How Uganda's 1995 Constitution Has Been Abused To Support Land-grabbing

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Eric Kashambuzi

The land-grabbing in Buganda that started in 1900 needs to be corrected.

The 1992 Odoki Commission in Uganda reported that the major land complaint during the consultation was about land-grabbing. Contrary to expectations, the NRM government has enhanced land-grabbing by the rich from the poor at an alarming rate especially in Buganda despite complaints directly to the president in 1989.

Land grabbing has been facilitated by Article 29 (2a) of the 1995 Constitution that allows Ugandans to move freely, reside and settle anywhere in Uganda. In the Luwero Triangle the guerrilla war of 1981-86 massively depopulated the area that has been resettled largely by non-Baganda.

In other parts of the country there has been a rapid demographic shift to urban slums especially in the Kampala City with serious political, economic, social and cultural outcomes.

Land tenure and land use need to be given urgent attention in the post-NRM regime. Because it is complex, Ugandans need to address the land question without delay beginning with Buganda where land-grabbing has been greatest. Ultimately the solution will be political following extensive and inclusive consultations.

Before the 1900 Uganda Agreement all the land belonged to the people under the care of clan heads called Bataka. In consultation with Buganda regents, colonial Commissioner Harry Johnston, decided to overhaul the customary land ownership and skipped land owners and their clan heads. All the uncultivated, forested and wetland, about half of the total land area, became Crown Land.

The other settled half was distributed among the Kabaka, members of his family, regents and chiefs. With this agreement, former land owners became landless without compensation. The Lukiiko distributed land to the new owners and the population was resettled according to their religious affiliation, resulting in a social revolution. Bataka leaders protested all the way to the colonial office in London. While recognizing that the shift in land ownership had been done wrongly, it was too late to reverse the decision. 

If the peasants and their clan heads had been compensated, the matter would have been settled and the files closed. To my knowledge, they were not, meaning that this colonial decision needs to be addressed within the context of self-determination. Baganda have consistently talked about self-determination presumably including settling the land ownership question.

There are two ways to address this question.

The peasants could be compensated financially or the current land owners could be compensated for their developments and the land reverts to peasants, drawing on some lessons.

Following the Irish Land Act of 1903, the British government lent 100 million British pounds that enabled tenant farmers to purchase land from their landlords. A similar arrangement was made and enabled Kenyans to purchase land owned by foreign farmers. The money could be mobilized through bilateral or multilateral arrangements.

To prevent further land grabbing, Article 29 (2a) of the 1995 Constitution needs to be revisited. While the intention was good, facilitating freedom of mobility and settlement anywhere in the country with integrative elements essential for national unity, the interpretation and application have been disastrous.

Together with the notion of willing seller and willing buyer, many voiceless people have been forced into commercial transactions at times at gun point or intimidation of many varieties. Going by complaints in the media, land ownership has become a contentious issue with serious political consequences if not addressed quickly.

Land use also needs to be addressed together with land ownership. With the majority of Ugandans still depending on land for their livelihood including food and income, agricultural policies need to be designed that balanced food in quality and quantity is produced to feed Ugandans first and sell surplus in external markets.  Therefore national and local authorities should empower small holder farmers to increase productivity and total production by using modern techniques that are environmentally friendly and reducing pre-and post-harvest losses through inter alia agro-processing and regulating imports that unfairly compete with domestically produced foodstuffs.

While privatization of land for specific purposes should be granted on a leasehold and case-by-case basis, overall land ownership should firmly reside in small holder farmers that would gradually transition into commercial farming and non-agricultural activities as non-agricultural skills and credit facilities are secured.

This would require public and private partnership.



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