Why tenants are beating up landlords in Uganda

Monday September 7 2009

By Kalundi Serumaga

The current value of land in central Uganda is at best, unknown and at worst, plummeting.

This has only a little to do with the global credit crunch, and everything to do with a politically imposed paralysis on many land transactions. Due to obligations made to conflicting interests, the ruling party finds itself “speaking with a forked tongue.”

It has been urging occupants — legal and otherwise — to resist evictions by even legitimate landowners on the one hand while luring large-scale agribusiness investors to the country with promises of “plenty of land” on the other.

Other interested parties, be they clan heads claiming pre-colonial radical title, or landowners with titles rooted in the current legal system, have been left feeling short-changed.

Over 250 court-issued warrants for various evictions lie impounded by the newly established Police Land Protection Unit — a move condemned by the Uganda Court Bailiffs Association. The police unit is officially intended to curb the rise of unscrupulous businessmen buying occupied premises and then evicting the tenants in brutal pre-dawn raids using forged court orders.

Many property owners now find difficulties in maintaining commercial use of their assets, as they have lost their putative right to manage the presence of tenants.

In the central district of Kayunga, one Kubo was burnt to death by a mob on August 16 when he took a team to survey a plot of 600 acres that he intended to sell, against the wishes of residents of the village standing on the land.

This took place in the presence of the village chairman. It followed a similar incident a week earlier where a visiting surveyor was also set ablaze.

The voluble Presidential Press Secretary, Tamale Mirundi, had recently been visiting the country’s myriad radio stations urging tenants to “resist landlords” — with violence, if need be.

ACCORDING TO A STUDY BY THE SOC-iety for International Development, Uganda holds 45 per cent of all the arable land in East Africa, and has the lowest person-to-(arable) hectare ratio.

Through either stable smallholdings — trading small yields through co-operatives — or large mechanised enterprises producing directly for bulk-buying regional and global markets, the country ought to be the region’s breadbasket.

The first option was torpedoed by the NRM’s enthusiastic dismantling of the by then 30-year-old co-operative movement, at the behest of the World Bank, in the early 1990s.

The second option is now threatened by the political bungling over how to decongest Uganda’s constipated tenancy systems under which peasants — now relegated to mere subsistence agriculture having been left stranded by the demise of the co-ops — live insecurely all over the Buganda countryside.

This issue is critical to Uganda as one of the handful of African countries where the majority (70 per cent) of the populace still lives in rural areas.

Initially, the government thought it would simply allocate land to “investors” through its system of District Land Boards, as it tried to do in Amuru District in northern Uganda, offering a sugar company land to grow cane.

The Acholi natives protested, claiming it as customary clan property. Through their Members of Parliament, they solemnly promised to “spear to death” any government-picked investor who set foot in the area. The idea was dropped. Acholi is, after all, the land that spawned one Joseph Kony.

Their hostility was more than vindicated when it was later revealed that Uganda’s largest single oilfield to date had been discovered under the very area of the proposed cane plantation.

By contrast, rural Buganda remains the focus of land-grabs, legalised or otherwise. As the area with the largest percentage of demarcated and titled land in Uganda — a legacy of too much colonial attention — it allows for more straightforward transfers of land between parties, be it through indebtedness, open sale, inheritance, or even forgery, as compared with other rural areas still shielded by the more nebulous “communal ownership” concept.

All one needs is the title deed, which can override any other claims.

THE ONLY POTENTIAL “OBSTACLE” may be the settled peasants, and this is where the NRM’s ideological schizophrenia comes into play.

For a start, it was their own 1998 Land Act that legalised the presence of squatters — termed bona fide tenants — on any land they had entered any time up to 12 years before the passing of the law.

This further complicated an already convoluted situation, rooted in colonial conquest.

Then, half of Buganda’s land mass was seized for “the Crown” and the other half parcelled out among those who had supported the conquest — the Christian missions, as well as families of pro-British warlords — in the form of large holdings measured in square miles. This form of permanent, open-ended title, known as “mailo,” is now the most coveted among Uganda’s land systems.

Prior to this, a Kabaka-headed council of clan heads, known as the Abataka, oversaw land matters (like the Ithaca among the Kikuyu). Respective clan members were entitled to holdings known as bibanja (“loan,” or “debt”), on an indigenous leasehold system.

Those clan heads who were still able to assert the land claims of their clans after the conquest were allowed to register them only in their individual capacities, leading to a gradual loss to their clans, as their Christianised descendants often then took it for themselves.

In effect, half of the public lands were privatised, and the new mailo owners took the place of the bataka as authorities on it. As was the colonial intent, many of these new holdings were turned over to large-scale cash-crop agriculture, while the bibanja holders became tenants on what remained undeveloped.

The British returned the “Crown land” to the federal unit of Buganda at independence in 1962, but the rest stayed in private (and church) hands. As mitigation, the Buganda government maintained laws governing the circumstances under which land could be leased out to non-Baganda, as well as a register of every occurrence of land inheritance.

The second complication came with Obote’s 1967 abolition of the federal system in which these land arrangements were embedded. Once again, what the British had called “Crown land” was seized by the newly centralised state. This was then embellished by Amin’s 1973 Land Decree that simply abolished mailo land as a concept, and encouraged the general citizenry to move to wherever there was “free” land.

Their wartime reliance on Baganda federalists had obliged the NRM to promise restitution of these grievances. By war’s end, however, the NRM leaders had developed their own interests in the situation, which turned that promise into a burden.

