I want to thank convenors of this event – Oxfam Uganda – my former employer and a great ally for the land rights of ordinary Ugandans for putting together this high level seminar to orient new Members of Parliament on land reforms. This discussion is timely because as you should be aware, the current government is interested in addresssing some of the unresolved land issues in the country in this term of office. Parliament and the broader civil society have a key role to play in this process.

Since we are meeting Members of Parliament, it’s only courteous that I congratulate them upon emerging victorious in one of the most gruelling and expensive campaigns in our recent history. Being an MP in a country like ours is a difficult job: you are appraised based on what you are not supposed to do including buying ambulances, paying school fees, attending burials, etc. That alone makes me have immense respect for our MPs. On a serious note, though, Parliament is a critical institution for delivery of the State’s core human rights mandates especially of fulfilling human rights through legislation, budget allocation, oversight, etc.  Today we are discussing land rights, as such, the role of Parliament is undeniable in the process of enacting land reforms.

Thank you Dr Kakungulu Mayambala for your keynote address which has taken us back to the history of land reforms in our country. You have done an excellent job and I will not attempt to revisit what you have stated here. But I will say this: history is a very interesting and critical field.  Martin Luther King, Jr. stated that “(w)e are not makers of history. We are made by history.” Another wise man, Robert Heinlein argued that “(a) generation which ignores history has no past and no future.” These two quotes will inform my commentary today but first, let us deal with the basics.

Uganda occupies an estimated 241,037 km² and has approximately 42m people. In the ideal world, this land is adequate for each of us even if you factor in births and deaths. The land is beautiful, fertile and I dare say, can sustain all of us. But because of various political, economic and social dynamics, it is apparently inadequate hence the several land conflicts in the country. To deal with issues, there have been several land reforms over the years in Uganda. Land reforms are about changing the laws, regulations and customs on land and are often times government-led. Reforms are or should be about social justice, boosting productivity of land, equitable re-distribution of land, planned development, among others. Uganda has had a plethora of land reforms right from the colonial times and in 1975 via the Land Reform Decree. The post-1986 arrangements gifted us with a revolutionary Constitution (1995) and several legislative pieces in 1998, 2010, 2013 up to the current situation we are in.

This is all part of our history. I have had people all time criticise the colonialists for the land issues in the country. Granted, the British distorted our land arrangements but let us face it: Uganda was a British Protectorate for 68 years (1894 – 1962). It is now 59 years since we got “Independence”. We need to move forward as a country. Thomas Jefferson counselled that “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” Should we still be whining about the past or re-crafting our future? My view is that we focus on the future.

For us to imagine the future, it is important to understand the current context and perhaps raise a few questions regarding land reforms. What’s there to reform? What is driving these reforms? Whose reforms are these? What assumptions underpin these reforms? Land is a complex subject and it may be hard to have all the answers in this meeting but I will drop a few ideas here and there.

The author speaking at the High-Level Parliamentary Seminar on the status of land tenure reforms in Uganda

While the cold war could have ended decades ago, we still have ideological battles that influence land reforms.  China, United Kingdome, United States of America, the European Union bloc, Russia among others are fighting for economic and political dominance globally and Africa is the fighting zone because it has vast resources including fertile soils, minerals, fresh water bodies among others. Land is very central in this battle and it’s in the interests of the global players that the land governance frameworks in countries like Uganda are friendly to their interests. But even internally, we see certain contradictions in how land is managed.

While it is vested in the people, there are covert acts by government to have a huge influence on land in the country. The debates on compulsory land acquisition including arbitrary proposals in the past attest to this. The fact that physical planning supersedes tenure, while justifiable, can also connote smart ways of controlling use and access to land which is legally vested on the people.

Outside these contestations is the reality of a global food crisis which has been lingering across the world since 2007. Access to land especially for massive commercial agriculture has driven multi-nationals to look for land in Africa (Uganda inclusive) to address the food crisis.

The increasing rise of industrialisation  needs not be ignored in this equation. Uganda’s development agenda for instance is hinged on transforming the country from a peasant to a modern industrialised economy. Land remains a critical factor in this regard.

Similarly, urbanisation characterised by politically-motivated creation of new districts, municipalities and town councils has gained traction in the country. In every little corner of Uganda, a small ‘town’ is emerging bustling with bodabodas, betting shops, ‘rolex’ stands, among others. People are abandoning small-scale food production and cashing in on the new survival modes. While this might be good temporarily, in the long run, people are getting dispossessed of their land through land grabs, unregulated sales, mortgages, etc. to enable them acquire things needed to fit in the ‘modern’ lifestyles.

