Kampala — As candidates canvass for votes in Uganda's Feb. 18 presidential election, contenders are promising sweeping reforms to resolve land conflicts, one of the country's hottest political issues.
Elton Joseph Mabirizi, an independent candidate hoping to unseat President Yoweri Museveni, says he would set up a tribunal to settle land conflicts, particularly in the north of the country, where millions have been displaced by an insurgency, and in western oil frontier districts.
"We've gone to every part of Uganda and the stories are the same," Mabirizi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "People are living in fear of their land being grabbed by rich, powerful people."
Uganda's land conflicts date back decades. Illegal land acquisitions from the poor, unequal access to property rights and mismanagement of public land have all contributed to the disputes.
Museveni, who has led the East African country since 1986, is facing his most formidable contest in years ahead of next week's vote, which will see him face off against his former prime minister, Amama Mbabazi, longtime opposition figure Kizza Besigye, and others.
In his manifesto, Besigye of Uganda's main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change, has pledged to implement a public lands audit and review all land laws to ensure the rights of vulnerable members of society are better protected.
He has also promised to return all land grabbed to the rightful owners.
Other presidential candidates - including Museveni himself - have made similar promises on land reform. In his manifesto, the president outlined plans for addressing land conflicts, including the systematic registration of land and strengthening institutions for dispute resolution at local government level.
"The land question is one of the most important issues in this country, that is why it is emerging everywhere during the campaigns," said political historian Ndebesa Mwambutsya, of Makerere University.
But making promises is easy, the academic said, much more challenging will be their implementation in a country where corruption around land ownership is deeply rooted.
"These are just glossy pronouncements that do not address the fundamental question of the problem at hand," Mwambutsya said.
"The real question of land grabbing, especially in northern Uganda, is not being addressed because the biggest grabbers are likely to be powerful rich people sponsoring the campaigns."
Many people returning to their land in northern Uganda, after an insurgency by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army drove them into camps, are still struggling to secure rights to their land.
Last year, angry women stripped naked before government officials to protest against plans to demarcate new border boundaries on their land. They said it was a plan to give part of the land to an investor, a claim the government denied.
Edmond Owor, who heads the Uganda Land Alliance, a land rights campaign group, said it was important the National Land Policy, passed in 2013, is implemented swiftly to address many unresolved conflicts.
"The way the policy is now, it can bring a lot of stability and development, but without any effort being made to implement it, we shall continue to see these disputes," said Owor.
In Uganda, more than 80 percent of the land is held under the customary tenure system, with some communities owning the land communally, while in some parts its owned either by a clan or an individual. Most of the customary land is not documented.
Land rights activists say the absence of land ownership documents is common in areas where Uganda has recently discovered oil and other minerals in the western and northern parts of the country.
The discovery of mineral resources in these areas has contributed to a rise in land values, attracting speculators and investors seeking to acquire huge chunks of land with small offers of compensation to the owners.
"It's about the will to implement laws that make it difficult for the rich and powerful to acquire land from the poor without compensating them," said Owor. "That is what the political powers are not addressing."
- Editing by Ros Russell