Land grabbing, poor administration of customary tenure system fuel conflicts in Uganda

Saturday May 17 2014

In many places in the world, a title is the only evidence of land ownership, but for a majority of Ugandans, it is not proof they can provide in a land dispute or as security for a bank loan.

About 20 per cent or 500,000 pieces of land are registered in the entire country, according to the Ministry of Lands. The rest of the land is held under customary tenure, one of four systems under which land in Uganda is owned. The others are freehold, mailo, and leasehold.

Customary tenure is seen as complex because ownership is passed on to different people who hold dissimilar rights and responsibilities over it, according to the Land Equity Movement of Uganda (Lemu), an organisation that seeks to make land work for the poor.

According to Lemu, eight districts in the Lango sub-region in northern Uganda do not have a Registrar of Titles. In this region, more than 90 per cent of the land is communally owned.

“These registrars are of paramount importance in the formation of Communal Land Associations because they are the ones to officiate community-wide meetings and approve the survey and application process. Unavailability of district registrars means no CLAs formed and no lands registered,” said Jeremy Akin of Lemu’s Community Land Protection Programme.

A CLA is the first step in the process of acquiring a certificate of ownership for land held under customary tenure. In the few areas where the CLAs exist, they have been found to be weak and lacking money and competent people. And they rely on traditional leaders, who reserve natural rights over management of communal lands, for their legitimacy.


The failure to streamline and support this tenure system has fuelled endless conflicts.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) cited this in a February report on the impact of mining on human rights in Karamoja, an underdeveloped region in northeastern Uganda, which is on the cusp of a mining boom because it has economically viable deposits of more than 50 minerals.

In the Lango, Teso and Acholi regions, 70 to 80 per cent of the crimes reported to police stations and cases filed in magistrates’ courts are land-related, according to a report by Northern Uganda Land Platform (NULP), a coalition of 40 organisations that focus on land matters.

“Most of these land disputes originate from customary lands. If we ignore the gaps in administration of customary land tenure, we lose an opportunity to address the majority of crimes reported and court cases filed in the courts,” Mr Akin said.

The absence of land ownership documents is more pronounced in areas where Uganda has recently discovered oil or other minerals, according to the 2013 National Land Policy.

In West Nile, the discovery of oil has worsened a 16-year-old land conflict that has defied solution to date, between the Acholi and Alur. Much of the contested land is across Pakwach Bridge on the Acholi side, in an elephant corridor in Purongo sub-county.

Jonam, a clan of the Alur, claim it as their ancestral land from which they fled to escape the Joseph Kony-led Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency in northern Uganda.
They claim that while they were away, powerful military officers and politicians grabbed it.

The contested land is around the area where Total E&P is exploring for oil in Murchison Falls National Park. While it may or may not contain oil, oil companies and related service companies need it to establish facilities such as camps, warehouses, and parking yards, as they are not allowed in the park.

“Total’s new seismic surveys are about to start and will extend from Nwoya to Amuru and parts of Jonam. So, the demand for land is high because of the potential new discoveries, particularly the compensation to landowners,” said Ocakacon Abara, a community leader in Pakwach.

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Proof of ownership is critical in the negotiations for compensation and surface rights agreements. But HRW says obtaining titles for land under customary tenure is a herculean task, because of the government’s apparent opposition to it.

“Big land ownership doesn’t encourage development… We advocate to register land according to what is on the ground. We are moving from that communal way of land holding to individual ownership,” HRW’s report quotes a commissioner at the Uganda Land Commission as saying.

According to Lemu, such bias, which extends to district and local decision-makers, exposes the land rights of most Ugandans to the risk of being erased.

“Rampant individualisation of customary land in Uganda could cause a situation where land ownership is concentrated in the hands of the powerful at the expense of the most vulnerable, along with disputes, an increase in crime, low public legitimacy of government, and a stagnant or even negative trend in household development,” Akin said.