President Museveni’s latest announcement prohibiting evictions of squatters from land is just but one episode in a long running battle over land rights in Uganda. Under his regime alone, the land question first came up during the making of the 1995 constitution. By Charles Mwanguhya Mpagi, The Monitor, 10 March 2013
Passage of the 1998 Land Act, mandated by the Constitution was a turbulent affair as Buganda Kingdom, one of the biggest landlords, when put together with individual landed chiefs and prominent Baganda, rose up in protest against what they perceived was a scheme to disposes them.
In 2008, with increased violent evictions especially in the central region, an amended Land Act was passed but Buganda was having none of it. Land conflicts had also spread to the east and north whose communal land ownership system faced threats of new arrivals in the swamps of Teso and vast open fields in the north—former homesteads deserted because of the war but which were seen as being eyed by people from the south.
Addressing journalists at his country home in Rwakitura on Tuesday, the President pointed to colonialists for the current confusion where colonialists distorted traditional ownership systems as they sought to establish control.
That history, which created multiple landholding systems has been blamed for today’s confusion but critics too point to a new land thirst by the politically and financially powerful and a subtle scheme of political dominance and subjugation not much different from the interests of colonialists.
At the passage of the Land Amendment Act in 2008, daggers were drawn between especially Mengo (the seat of the Buganda Kingdom) and the central government. While the Kabaka (Buganda king) unleashed a “land sensitisation committee” that had in its membership the likes of Betty Namboze, now Mukono Municipality MP, Medard Ssegona Lubega, Charles Peter Mayiga among others, State House also unleashed its own team which included among others Moses Byaruhanga to form and support “Abebibanja (tenants) associations” in places like Luweero.
The aggressive fight to win over the population led to the arrests of the Nambozes but further deteriorated relations between Mengo and the central government. That background has again risen to the fore concerns about whether and how the news initiative will remedy the situation. Critics use various words to describe the latest initiative from State House calling it among others “shooting from the hip, knee jerk reactions, populist pronouncements” among others.
The economics of the current land fights
But supporters of the President’s intervention say, rampant dispossession of people has gone on for far too long and needs to be stemmed. Arguing his case, Museveni said the colonial land allocations, especially in Buganda were not commercially focused. Allocatees of land looked for heavily populated areas where they could extract maximum rents or Busuulu, a move that made people serfs on their own land. The colonial government, faced with protests in the early 1920s passed a law aimed at correcting the servitude of formerly bonafide owners of land setting a nominal annual rental fee of Shs8 under the Busuulu and Envujo Act.
In 1975 Amin was to decree outlawing mailo land ownership altogether.
There are no reliable figures and research to show the exact extent of evictions and effects on the population but what cannot be disputed is the fact that most of these evictions have happened in areas around Buganda.
Moses Byaruhanga says the growing economic activity, especially around Kampala and across the country has reawaked once reluctant landlords, who for long had given up demand for the nominal rental fee, especially from peasant farmers. He says the emergence of real estate companies has exacerbated the problem.
There is evidence to back his claim here, initial investors in real estate like Akright bought and sold their estates cheaply, with plots at as low as Shs3.5m in now prime areas like Kakungulu, Kirinya. They cut generous plot sizes and allowed flexibility of repayment, then others discovered the secret and invaded the market. Today, an acre can be sliced into at least eight small plots each bought sold at between five and Shs20m.
“Sometimes it is these real estate companies that go looking for landlords and making offers some of which are too good to resist and this landlord who had given up on the land looks at the money being offered and forgets about the squatters who were paying him almost nothing and decides to sale,” argues Byaruhanga.
But other critics look to government and corruption to blame for the land grabs. Some blame corruption that has fuelled land speculation driven mainly by people in government. Without many option on where to keep the money without attracting a lot of attention which has driven up land prices. Others have returned the money home and sought to expand their land holdings in the villages to build bigger homes and farms forcing the poor to sale,who look for land elsewhere, many in the central region.
Museveni said an acre of land around the Nyabushozi area where his farm is located costs about Shs4m, the same amount of land near the city would cost upwards of Shs30m, while the same in Kayunga, Kiboga or Bubende can go for as low as Shs800, 000.
As a result, many people are selling off smaller holdings in rural west and invading areas around Buganda where land is cheaper to acquire more acreage. The challenge for Museveni remains on his ability to win trust. It does not help that he has often boasted about his own landholding and that his name and those of close relatives and friends have often popped up when land acquisitions have been named. At Rwakitura on Tuesday he rubbished claims he had interests in a piece of land in Lango sub-region, saying he had enough land to want more.
Buganda Kingdom Attorney General Apollo Makubuya said Buganda will study the President’s position, debate it in the Lukiiko and respond, but he was quick to warn against what he called “shooting from the hip” and quick fixes of the land issues. Makubuya says proper understanding is necessary and comprehensive legislation is what will heal the land debate.
* image: President Museveni at a recent function. He has blamed colonialists for the current land wrangles, saying they distorted traditional ownership systems as they sought to establish control.