Uganda: New Land Law Angers Bugandans

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Kingdom hits out at land reforms it claims undermine traditional rights.

By Bill Oketch in Pader (AR No 240, 24-Dec-09)

Traditional leaders of the largest ethnic group in Uganda - the Buganda - are angry with Kampala for adopting new land legislation that they had vehemently opposed.

The government claims that the new land law, which was finally approved on November 26 after more than two years of political wrangling, will give more rights to long-term tenants by making it harder to evict them.

But Bugandan tribal chiefs, who own large swathes of land in central Uganda, argue that strengthening the rights of tenants will lessen the value of their land, since it will become harder to develop it.

The recent discovery of oil in the west of the country earlier this year has heightened tensions over land, although reserves have not yet been found in the Bugandan region.

Under the provisions of the new legislation, anyone carrying out a forceful eviction of a bona-fide occupant, without first obtaining a court order, could face up to seven years in prison.

A bona-fide occupant is defined as someone who has either lived on the land for 12 years or more, or been settled there by the government.

While most of the land in Uganda is unregistered or owned collectively by tribes, Bugandan tribal chiefs still claim formal entitlement to large tracts, which their ancestors were awarded by the British in 1900, in return for them dropping their opposition to British rule.

Tenants who live on the land pay a nominal rent, which is set by district land boards, but do not have any formal rights and occasionally face eviction by landowners who want to develop or sell their land.

On February 5, more than 1,000 families living in villages not far from Kampala were issued with eviction notices by the Bugandan Land Board, BLB, which had agreed to lease the land for the construction of modern housing facilities.

The BLB was established in order to manage 550 square kilometres of land owned by the Bugandan king, Ronald Mutebi.

The residents - who come from the villages of Buziga, Konge and Kyamula - have petitioned the government to take action against their eviction. One of the tenants, Sarah Birungi, welcomed the introduction of the land act, which she said should help prevent allegedly unjust evictions like the one that they are facing.

But traditional land owners in the region are angry that the government can stop them doing what they want with their own land.

"Land is part of what defines the Buganda, and tampering with their land means attacking the core of our very existence," said Dick Ssenyonjo, one of the landlords.

In an open letter, Apollo Makubuya, attorney general of the Buganda region, wrote, "The kingdom recognises the fact that there are many people suffering violent evictions from their homes and that ancestral grounds are being desecrated in gross violation of our cultural norms.

"However, we do not consider that the [the new legislation] addresses the twin evils of corruption and impunity, which are the root cause of the rampant evictions across the country."

But the government insists that the land law should make things better and not worse.

"I want to appeal to all people of Uganda to support this bill," said Daniel Omara Atubo, the lands minister, prior its adoption. "This bill will enhance the security of the lawful and bona fide occupants of land."

The Land Equity Movement in Uganda, LEMU, has been fighting against the land law ever since it was first tabled in October 2007.

"In our opinion, this law will not solve the land issue and will simply cause more problems," Judy Adoko, LEMU executive director, said. "It is no surprise that the Bugandans are so unhappy, since they are being forced to relinquish the rights they have over their land without any choice."

Adoko said that what was needed was a comprehensive overhaul of the land system in Uganda, rather than just a single amendment tacked on to existing land legislation, which appears to be deliberately targeting one ethnic group.

Kampala is in the process of putting the finishing touches to a new and comprehensive national land policy, which experts predict will be ready some time in 2010.

The amended land act comes close on the heels of the introduction of a system of regional administration in the country, which Bugandans also object to, arguing that it could undermine the traditional role of their king.

In a hard-hitting message delivered on December 20 before a Bugandan conference in Kampala, King Mutebi warned that President Yoweri Museveni's regime should make more of an effort to engage with all tribal groups in the country before passing controversial legislation.

"It took a long time to build democracies in the West," he said. "It will take us time to build genuine democratic institutions here, but I hope at the end of the day, people will see their aspirations [come] to fruition."

Bill Oketch is an IWPR-trained reporter.