Land reforms debate draws suspicion from Buganda

Residents assist in carrying household items of a family that was evicted in Atidu Village, Thatha Division in Nebbi Municipality in February. Government says it seeks to implement land reforms that are intended to do away with unfair evictions. PHOTO / FILE

What you need to know:

  • In early May 1998, then Prime Minister Apolo Nsibambi, who was the chief guest at the swearing-in of newly elected Kampala Mayor Nasser Ntege Ssebagala, was booed off the stage after telling the crowds that they were being misled that government planned to grab Buganda’s land in the proposed amendment, which was eventually shelved. Twenty-four years later, these reforms continue to elicit a welter of suspicion, especially after government says it needs to get rid of the Mailo land tenure system, write Frederic Musisi & William Kintu.

The corridor leading to the Lands ministry on Parliamentary Avenue is a beehive of activity.
For non-staffers, entrance to any office is usually by appointment. Anyone who has frequented these corridors of recent must have noticed the new pattern; the down-trodden in droves walking to the office of the State Minister of Lands, Mr Sam Mayanja, a former partner at Kampala Associated Advocates and whose conservative views on Buganda caught the eye of President Museveni before he was appointed to the office in June 2021.
During an interview on Thursday, Mr Mayanja revealed that he introduced an open-door policy to listen to the grievances of the underclass at the grassroots who continue to face evictions. Among those we found at his office were victims of evictions who had walked from far-flung areas such as Kalungu and Butambala districts, and a bishop who had travelled from western Uganda.

“Most of them travel from far places, so I try to attend to all of them. Sometimes it’s unbearable but I don’t like chasing them away,” Mr Mayanja quipped, to which we responded with a question: “Why would everyone with a grievance be lining up to see the minister yet there are multiple offices?”
Many of these evictions continue to take place in the central region whose parcels of land are largely under the mailo tenure system.
 

President Museveni 


The communities in Buganda and the monarch views the reforms with suspicion. So why is government keen to abolish Mailo and not Free-hold as both tenures allow the land owner to hold land in perpetuity?
On the contrary, the Mailo tenure system gives equitable rights to Bibanja holders who can only be evicted on the basis of failure to pay ground rent—a departure from the freehold system, which doesn’t recognise the rights of lawful occupants. 
On the evening of July 17, a group of 10 men armed with pangas descended on a piece of land situated on Munanira island, one of the 29 islands in Lake Bunyonyi in Kabale District. The property belongs to Ms Lydia Murungi Katarikawe.
The caretakers of Ms Katarikawe’s property said the armed men felled trees on the land and later encroached on it. The suspects were briefly detained by police and released on bond. 

The land question
Last week on Tuesday towards the crack of dawn, police under the cover of the velvet dark raided the homes of 70-year old Wiliam Kibuuka and 47-year old Mariam Naiga in Sseenene Village, Butambala District.
The duo is embroiled in a dispute with relatives over ancestral land measuring more than 14 acres. The dispute first flared during the compensation for right of way to allow construction of the 135km Mpigi-Kabulasoke-Maddu-Sembabule road between 2014 and 2017.
They are accused by their paternal auntie, one Nambi, aged 80, of criminal trespass. The relatives of the duo accuse Nambi and her children of conniving with the Resident District Commissioner (RDC), Mr Sulaiman Lubwama.
Mr Lubwama denied the claim. He acknowledged that the dispute was once referred to him to intercede “and of course, during the course of trying to help one side that is not favoured will accuse you of taking sides.”

Naiga and Kibuuka remained in jail until last Friday when they were prompted to release them as a result of our presence. 
Land conflicts remain a potential tinderbox across the regions in the country. 
In Buganda, kingdom prime minister Charles Peter Mayiga told Daily Monitor in a recent interview that the reforms ‘have nothing to do with Mailo land or the land tenure system.’
The Mailo land tenure system grants the owner a perpetual interest on land and whose title is impeachable under the Torrens Land system except in the case of fraud, while kibanja holders have an equitable interest on land and can only be evicted on the failure to pay ground rent. However, the freehold tenure does not recognise the rights of Kibanja holders. 

