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Right Colonial Land Injustice; Reconstruct Uganda


 The latest push by the Buganda Kingdom through its Buganda Land Board to give lease titles to hitherto customary land owners (bibanja holders) on Kabaka’s land that is code named “Kyapa Mungalo” (land title deed at hand) has sharpened a quagmire that is in-built within the nation-state Uganda on matters land.  For all intent and purposes the nation-state Uganda came into being through a major land grab by and for the benefit of the English who colonised the territory now known as Uganda; and that is the genesis of the quagmire. 

The naming of Uganda and the geographic boundaries of Uganda was determined by the English and for the economic benefit of the English. By a stroke of a pen and in lands faraway, in Berlin in Germany, the English acquired territorial control and ownership of the territory without consent from the prior owners of the territory - the Africans who owned and occupied it. At the Berlin Conference, the English simultaneously disowned Africans of their lands.

The English asserted territorial claim and ownership of the territory by ‘benefiting’ a few Africans who prior occupied the territory pre-English-colonisation and they ‘donated’ to them large tracts of land of the territory prior owned by other Africans. By a stroke of a pen – through the so-called 1900 agreement – in the Central Region especially a class of landlords and a class of tenants were created in the territory; the latter being the majority. 

It is ironic that it has been over 50 years since the nation-state Uganda attained political ‘independence’ from the English and yet the manner in which the territory’s land tenure is discussed and managed remains couched in terminology that is not for the benefit of the descendants of the majority of Africans who were disowned of their lands in the first place.  It is perhaps to be expected, since the English did not hand back the territory to those from whom they grabbed it, but instead retained control over it through a smoke-screen of giving the territory political ‘independence.’ 

Those who ‘took over’ governing of the territory from the English where specifically chosen by the English; and they were not the rightful representatives of the African peoples from whom the English grabbed land. The English selected from among Africans a few, mostly men, whom they took to England in order to ‘educate’ and ‘civilize’; similar in the manner of how they created “Recaptives” – Africans who were ‘freed’ from slavery, but whose minds were colonised by imposing on them the English culture rather than allowing them to re-connect with their African culture. 

It is those global ‘westernised-recaptives’ – the select few who were ‘educated’ and ‘civilised by the English - that ‘took over’ from the English the running of the nation-state Uganda. They did so and their descendants continue to do so within the ethos of English culture; and logically in a manner that benefits the English – neo-colonialism. Yes, the political ‘independence’ of the nation-state Uganda was ‘negotiated’ by a few ‘westernised-recaptives’ in faraway lands, in Lancaster in England, at the Uganda Constitutional Conference, 1961, without genuine representation of the Africans from who the English grabbed land.

It is indeed ironic that deepening injustices over land are in fact happening during the term of office of President Museveni. Mr. Museveni, the person, forty years ago, indicated that he desired to “reconstruct the old colonial state (Uganda) along democratic, non-sectarian lines,” so says he in the preface of his book “Sowing the Mustard Seed – The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in Uganda.” 

Seemingly, on matters land tenure, during President Museveni’s 30 plus reign, there is deepening inequality consistent with the era of the English colonial administration of land – a few rich ‘westernised-recaptives’ amassing large tracts of land, while a significant proportion of previously landed persons are rendered landless and poor. 

Many descendants of Africans from whom the English grabbed land continue to be disowned of what is rightfully their heritage through a smokescreen of ‘the law’. They have been let down by those who claim themselves their leaders, inclusive of President Museveni, who seems to have lost the desire to “reconstruct the old colonial state (Uganda) along democratic, non-sectarian lines.” 

The hypocrisy is mind boggling with which the National Resistance Movement Organisation (NRM-O) Administration that is currently governing the nation-state Uganda is discussing the way in which African nations with the territory are exercising their constitutional right to govern their lands. Central Government’s interference and meddling in the affairs of the Buganda Kingdom – how it is managing Kabaka’s land in particular; and its meddling in the affairs of other African nations within the territory, especially those of the Nilotics grouping whose lands are under customary tenure – Iteso, Karimojong, Lango, Acholi.

Take for instance the dishonest argument against Kyapa Mungalo which goes something like it posses dangers to many for they may lose their land and the developments on the land if they obtain and periodically renew 49-year leases from the Buganda Kingdom. How is Kyapa Mungalo any different from what the Central Government does when it issues 49-year leases of land? What are the statistics of those who have ‘lost’ land and developments on the land to Central Government because they failed to renew their leases?

And in any case, land is not a movable asset as in it remains exactly where it is, it does not disappear, what changes are the users and uses of land. In which case, if for some reason a lease is not renewed after 49 years, the users and uses of the land may change but the ownership of the land ideally remains the same. It is dishonest to imply that a lease transfers ownership of land. It does not. A lease simply gives conditional access and use rights over a defined portion of land for a specified period. 

What the Buganda Kingdom is seemingly trying to do with Kyapa Mungalo is to ensure that its land ownership rights are known and recognised by those who enjoy use rights of its land. Similarly, it would appear that with Kyapa Mungalo the Buganda Kingdom aims to provide those with use rights of its land ‘security’ of knowing they have uncontested use rights. What is wrong with that? 

It would appear that those most affected with the win-win Kyapa Mungalo proposition are those who actually have intention of grabbing land so as to change its ownership. This is exactly the case also with the push for Central Government controlled titling of land that is held under customary tenure – undermining the authority of legitimate leaders of African nations within Uganda – Kings and Clan Leaders. 

This is done by promoting factoids that African nations did not prior have their own land tenure systems. African nations, moreover, prior to colonisation had evolved their own land tenure systems. The colonial period interrupted further evolution of those systems. Land justice demands that the wrongs of the colonial period are righted through reconstruction of the nation-state Uganda in a manner that it recognises and nurtures the wisdom of African culture and that allows the natural evolution of African land tenure systems.

A tenet with the wisdom of African culture is its tendency not to prioritise land as a market commodity, but rather to recognise and prioritise its inherent social value; contextualising land as a common good that must benefit all members of a particular community - no one should have exclusive right over large tracts of land, while others have no access and use rights to land; moreover on which their survival depends. 

Photo Credit: The CPAR Uganda Ltd Lira Base Camp, which hosts its headquarters, sits on land that is under a 49-year lease from the Central Government. Photo taken by Norah Owaraga

This article is written by Norah Owaraga, CPAR Uganda Ltd Managing Director (April 2012 to date). Read more about her here. Please note that her views expressed herein are not necessarily those of CPAR Uganda Ltd.