6 January 2013

Uganda: Lands Minister Should Go Slow


She has been Minister of State for Lands for only a couple of months, having gone through an acrimonious approval process in Parliament, but Aidah Nantaba has wasted no time raising controversy.

The youthful minister has raised eyebrows with her no-holds-barred approach to land disputes, especially in her native Kayunga district, where she has been forcefully resettling squatters on some people's land. Nantaba says the land was grabbed from the poor without adequate compensation. As expected, the squatters are excited but the landlords are furious and have resorted to court for redress.

But the minister has indicated she will not respect court orders. Fearing large compensation claims, the government has set up a technical team to establish the facts and advise accordingly. Nantaba might be doing all this in good faith but her methods are definitely questionable. First of all, land issues should not be politicised. Distributing land to people just to gain political favour without following the right procedures is recipe for anarchy.

Secondly, two wrongs don't make a right. If the compensation was not adequate, there should be a better way of addressing that, other than through ministerial directives. In fact, the onus is on the government to regulate land transactions in the country to protect the poor and landless from exploitation. Failing in that duty and then blaming the buyers is escapist and opportunistic.

Thirdly, the rule of law must prevail in all that public officials do. Thus the Police and the courts of law should be left to do their jobs without political interference. Or else, it is highly likely that taxpayers will end up spending billions in compensation to those dispossessed by the rather over-enthusiastic minister.

At the moment, Nantaba appears to be the complainant, prosecutor and judge, all wrapped in one. The minister's approach, which bears resemblance to Zimbabwe's land redistribution programme, might be popular amongst the beneficiaries, but it is neither just nor fair.

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