7 August 2012

Uganda: Why Land and Investment in the North Is Embroiled in Challenges


Of recent, serious disagreements have arisen between Acholi and Langi communities and government over land. In this two part article, I examine, as an Acholi and development expert, key challenges driving these misunderstandings and conflicts, and the importance of land in our development.

Various land issues in Northern Uganda- eviction of people from Apaa and East Madi Game Reserve, Madhvani's Amuru Sugar Works; military land in Acholipii, Labwordwong, Otuke; the Aswa, Acholi and Maruzi ranches and proposed Otuke Stock Farm- have generated heated debate among Ugandans, and prompted editorial in one of the dailies of July 31, headlined: "Go slow on land claims in north".

Central to all these is the failure to appreciate the concept of "customary land" as relates to role of government in development. The particular case in Acholi is Amuru Sugar Works that politicians are intent on blocking.

Legal challenge

During the 8th Parliament, MPs Nyeko Ochula, David Penytoo and Consy Achiro took Amuru District Land Board, Amuru Sugar Works (ASW) and some individuals to the High Court on claims that ASW and these people acquired land in Amuru district without consulting people and in contravention of the customary land rights of individuals and the Lamogi clans.

The MPs even challenged the powers of Amuru District Land Board to allocate land that they and the people they purported to represent had no demonstrable legal rights over.

When the case was lost, there was bitterness and claims were made that the Government manipulated court.

I took the trouble to read the judgement. Consequently, I advised these colleagues to accept the fair ruling of the Judge who even directed parties to meet their own costs.

Since then, at public dialogues on land, many prominent Acholis have urged our people to reject the "Certificate of Customary Ownership" of land, our equivalent of freehold or leasehold titles, because "it is part of the scheme to steal Acholiland". Yet the fact is that people are being incited to see evil in all the Government projects requiring land. Court processes are also being pursued by Acholi Land Alliance and others in attempts to block Amuru Sugar Works.

Customary land tenure

Incorporation of "customary land tenure" in our Constitution was spearheaded in the Constituent Assembly by now Justice Owiny Dollo, then Chair of the Land Subcommittee, late Dr. Okullo Epak and others from the North and East who wanted customary tenure embedded in the Constitution.

These people also enacted the Land Act 1998 that adequately provides for land utilisation under customary tenure.

The Act guarantees our people's rights and those of women, children etc. within communities over "customary land"; provides for communal ownership and use of land through "Communal Land Associations", and for conversion of customary tenure rights into freeholds. Yet we are the very people most against the land law.


There are four underlying misconceptions causing the current stance. Firstly is the false belief that we can recklessly pursue political fights even at the peril of our people, as Alice Lakwena and Jospeh Kony did in their Holy Spirit and LRA wars. No matter how much we hate those in power, the Government is formed to organise society, cause development and protect people's rights. It is only when it fails in these regards that we have the moral standing to reject it.

Secondly, some Acholi, by their fight against development, seem to somehow falsely believe that we are outsiders to the Ugandan State and not bound by the national will and laws of the land.

Rather than pursue our land interest in the context of existing laws and national aspirations, we want to pursue it in rebellion and even outside provisions of the law.

Thirdly, some people are articulating issues of "customary land rights" as if our society is isolated and static. Over the last 25 years, our customary practices have changed irreversibly. We no longer hunt or communally graze cattle as before. Given the self-preservation that our people honed in IDP camps, extended family has been overtaken by individualism, with most deadly land conflicts now being not between the Government and communities but among family members and close relations.

Fourthly, is the philosophical and legal confusion we hold about rights of individuals, communities and the State over land, illustrated by land conflict between two neighbours. When this conflict is within a clan area, it requires limited local intervention. When it straddles a border between clans (e.g. Lamogi and Pabbo), the same conflict becomes inter-clan. When it straddles tribal boundaries (e.g. Acholi and Madi) it becomes inter- tribal. And when it straddles international boundaries (related Acholi and Pajok of Sudan) it becomes international and inter-country.

Government's obligation and duty

With each progression, obligation over land shifts from individuals, communities to the State.

Thus, defence of Acholiland at the Sudan border ceases to be a responsibility of the households involved and Acholi as a tribe and becomes that of the State, with our government obligated to protect the territory of Uganda.

This obligation extends to development and societal wellbeing, and is exercised over and above the self-interests of individuals and communities.

In affirmation of this obligation and power of the State, our Constitution empowers government to compulsorily acquire land for development and public good, while requiring it to protect the interests of affected individuals through prompt and adequate compensation.

I suspect that this understanding of the government obligation and duty is the source of President Museveni's assertion on the inadequacy of legal provisions on land for development.

Surely, if defence of Ugandan territory and promotion of progress is the responsibility of the Government, why should individual and community self-interests tie its hands when it comes to land for development?

In all the land cases in Northern Uganda, unfortunately, we reject this obligation and duty, and neither seek assurances, embrace benefits of projects to our communities and country, nor pursue equity and compensation.

Instead, we shout about government's evil plans to grab our land and, with absurd sense of heroism, fight most determinedly to block development.

Such is the response of some Acholi politicians, religious and NGO leaders to the Amuru Sugar Works project, which challenges, attributes and benefits I review in the next part of this article.

Former Leader of Opposition in the 8th Parliament. 

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