25 February 2008

Uganda: Controversial Land Bill May Cost Museveni Critical Support Base

What started as a mere controversy over the new land amendment bill tabled in the Ugandan parliament early this month, has evolved into a major row touching on the powers and privileges of the country's traditional kingdoms.

Indeed, the controversial land bill that has now drawn President Yoweri Museveni into a sticky dispute threatening to cost him influence in regions which have all along been critical support bases of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM).

While the government argues that the amendment is aimed at protecting tenants from unlawful evictions, critics - chiefly the Kabaka of Buganda, Ronald Mutebi and his kingdom officials - accuse the government of trying to use the proposed legislation to allow "outsiders" to illegally settle on their land.

The case for land reform in Uganda is strong. Currently, there are four land tenure systems in the country: freehold, leasehold, customary and Mailo.

The latter is the most contentious - a creation of the colonial government's Buganda Agreement of 1900, which gave the king and chiefs thousands of acres of land to reward them for co-operating with the foreign master. A lot of this land had people living on it.

The agreement created a landed gentry and a serf class, obligating the latter to pay ground rent or a portion of their agricultural harvests to the landlords.

Previous land reforms have been half-hearted with the government choosing to postpone having to make hard decisions on this politically-sensitive issue.

A 1928 law fixed the payments to landlords, while a 1975 decree nationalised all land and abolished Mailo land tenure system. The 1998 Land Act restored Mailo, recognising the rights of both registered owners and those people who had been living on the land 12 years earlier, but ended up resurrecting the questions of duality of ownership.

With Uganda's population growing at 3.2 per cent per year, there is increasing friction between landlords who own titles to land occupied by squatters, and tenants who have lived on land for generations but have no legal title. The Lands ministry earlier this year published a list of several hundred cases of evictions that it claimed had been carried out unfairly and illegally.

The current reforms are part of the private sector competitiveness programme, a World Bank-funded initiative to modernise the country's notoriously corrupt and inefficient land registry and records system and make land transactions faster, easier and more transparent.

Officials familiar with the reform programme who spoke to The EastAfrican on condition of anonymity conceded that while the initiative contained broadly welcome reforms, political interests were trying to hijack and manipulate the reform programme to take power away from district land tribunals and transfer decision making to the minister in charge.

Wandera Ogalo, a lawyer who represents Uganda at the East African Legislative Assembly, says the proposed amendments are an attempt to unconstitutionally "usurp" power from existing district land boards and to transfer decision making to the Minister of Lands and "unrealistic" conditions which "effectively make it almost impossible to evict a defaulting tenant."

Public debate on the matter has been shrill and stained. Using its local radio and a hastily-arranged "sensitisation committee," the Buganda Kingdom has been rallying its subjects to oppose the proposed amendments to prevent its land from falling in foreign hands. Several kingdom officials point to controversial government attempts to resettle the pastoralist communities (Balaalo) on unused land in Buganda as a sign of things to come. Kingdom officials say laws already exist to protect tenants from illegal evictions and only need to be enforced.

With the government trying to mobilise support for the bill and the Kingdom opposing it, the stage was set for a confrontation which came last December in an angry letter that President Museveni wrote to the Kabaka. He wrote: "We are seeking to effectively implement the Land law of 1998 by stopping the illegal land evictions. The title of the land owner is not being cancelled? Therefore, for somebody to claim that [our land is being taken] because of this law, is to tell a lie. It is unprincipled intrigue."

President Museveni also warned cultural leaders not to get involved in the land debate since Article 246 3(a) of the Constitution bars them from engaging in politics.

"It is not the role of the Traditional Institutions to engage in that debate. All parts of Uganda, since 1986, have elected political leaders to do that job," Museveni wrote to the Kabaka.

Buganda's then Acting Prime Minister (Katikkiro), retorted in a December 29, 2007 letter to Museveni that the president was being diversionary when he accused the Kingdom of having got involved in partisan politics.

"It is not true that the Kingdom of Buganda or, indeed, our beloved Kabaka, has either joined or participated in partisan politics in breach of the Constitution," he said. "It is clear to us that land is not a partisan political issue and that the Kabaka and the institutions of the Kingdom of Buganda have a legitimate right to comment publicly about any proposed changes in the land laws of Uganda."

President Museveni's spokesman, John Nagenda, who was instrumental in the 1992 revival of the Buganda Kingdom that - along with other cultural institutions - had been banned by President Milton Obote in 1966, told The EastAfrican that the Kingdom's "confrontational style" in handling the land amendment issue was disappointing.

"The government has the capacity, which it has always had, of going straight to the people," Mr Nagenda said. "It doesn't have to go through anybody. If it is trying, as in this case, to talk to the Kabaka of Buganda and this man says I am too busy, then you just ignore him and go straight to the people. Actually, it has been a matter of protocol, if you like, and also good nature to talk to him because he is not even supposed to be political at all, just like other traditional leaders."

Buganda kingdom officials say while the Kabaka is apolitical, he is the custodian of Buganda's land and has a right to speak about land - a point the Kabaka sternly emphasised during the recent opening of the Buganda Kingdom's parliament (Lukiiko).

The debate over the proposed land reforms has raised two significant power plays. The first is over the law itself. Although President Museveni's National Resistance Movement enjoys a majority in Parliament, its failure to explain and sell the contents of the proposed amendments has forced its MPs from Buganda region into a position where they have to choose between local sentiments and national interest.

The Buganda MPs, many of them - including Vice President Prof Gilbert Bukenya, Prime Minister Prof Apolo Nsibambi (who is an ex-officio MP and leader of government business in the House) and the Attorney General Dr Kiddhu Makubuya - who all belong to the NRM, have formed a caucus to articulate a united position on the land debate but harmony does not come easy. MPs from other regions have also criticised the proposed reforms but Buganda kingdom is better organised and has been able to articulate its interests better.

Although the Cabinet signed off on the bill last year, Prof Bukenya broke ranks with his colleagues earlier this month when he criticised the Bill and said it was "hurriedly drafted without following proper procedures." The vice president's press office quickly moved to downplay the comments but they had been caught on video tape.

Prof Bukenya is not the only ruling party official in an uncomfortable spot. When the Bill was tabled before parliament by Housing State Minister Michael Werikhe, it was his fellow NRM MP, Felix Okot Ogong, a minister in Museveni's last Cabinet, who unsuccessfully tried to stay the tabling of the Bill.

Mr Okot-Ogong argued, unsuccessfully, that the tabling of the contentious bill needed to be delayed until sufficient nation-wide consultations had been done in order to avoid "polarisation and confusion in the country."

Observers, including Western diplomats, say the technical bits of the Bill need to be further explained to the public in order to generate consensus.

The second power-play carries a higher political payload. Officials close to the Buganda kingdom accuse President Museveni of trying to undermine the authority of the Kabaka.

A regional tier proposed last year in response to Buganda's request for a federal system of governance, sought to create an elected prime minister for the kingdom, breaking his hold on the day-to-day administration of his kingdom. Breaking his hold on land, kingdom officials say, would render the Kabaka powerless.

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