The Observer (Kampala)

28 March 2013

Uganda: Land Evictions Show a Failed Land Policy

opinion

Dear Mr President,

Allow me to thank you for your intervention into the rampant evictions of poor peasants, and for appointing a bold minister of state for Lands, Hon Idah Nantaba - which show that you care about the citizenry.

However, all these steps are a drop in an ocean of land wrangles that threatens to break the latent peace you have laboured to restore.

And the causes of this 'social malaise' lie in your government's failure to design a practical national land policy and failure to establish and empower institutions that would have intervened in land matters. A good policy would define both a minimum and maximum landholding. This would help planners to fight growth of slums by prohibiting very minute pieces of land like the case today in most suburbs of Kampala.

Most important, however, it would avert the current trend of a few individuals holding obscenely huge, idle pieces of land. Uganda has enough land for all Ugandans but not enough for everyone's greed. If your government fails to intervene now, we are likely to have more internally displaced persons (IDPs).

A visit to Kiboga, Kyankwanzi, Kibaale, Hoima and other neighbouring district can attest to this uncontrolled amassment of land by land speculators - some of whom are army generals and high-ranking government officials. Some of this land used to be public land which these selfish individuals have assumed by manipulating district land boards composed of illiterate village folks appointed by corrupt politicians. Many families were evicted by these 'big' landlords.

Small-scale livestock farmers were forced to close down their farms due to scarcity of grazing land, while a few hold idle chunks. Districts like Kiboga and Kyankwazi, which used to produce significant amounts of milk and beef, can hardly produce half of what they used to produce in the 1980s and 90s. It is now common to have high concentration of people in trading centers with less than 11-decimal pieces of land that can only accommodate residential houses.

Majority of people in these trading centres depend on petty trade, boda boda riding, prostitution and gambling. This has greatly reduced labour productivity as well as the quality of life of these people. To rectify this, one needs a clear policy on land use and strong institutions, instead of a taskforce that cannot penetrate even a third of this country. In Kenya for instance, an independent Land Commission was established in the new constitution after decades of land mismanagement by subsequent governments. Maybe Uganda needs to move in the same direction.

Sub-county, urban and district land tribunals have not been activated and empowered to manage public land and settle disputes in their areas. It is unrealistic to expect magistrates and judges to adjudicate land matters without any reference from local land committees. Instead, all powers to resolve land disputes have been hijacked by Resident District Commissioners (RDCs), Presidential Land Taskforces, military officers from state house, and police.

I have received several judgments and eviction orders from these offices in spite of the provisions of the Land Act, which require that no eviction should be made without a court order. Cases have been expressly heard and determined in the above-mentioned offices without any consultation with local leaders or neighbours who, in most cases, have vast knowledge of the genesis of these land conflicts.

Courts of law have not helped either. Although magistrates are required to visit suit land before making the final ruling in any land case, they rarely do. Unscrupulous land dealers connive with magistrates to conceal court summons from Bibanja holders to portray the latter as having defied court - thus ruling in favour of plaintiffs. Landlords often connive with police to trump up charges against squatters so that they can keep them in jail. It is a common feeling among most people that, "omwavu tasinga musango' (the poor can't win a court case).

Thus Mr President, I regard your intervention into the scourge of land evictions as mere fire brigading. To extinguish the 'fire', the government needs to help in breaking the dual ownership of land between squatters and registered land owners. This requires reviving the land acquisition fund which your government previously introduced but never implemented.

The poor squatters would have access to interest-free credit to buy the interests of the registered owners to strengthen and legitimize their occupancy. Finally, an independent national land commission and land tribunals at all local government levels should be established to handle land matters - without delay.

The writer is the LCIII Chairperson for Kakiri town council.

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