvertently leading to an inevitable improvement in standards and efficiency of output.

One case in point will suffice. A surveyor’s place is in the field.  This is especially so in Uganda where the data collected is still insufficient to accurately map the myriad of surveys that take place daily.  

You will be hard pressed to find a single surveyor who prefers the current official mapping system (UGRF) to the previous one (Arc 1960). This includes the Staff Surveyors at the various Zonal Offices and the District Surveyors at the Local Government. 

This, of course, is a direct result of the “computerisation of the Land Registry”, a process that was abused from the very beginning when maps were scanned and then “geo-referenced” without the “geo” or ground data.

The writer, Cliff Kamuhanda, is a surveyor
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