The primary – if not the only – responsibility of leaders – be it at the household, community or national level – is to promote and protect the interests and welfare of the people under their supervision. Any leader who breaches this social contract with the people – intentionally or not – should be removed from that role.
The British colonial administration should be credited with a wise decision to leave Uganda land in the hands of indigenous people and restricting by law foreign encroachment on this vital factor of production and source of livelihood. Whatever one does anywhere in the world will ultimately involve land. Therefore land has a unique role and value in our lives and we should protect it to continue to play that role for present and future generations. Countries have gone or threatened to go to war over land, however small or apparently useless. Governments and dynasties have been removed in part because of land issues.
In Uganda many of us still don’t take land seriously for various unfortunate reasons. First, there is this mistaken notion that working the land represents backwardness. Progress therefore means you abandon land and seek work in offices located in towns. The word village represents backwardness that should be avoided. Parents feel disappointed when their children fail to get office jobs and return home to earn a living through farming.
Second, during our school days, punishment for wrong doing – arriving late, failing to do homework, fighting other students etc – was to do work in the school garden. Thus, we associated agriculture with punishment and farming lost value. Even today students and graduates refuse work in agriculture because it is considered below their dignity. I have personally tried to hire students and high school graduates or dropouts to work on my farms in Rukungiri district without success. They don’t want to dirty their hands: agriculture is demeaning. Going to school means you de-link yourself from farming.
Third, NRM government has been encouraging Ugandans to go to towns. President Museveni is among the champions in this regard. In his speech titled “Evolution and Modernization” delivered on 2002-02-09, Museveni stated that “One characteristic of backwardness is to have more people staying in the villages than in towns. When you come to town, you hear leaders saying, ‘You go back to the village. Go back to the village to do what? There is nothing!” And many Ugandans have listened and heard the message and acted accordingly – drifted to Uganda towns especially Kampala. That is why the rate of urban growth is faster than for the nation as a whole. Museveni encouraged Ugandans to come to towns. The question to ask like he did regarding villages: You come to town to do what? There is nothing!
Rural-urban migration is reinforced by the concept of willing seller and willing buyer. Consequently, many indigenous Ugandans who own land are selling en masse and ending up landless and drifting to towns where they are unemployed. If there are no development prospects in the villages as Museveni stated, why are the wealthy in Uganda buying land like never before? Why don’t they invest their money in towns that Museveni favors instead of in economically useless villages?
In the ten point program, Museveni expressed concern about landlessness, noting that “Our immediate concern is the tens of thousands of people – or possible hundreds of thousands – that have been displaced by ill-thought out development projects or sheer illegal land-grabbing by businessmen or state officials using corruption. An outstanding example [is] the 15,000 people with tens of thousands of cattle that have been thrown out of Nsharara by the UPC regime in order to make the area a game reserve. Such people must be resettled on alternative land by the government” (Yoweri Museveni 1986). Note that Museveni didn’t suggest they be accommodated in towns.
To understand this you need to know that Museveni’s immediate concern when he became president was to find land for his Batutsi cattle-herding people scattered and squeezed in the Great Lakes region. That is why he specifically pointed out the 15,000 people with their cattle that were displaced by UPC government to create a game reserve. He needs land for them and since there is no unoccupied land, he has to get it from someone.
Rwanda, Burundi and Eastern DRC where Tutsi live have high population densities and serious landlessness. To create land for them, Museveni came up with the idea that indigenous Ugandans who own land should abandon it and move to towns. This idea is reinforced by the notion of willing seller and willing buyer including of land.
Uganda indigenous owners of land are being encouraged (or tricked by mortgaging land for loans which they fail to repay and lose their land) to sell and move to towns and the cattle people who are well connected and have access to credit to buy it. That is why there is this paradox of indigenous Ugandans abandoning land because of limited development prospects and a rush to buy it by immigrants sometimes under cover of darkness. Another method of grabbing land is the provision in the 1995 constitution that allows free mobility, settlement and land ownership anywhere in the country. The third method is extension of municipality boundaries deep into rural areas disguised as creating a parliamentary constituency to increase people’s representation. Once land is incorporated into the municipality, it is owned by the council which can compensate the previous owner with ‘peanuts’ and sell land to the highest bidder, mostly a rich or well connected immigrant.
Through these three methods indigenous owners are losing land very fast to immigrant buyers. Batutsi are travelling all the way from South Kivu in DRC to Uganda where they end up getting in one form or another land by replacing indigenous owners or wild animals in game reserves. Some of land complaints in western region are arising from this influx of Tutsi from Burundi, Rwanda and DRC. Ntungamo and Toro districts are among those experiencing tremendous land conflicts. Authorities in such areas need to protect the land interests of their people or face the wrath of their subjects in a democratic way.
The leaders of indigenous people in parliament, district councils and lower levels must understand this paradox of encouraging indigenous owners of land to sell and settle in towns and the rich or well connected largely immigrants to buy it in large chunks. Any leader of indigenous people found encouraging his/her subjects to sell land should have his/her motives assessed. I wrote a long chapter on land in Uganda in my book titled “Uganda’s Development Agenda in the 21st Century and Related Regional Issues”. I identified the problems and made recommendations to solve them.
As I have written before, Museveni didn’t pick up the gun to save and develop Uganda. He picked up the gun to solve Tutsi problems in the Great Lakes region as an integral part of realizing the Tutsi dream by military or political means like through the East African political federation which Museveni and Kagame are putting ahead of economic integration, reversing the traditional order of regional cooperation. One of the methods of achieving their goals of land acquisition and Tutsi Empire is to impoverish and marginalize non-Batutsi people by making them landless or reduce them to subsistence farmers. That is what Kagame has done with Bahutu in Rwanda: “Hutus have been mostly forced back into subsistence agriculture” (Michael Mann The Dark Side of Democracy 2005 Page 431). As Museveni reported in his latest State of the Nation address 68 percent of Ugandans who are subsistence farmers were neglected, forcing them to sell land and drift aimlessly into towns.
UDU was created, inter alia, to disseminate information about Uganda’s political economy. In short how politics or policy decisions affect economic change and vice versa. Through our civic program in the media (radio, internet and newspapers some of our work is translated and published in Luganda language in Kamunye newspaper), we have shared a wide range of information to enable Ugandans take informed decisions. In this article we are trying to help readers understand why there is land grab and who is grabbing it. Indigenous owners are losing it mostly to connected and protected Batutsi buyers.
Land in Uganda has become by far the single most contentious topic. The Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) issued a report covering July-December 2006. It observed that in northern and northeastern Uganda land ownership had become the most controversial issue. In central and western regions land has also become the single most controversial issue. Land has therefore become the number one issue at the national level that should engage the attention of all Ugandans especially people’s representatives in parliament, district councils and lower levels.
Land conflicts contributed to revolutions including in France, Russia, Mexico and Ethiopia. As Ugandans begin to understand the value of land, it must be treated with uttermost care lest it triggers rebellion or revolution. Uganda is sitting on a time bomb. We should diffuse it by pragmatic action than dismiss it as non-existent and continue business as usual. Uganda has changed and doing business as usual at gun point won’t work. Ugandans have understood their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights and freedoms. They won’t rest until they have restored them. NRM should recognize this development and act accordingly.
Secretary General & Chief Administrator, UDU