Thus, all that has been so far delivered is an unfederated kingdom, the return of its headquarters and the re-recognition of mailo titles in the 1995 constitution.

The NRM was pressed by the need to garner peasant electoral support; to make land available for the global agribusiness interests; and by the venality of its own leaders.

THEY HAVE CLUNG TO THE FORMER “Crown land,” of which they make gifts to investors and cronies. As for the privatised half, beyond imposing squatters on mailo title holders, the land law also obliged an intending seller to first offer the affected portion to the occupant, or otherwise compensate him.

The tenant could also apply to the landlord to buy himself out. Short of that, all the tenant/former squatter was liable for was a rental fee of 50 US cents per acre per year.

The effect was to radically devalue any occupied mailo title-holder’s land — they could neither develop nor sell it without incurring compensation costs; they could never be sure of its ultimate acreage, as there could be buyout demands in the offing, and it was legally locked into a nominal below-market value, regardless of location.

This put them at the mercy of well-connected businessmen operating much like the post-US civil war northern “carpetbaggers” who descended on the defeated southern states. Waving bundles of cash (carried in huge bags made of carpet material) at the impoverished southern gentry, these speculators were able to gobble up the huge former slave plantations and their mansions at throwaway prices.

MANY MAILO TITLE HOLDERS BEGAN opportunistically selling their over-encumbered titles to these Big Men who seemed unbothered by the legal obstacles.

Other titles were victims of the fallout from the rushed, IMF-inspired sell-off of the state-owned Uganda Commercial Bank in the early 1990s. UCB had a reputation for loan portfolio laxity, many secured by mailo title.

When such loans were handed over for disposal to the newly-formed Non-Performing Assets Recovery Trust as the privatisation process required, it was again the same well-connected “economic hit men” with large but often unaccountable sums of cash, who were ready to snap them up.

At one point, the list of new mailo title owners read like a veritable Who’s-Who of the country’s arriviste military brass and their relatives. When some sought to make it ready for sale to foreign investors or otherwise develop it, they heralded a season of mass evictions, where whole villages would find themselves under an undeclared military curfew as soldiers progressively threw them off their farms and demolished their homes.

The media was soon awash with stories of large-scale evictions of uncompensated peasants, overseen by government-linked businessmen guarded by government soldiers.

The most prominent of these was in July 2007 where an aide to President Museveni’s brother bought an entire square mile of land and summarily ejected the residents, demolishing a school and threatening a church in the process.

This happened under the protection of the district police commander acting on the explicit authority of the Inspector General of Police, and with a court order.

Protests, under the leadership of the eloquent Betty Nambooze, a pint-sized but formidable opposition figure and parliamentary candidate for the area, plus a riot by the affected students led to her being brought before a magistrate on various charges.

THE GOVERNMENT HAS sought to argue — disingenuously perhaps — that these evictions were precisely the ills its proposed amendment to the Land Act sought to cure.

But the main new feature was a clause empowering District Boards to issue titles to tenants over the head of the landowner. Numerous legal minds weighed in to point out that there were already on the books plenty of laws — such as criminal trespass, and misuse of military personnel —that could be applied.

The real problem was impunity, they said, which would simply neuter the proposed laws, as evidenced by the police, DPP and government lack of will to implement existing ones.

The Kingdom government became suspicious that the carpetbaggers planned to later simply buy out these new title-holders. It launched a campaign — headed by Betty Nambooze — that toured Buganda accusing the NRM of legalised theft, and deploring how so much privately held land within its boundaries was falling into the hands of a class of nouveau riche non-Baganda.

Analogies were drawn with the plight of the Palestinians, some of whose land was bought from under them by clever Zionists who simply paid off Turkish families who held titles issued in the days when Palestine was part of the Ottoman empire, and then went there and evicted them.

Nambooze and other leaders were arrested again and held incommunicado in separate, unknown places upcountry. She in particular was kept away from her nursing baby for over 72 hours.

The Ugandan Human Rights Commission, the Uganda Bankers Association and the Uganda Law Society all came out to criticise the proposed amendments as flawed in respect to their various areas of interest.

Now fully caught between its populist political policies, and its foreign economic obligations, the NRM suspended the progress of the Bill, pending “further consultations.”

What is unclear is who between Buganda’s clans, mailo title holders, the Ugandan state and bibanja holders — each making historically competing claims on the same areas of land — will give way to the other.

As is so often the case in Ugandan policy-making, having failed at the legislative level, the issue is now being politicised.

“We fought alongside the peasants in the bush war, and we will stand with them now against the landlords,” declared President Yoweri Museveni at a July 2008 rally launching tenants’ associations. He went on to urge peasants to “reject compensation” (despite its being a provision of his government’s own laws). In something of a non sequitur he concluded that nevertheless, “buying land for development is not bad.”

The NRM’s bush war network relied as much on large landowners’ resources as it did on peasants, who often provided their children as the foot soldiers. So, far from it being a Maoist-style peasant uprising, the reality was much more mundane.

IT IS GENERALLY A GOOD thing to recognise when it is time to retire the dance moves of your youth. On top of looking ridiculous, you run the risk of damaging your ageing joints. We are now presented with the embarrassing and somewhat risky spectacle of the NRM trying to rediscover radicalism in its old age.

Previous rash policy-making, born of a failure to understand and responsibly manage Uganda’s history, has led only to huge uncertainties. This may become another lost opportunity to finally settle the problems of this wretched country.

In the meantime, landowner and tenant — both dispossessed by that history — will continue destroying each other.