16 June 2017

Uganda: Understanding the Deepening Land Crisis

Land conflicts are by far the biggest crises afflicting Uganda today. Communities have clashed over competing claims to forestland.

Families have been ripped apart by land wrangles. Individuals have spent decades in courts, sometimes in a futile attempt to secure legal ownership of both plots and huge chunks of land. The latest, in a bizarre twist, is that someone has laid claim to ownership of the land on which sits Uganda's lone national referral hospital, Mulago.

Like all other social problems, there is the economics and the politics of this pervasive problem. The economics of the crisis comes down to the simple fact that Uganda is, at its core, an agrarian society.

The majority of the people live by tilling the land. Those who don't till the land use it in many other ways as a primary source of income. In the city, Kampala, plots of land are used for car-washing, makeshift cinema halls, car bonds, markets, parks for passenger vehicles, etc.

Land supply is patently fixed. In fact, in its very fixed supply, it has the uncanny tendency to diminish in its fertility and agricultural productivity with repeated usage that employs rudimentary and unscientific farming methods. By contrast, Uganda's population has grown in bounds in recent decades.

Inevitably, pressure has mounted on the limited land. Without transformation into commercial agriculture, and with a permanently minuscule industrial sector, there are poor income levels and, therefore, highly limited valuable assets.

The one asset families and communities can count on is land, especially inherited. This has whipped running conflicts between land rights and land ownership claims.

When you combine the problem of a desperately poor agrarian society with a rapidly growing population, you get a charged atmosphere and a potentially explosive social milieu. There has to be a deliberate strategy of tackling poverty and taming population growth.

This is where the politics is critical. Yet in the case of Uganda, there is an altogether different set of problems fueling the land crisis that are a function of a corrosive political system.

You could well have a desperately poor agrarian society with a rising population but avoid a deepening land crisis if the political system is functional. You could also have a dysfunctional system but avoid a land crisis if society is not agrarian and the population is not so big or rising so fast as to exert pressure on the limited land.

The European colonial invaders cobbled together Uganda as a political project with little organic social integration and geographical rationality. The colonialists kick-started a process of creating different and clashing land usage and ownership systems that were compounded by successively-imprudent actions and policies of postcolonial rulers.

By the mere fact that it has lasted longest, the Museveni regime has been most culpable in dancing around the land crisis and engaging in expedient and grandstanding stunts that either postpone or fester the problem.

In earnest, the foremost undertaking should have been a comprehensive land reform project aimed at reconciling and harmonizing the contending land ownership/usage regimes. Particular focus would have been on systematic land registration that would greatly undercut future competing claims to ownership.

Worse, rather than treat land as a prized national property to be shared equitably, the cabal ruling Uganda today embraced illegal and morally reprehensive acts and policies that have made the land crisis situation get out of hand.

Their insatiable thirst for power and control, and the greed for material accumulation, has driven the rulers and their cronies into commandeering public land and grabbing private land.

Public land that would ordinarily provide temporary shelter and short-term livelihood for the poor and vulnerable is, instead, taken over by the powerful and mighty. Ill-gotten money, a great deal of it robbed from the treasury, has been deployed towards acquisition of huge tracts of land, leading to a few big, rich landlords and a desperately poor majority fighting for space for survival.

Wetlands and forestlands, traditionally tended and protected by local communities in however rudimentary a manner are seized in the name of environmental protection only to be parceled out to the powerful.

Arguably the most widespread act of abuse of presidential power at the behest of General Museveni has been the misguided giveaways, to mostly foreign speculators and their local acolytes, of public land which, in principle, should be land for poor Ugandans held in trust by the state.

A poor country's most prized physical asset is land, especially if that country is Uganda with the most endowed soils one can easily find. To then get huge chunks of land and throw it at individuals and companies in the name of mollifying investors is simply bewildering.

The simple fact is that giving away free land is not anywhere among the leading factors that influence investment decisions by multinational corporations.

Increasingly, decisions on where to invest hinge largely on calculations of political risk, the possibility that there will be a breakdown of political order and the resulting losses due to disinvestment.

The rulers know quite well the underlying and proximate problems surrounding the land crisis in Uganda. But then a commission of inquiry must spend public money even when robust implementation of its findings is highly unlikely.

The author is the interim secretary, Society for Justice and National Unity, a Kampala-based think-tank.


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