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The government, however, insists the Mailo system in its current state is partly to blame for the cocktail of land wrangles in Buganda, Tooro, Bunyoro, and Ankole sub-regions where it was introduced by the British colonial administration in the respective agreements.
In this cycle of land evictions and overlap of authorities, RDCs, Police and the Judiciary have been accused of aiding and abetting these conflicts.
On February 28, 2022, President Museveni issued a directive prohibiting any eviction even if it is sanctioned by court without the “consent and direct observation of the district security committee chaired by the RDC and direct consultation with the Minister of Lands.”

“People would take over a Kibanja somewhere, evict people, and then quickly rush to court and secure a court order to maintain the status quo. Then the bibanja settlers or holders could be arrested as criminal trespassers,” Mr Mayanja said, adding: “Once the order violates Article 237 (clause 8), I think it is invalid.  So, you look at it; is it evicting the Kibanja holder for any valid reason? Was it a constitutional judgement interpreting that constitutional provision saying the Kibanja holder can be evicted, or the Magistrate just decided? But not to conflict with the Judiciary it was decided that we will get the court orders, give them to the Attorney General and apply to a superior court to be vacated.”

The 1995 Constitution introduced fundamental reforms in land ownership with Article 237 spelling out four tenure systems; Customary, Freehold, Mailo, and Leasehold. Clause eight of Article 237 further spelt out: “Within two years after the first sitting of Parliament elected under this Constitution, Parliament shall enact a law to regulate the relationship between the lawful or bonafide occupants of land referred to in the clause, and the registered owners of that land, and providing for the acquisition of registrable interest in the land by the occupant.
“So why didn’t the Parliament of the day pass this law?” Mr Mayanja wondered during the interview. “When I ask[ed] the question I am referred to the struggles of the day between Mengo [seat of Buganda Kingdom] and whoever wanted to abolish Mailo land. So they [Mengo] threatened and in 1998 even carried out a mourning.”

Charles Peter Mayiga, Katikkiro of Buganda

Historical problems
Mr Mayanja added: “If they came out with that overt act of mourning when they know it is their fellow Baganda to benefit from this reform [law], because 90 percent of Baganda do not have titles; they are Bibanja holders. If you go to most of the villages and ask who owns this large tract of land, they will tell you it is so and so and they are in Kampala. It is their [Mengo’s) subjects who are harassed every day but disturbing to see why they [Mengo] are opposed to any reform.”
After the NRA opened doors for restoration of traditional cultural institutions in 1993, having been abolished in 1966, the central government and Mengo have sparred over a number of issues and land remains a sticky issue. 
“We call it the land question because it’s a headache and it has caused problems in the body politik,” Mr Mayanja said, adding: “The first cause of the land problems in Uganda is the historical injustice caused by the 1900 Buganda Agreement .”
The agreement molded the foundation of Buganda-British colonial government relationship. It created, among other things, Crown land as for the colonial administration, and the Mailo land system borne out of the political and Usufructuary rights of the local chiefs. The Mailo land system was introduced in other areas as stipulated in the 1900 Tooro agreement, the 1901 Ankole Agreement and 1933 Bunyoro Agreement.

In Buganda, the 1900 Agreement was followed by the land law, which made distinction between official mailo owned by the king and his senior ranking officials, and private mailo for individuals to own forever. This was followed by the Buganda Agreement (Allotment and Survey), 1913, which empowered the Lukiiko (Buganda parliament), leading to the revolt of Bibanja holders in 1922, which forced the colonial administration to intervene because the protest scuttled supply of cash crops that fed industries in London.

This led to the enactment of the Busuulu and Envujjo law in 1928 which was the saving grace for peasants in Buganda to recognise their rights against the nobles. Then came the 1962 Independence Constitution, which codified all existing laws, but under which public land was placed under Uganda Land Commission (ULC), district, and kingdom boards respectively. However, private land remained untouched. 
There was the 1969 Public Lands Act and the 1975 Land Reform decree, which brought administration of all land under Uganda Land Commission except religious institutions’ while all mailo land was converted into leases of up 99 years. The tenants and bibanja holders, who gained in the 1928 law, were left vulnerable by the 1975 decree as it assumed they did not have rights over land, so they could be evicted.
The 1995 Constitution marked a new dawn with Article 237 (1) putting land in the hands of the citizens. 

