Justice Catherine Bamugemereire has the onerous task of probing and providing answers for one of Uganda’s most intricate issues — land. After months of waiting, the judge unveiled her seven-member Commission of Inquiry on Wednesday, to look into land matters.
Appointed by President Museveni three months ago, the Commission consists of former Attorney-General Freddie Ruhindi, Uganda’s first female surveyor Ms Joyce Gunze Habaasa, a Makerere University law lecturer Dr Rose Nakayi, a seasoned businessman and former Minister in Buganda kingdom Robert Sebunya and two other eminent citizens Mary Oduka Ochan who for years worked with the Irish Embassy in Nairobi and Kampala and Mr George Baroza Tinkamanyire.
The inquiry comes at a time of heightened land conflicts across the country. Whether it will provide the necessary answers remains to be seen.
There exist multiple land tenure systems; a law passed in 1998 after the 1995 Constitution that vested land “in the people”, a land policy passed only in 2013 some 15 years after the land law, a colonial legacy that snatched vested thousands of hectares into institutional and private ownership when actual owners still occupied the land especially in Buganda.
Also, vast tracts of apparent “unutilised” lands especially in the northern part of the country where traditional communal land ownership and two decades of war kept the people off their land saw the displaced subsist in camps for internally displaced.
These combination of factors has created a combustible environment that occasionally explodes into physical violence as occupiers of the land try to fight off suspected land grabbers who might in some cases, even the genuine owners.
This is the magnitude of the problem the commission faces as it starts its work.
The powerful kingdom of Buganda owns vast tracts of land in the country’s central region, nearly all of which is occupied by people who have traditionally lived and survived off it for generations. The kingdom recently rolled out a campaign to register “bibanja” holders and has promised lease hold titles.
Speaking at the launch of the Commission, Lands Minister Betty Amongi voiced her suspicions about the Buganda initiative to register occupants of both the official and private Mailo that the kingdom holds.
“This campaign of leasing land to Ugandans, land on which their forefathers have lived is something I have been thinking about. Land should be leased to foreigners, not Ugandans whose forefathers have occupied it for decades,” Amongi said.
Just last month, agitated peasants set ablaze an earth mover that was mowing down their crops in Luwero, claiming they were “Bibanja” tenants on what is locally known as the Kabaka’s land.
In neighbouring Mukono, a uniformed soldier and policemen that had accompanied one claimant to a piece of land were attacked by an angry mob and chased away.
Prominent musician Kyagulanyi Sentamu a.k.a. Bobi Wine has also found himself in a tenancy dispute with the Kabaka’s government after it reneged on a lease it had granted him in Entebbe a few years ago.
“A lease has conditions,” Amongi told the Commission on Tuesday.
“The land owner is not under obligation to renew it to the sitting tenant when it expires. What will happen to those families? Will the Commission address these?”
But another cultural leader, the Umukuka of the Bamasaba who occupy the Mount Elgon area had an even more intriguing demand of the Commission. They wanted the team to make recommendations that could help his community reclaim land allegedly grabbed by Buganda colonial forerunner Semei Kakungulu.
The more intricate land conflicts lie in Bunyoro Kitara kingdom that straddles the western part of the country. A critical question here is what the kingdom’s Prime Minister Norman Lukumu terms “the unresolved colonial injustice question.”
In order to break their resistance to the expansion of the colonial empire, the British colonialists in collaboration with Buganda annexed entire counties and parcelled them out as private Mailo to the collaborating Baganda chiefs. The sections that remained were turned into government holdings; national parks, game and forest reserves; ranches prisons, army barracks among other facilities.
Native Banyoro have always lived on the fringes. Post-independence governments have found the availability of vast lands in its control easy for resettlement of people from elsewhere in the country on land it believes it owns to the chagrin of the natives creating what has become famously known as the “Bafuruki” immigrants question.
Matters have become complicated by the recent discovery of vast oil reserves in the area attracting a new class of moneyed adventurers. These latter are said to be grabbing what was left as communal lands or sometimes fraudulently acquiring title on former public lands held by the government.
Another hotspot is Kasese which lies along the mountain ranges. Here, conflict over land has in former years led to a full-blown civil conflict and tensions between the different tribes that occupy the area have occasionally exploded.
A recent clash between government and the cultural institution that left over 100 people dead in November last year has been linked to the cultural institution’s decision to exert its influence over other native communities and retain control over land.
Justice Bamugemeriere is only too aware of the enormity of the challenge her team faces. On Wednesday she said her Commission will listen to complaints as well as suggestions on how this complex and emotive issue of land can be resolved.
The Commission has been given six months to carry out its inquiry and make recommendations.