Our context is also underpinned by the fact that there has been an overall rise in the use of technology in our everyday lives. Technology is watering down the relevance of human labour in production and is generally less capital intensive in the long-run. Land remains the constant factor and any free or easy access to it increases profitability – the core motivation of investors. Technology is also playing a key role in improving land administration. As legislators, you need to familiarise yourself with some of these developments because soon you will be making laws in this regard and you need to be grounded.

We cannot ignore marginalised groups like women who for some social reasons find themselves side-lined in the making of decisions on land.

Corruption and impunity are a key characteristic of our times. You heard the Minister of State for Lands earlier on lamenting about a “well connected person” who obtained 900 million shillings irregularly as compensation for his land. But I am curious to know: who is this person connected to? Is it to Oxfam or any of the CSOs here? Certainly not!

We also cannot talk about land reforms without trying to unpack some of the conceptual underpinnings of these proposed changes. Some people view land reforms from a cultural and spiritual lens. To them, preservation of customs is the most important guarantor of social continuity as imagined and lived in diverse indigenous contexts. Of course, increasingly, what we call customs today needs to be strongly interrogated because there have several distortions mainly as a result of colonialism. The Constitution contains a repugnance clause which essentially provides the standard of what constitutes ‘customs’. This clause has very strong colonial roots but that’s a topic for another day. Another school of thought roots for adaptation of land reforms to the modern times by fusing customs with the prevailing trends so as to develop socially-acceptable reforms. In essence, this pushes for a creative mix of the local traditions with modern laws and standards. Lastly, there are those who advocate for a replacement approach which seeks to provide one strategy towards abolition of customs and their replacement with formal/statutory arrangements e.g. titling of land. Ask yourself, why is there a provision for the conversion of customary land to freehold in our laws and not the other way round? Who benefits when customary land gets individualised? This notion is often perpetuated by most global actors funding land reform projects in Uganda and across Africa. Each player has a particular agenda they are pushing to the extent that if fits their interests. That is our reality and we need to be abreast with this information.

Talking about actors, we cannot complete today’s engagement without mentioning those that are moving things in as far as land reforms are concerned. The first is the market. Land performs a critical economic function as a factor of production and a store of wealth. Many people aspire to amass as much land as possible because it is viewed as the most secure investment. This massive acquisition of land by so-called connected people is not for the sake of it: it is for onward transmission to the market. It is therefore in the interest of the market that land reforms facilitate transactions and commodify land to the extent possible.

The other player is the State – a duty bearer – in this whole discussion of reforms. The State is bound to respect, protect and fulfil land rights under international human rights law. But the State also thrives on a vibrant economy and has to ensure land is exploited to its fullest potential through large scale land based investments, industrialisation, etc. So to some extent, the State has to side with the market forces.

Finally, there is society; a collection of ordinary citizens – majority poor and vulnerable and more importantly, land rights holders. Their main need is improved livelihoods, food security and from the context of today’s conversation, enhanced land tenure security.

In the ideal sense, the State is supposed to protect the society from the market. But like I said, it also has to work with the market for it’s survival. It’s a paradox one might argue. What is the reality in Uganda in as far as this interplay is concerned? That is for you to assess.

In conclusion, land reforms should be about the people. As a country, the safe and sustainable approach to land reforms is to make them inclusive and people-centred. Any machinations that have the net effect of dispossessing people either in the short or long run are a recipe for disaster. Additionally, land, while geographically in Uganda, transcends our boundaries in terms of interests. MPs need to be alive to these realities and make reforms that are cognisant of the geopolitics around land.

Should we fail on this duty, history will judge us harshly.

I thank you for listening to me!

  1. Charles
    November 17, 2021 at 8:03 pm

    Thanks for this intellectual debate Jonathan. Very informative and educative.

  2. Jackson Muhindo
    Jackson Muhindo
    November 17, 2021 at 8:23 pm

    Thanks Comrade Ochom , this is well researched presentation , you were on point my brother.

  3. Pamella
    November 18, 2021 at 1:50 am

    Very on point indeed. Thank you

  4. Francis Okullu
    Francis Okullu
    November 18, 2021 at 5:50 am

    Very insightful discussion! Thank you very much!

  5. Sandy Apolo Randy
    Sandy Apolo Randy
    November 18, 2021 at 7:57 am

    I am humbled by the articulations advanced in this paper. Thank you my brother.

  6. Nsereko Arthur
    Nsereko Arthur
    November 18, 2021 at 10:51 am

    Articulate, coherent and alive to the realities. Shared thoughts are a gold-mine passed on to whoever would care to mine.

  7. Florence
    November 18, 2021 at 10:31 pm

    Very well articulated, Jonathan!

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