Flak against law
Previous attempts to see through such a law have been met with resistance and elicited suspicion. In April 1998, President Museveni, while speaking at the closure of a two-day meeting of MPs on the proposed Land Bill, remarked that Baganda do not own land, which statement, according an article published by this newspaper, was interpreted as a covert government plan to allocate central Uganda land to other tribal groups.
In early May 1998 during the ceremony for installation of the then Kampala mayor, Nasser Ntege Ssebagala, the then Prime Minister Apolo Nsimbabi was booed off the stage after airing his views on the same matter. Then junior minister for Local Government Kahinda Otafiire who had accompanied the chief guest attempted to calm the situation by saying “No Munyankole will steal Baganda land.”

During the just concluded election campaigns during which the ruling NRM lost resoundingly in Buganda, land was a sticky subject. One senior government official intimated that the Executive was particularly jolted by the sentiments that there was a ploy to steal Buganda’s land. The sentiments came on the backdrop of arbitrary arrests and gross human rights abuses of the opposition National Unity Platform (NUP) supporters in Buganda.
However, Mr Mayanja says despite the resistance and undertones, government is committed to implementing the reforms.
President Museveni while meeting then MPs-elect in April, 2021, at Kyankwanzi said one of the things he aims to achieve during this sixth term in office is to see a change in the land laws.  
“Land owners should be entitled to full ownership of their land like elsewhere in Uganda. In Ankole, nobody can chase you away from your land. You even fear…”
The Buganda Katikkiro says there is no need for land reforms. 

Key proposals
“What needs to be done is to handle six key areas; first is the land office, because people with money find it easy to acquire titles, even over and above other titles—someone who wants to carry out a search or a transaction in the land office may fail, and that is the first problem. The second problem is the police land unit; they simply don’t have the capacity to investigate any land related crime and because they can’t investigate, they can’t prepare investigations files to the court for possible prosecution of the culprits. The third problem is the court system; a land case can last between 5-10 years in court before being disposed of,” Mr Mayiga said.
He added: “There must be a clear separation of roles between the Executive, Judiciary, and Legislature; the checks and balances are healthy in any society but when you get Executive orders interfering¬¬¬ with court orders, you compound the problem.”
The Katikkiro said the fifth problem has to do with population explosion.

“A village which had 300 people 10 years ago has 3,000 people today but the land is the same and the government cannot mitigate that. The sixth point is, the land in densely populated areas has been overused and out of nutrients, so we need government programmes focusing on how to apply nutrients in the land but you don’t see that anywhere.  Those are the core problems; it has nothing to do with Mailo land or the land tenure system.”
The debate on land reforms could come off as a scrimmage for power between the government and Buganda. Mr Mayanja disagrees with this opinion, saying that until the Mengo elite accept to correct these historical injustices, the kingdom subjects will continue to bear the brunt of rampant evictions.

State Minister for Lands Sam Mayanja during the interview at his office last Thursday. PHOTO/ Frederic Musisi


What they say
President Museveni: “Land owners should be entitled to full ownership of their land like elsewhere in Uganda. In Ankole, nobody can chase you away from your land. You even fear…”

Sam Mayanja, State minister for Lands: “If they came out with that overt act of mourning when they know it is their fellow Baganda to benefit from this reform [law], because 90 percent of Baganda do not have titles; they are Bibanja holders. If you go to most of the villages and ask who owns this large tract of land, they will tell you it is so and so and they are in Kampala. It is their [Mengo’s) subjects who are harassed every day but it is disturbing to see why they [Mengo] are opposed to any reform.”.”

Charles Peter Mayiga, Katikkiro of Buganda:  “What needs to be done is to handle six key areas; first is the land office, because people with money find it easy to acquire titles, even over and above other titles—someone who wants to carry out a search or a transaction in the land office may fail, and that is the first problem. The second problem is the police land unit; they simply don’t have the capacity to investigate any land related crime and because they can’t investigate, they can’t prepare investigations files to the court for possible prosecution of the culprits. The third problem is the court system; a land case can last between 5-10 years in court before being disposed of. There must be a clear separation of roles between the Executive, Judiciary, and Legislature; the checks and balances are healthy in any society but when you get Executive orders interfering with court orders, you compound the problem.”

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