10 September 2017

Uganda: Govt Asks for More Time to Rewrite Amendment to Land Acquisition Law

Even as the Constitutional Amendment Bill on compulsory land acquisition remains unpopular, Ugandan government is not budging: It has not only saved the Bill from being thrown out of parliament on technicalities, but is also pursuing other options to achieve its ends.

In July, the government tabled the Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 2017 seeking to amend Article 26(2) to allow for compulsory acquisition of land by removing hurdles to compensation which it claims have been a major hindrance to infrastructure development.

The proposed amendment seeks to give the government powers to take over land and carry on with its intended projects while land owners pursue further compensation claims.

To end the delays, the amendment says the government will deposit compensation monies - as assessed and arrived at by the government valuer - in a court where the property owner can access it even as they pursue their claim for more money.

But the Bill came up against strong opposition from both supporters and opponents of the government, with rising public suspicions that it could be used to grab private property under the guise of acquisition for infrastructure projects.

"We have a consensus to have the reforms and, whether it should be amending the 1965 Land Act or the Constitution, we are discussing with the committee the best ways to develop infrastructure," said Lands Minister Betty Amongi.

More time

Parliamentary procedure provides that a Bill that has been tabled before the House and referred to relevant committee for public scrutiny should be handled within 45 days, but the government moved in just days before expiry to request for more time. The 45 days expired on August 29.

The EastAfrican has learnt that last week, Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Kahinda Otafiire wrote yet another letter to parliament imploring it to give his office more time, sufficient for a newly instituted committee to revisit the Bill and make inputs that will strengthen arguments for the Bill.

The minister asked for two weeks.

"Mr Otafiire wrote to parliament asking for more time to review the Bill. That time has been granted, but it is also not endless so the government will have to come back to parliament again or parliament will declare that there is no Bill and it would have lost," said Mathias Mpuuga, a member of parliament from the Democratic Party.

Vice President Edward Sekandi is chairing a committee that has been tasked to discuss the contentious issues in the Bill.

These include: whether money be deposited in court after forcefully evicting land owners to pave way for projects pending dispute resolution and whether the government should determine the value of the land.

"In the event that the government makes significant changes to the current Bill, it will have to be withdrawn and tabled afresh," Mr Mpuuga said.

While tabling the Bill in July, deputy Attorney-General, Mwesigwa Rukutana, explained that protracted land disputes have caused significant financial loss to government in penalties paid to road contractors for redundant machinery at construction or project sites as the courts attempt to resolve the disputes.

The Bill therefore intends to cure this problem.

Failed to convince

When the government team however, appeared before the legal and parliamentary affairs committee that is scrutinising the Bill, it failed to convince MPs on several issues, especially the need to entrench forceful acquisition of privately owned land in the Constitution.

Also critical was the question as to why the government chose to value land and where disputes arise, deposits money it deems sufficient in court but proceeds with eviction without a court order.

The legislators argued that the proposed actions violate human rights as enshrined in the same Constitution and hence proposal to amend article 126 in essence defeats the process of attaining justice.

The government has lined up several projects that will require right of way. For instance, the standard gauge railway, the refinery plant, the pipeline corridor and several road construction projects. There are also issues with privately-owned land rich with minerals.

Contrary opinion

The question of land remains critical in the country's development efforts.

In the northern district of Amuru, an investor had to halt the construction of a sugar factory following a disagreement over forceful eviction of communities.

The government however went ahead and surveyed the land in spite of public protests.

"The whole process of compensation must be done carefully and diligently. That decision must not be left to unilateral determination of one party. It is not sufficient that determination is fair, sufficient or prompt, it must be so in substance and form. It must be manifestly seen to be fair and prompt. Equally the process for determination must be transparent," said retired Principle Judge James Ogoola.

Ms Amongi however explained that her ministry has already signed guidelines for compensation which includes 30 per cent for disturbance allowance, interest and the market value of land that been prevailing within three months prior to actual compensation date.

Relevant ministries - those in need of land will have to pay additional 15 per cent for delayed payments.

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