Remember the Amuru women who stripped naked condemning the boundary demarcations in their land? For those who don’t, let me juggle your memory a little.
Back in April, the group of women undressed before minister of Lands, Daudi Migereko and Internal Affairs minister, Aronda Nyakairima over the disputed land in Apaa parish, Amuru District.
The women questioned why the government was targeting their land and where they would go, if evicted.
The 40 square kilometres of contested land have also over the years been claimed by the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
Cases such as this where individuals are engulfed in disputes over land ownership and allocation are very common in Uganda.
A study on land grabbing cases in Uganda issued on April 2012, compiled by National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) and supported by Friends of the Earth International (FoEI) stated that the government, keen on attracting foreign investment ,allowed foreign companies to move onto large areas of land for a range of projects, including the development of large scale oil palm plantations, off set tree plantations and following the discovery of oil, for drilling.
The findings further showed that although rural communities’ customary land rights are protected under the Ugandan Constitution, in practice, these rights are being violated.
As a result, communities were being displaced and losing vital access to natural resources, including land for farming, firewood, forest products and in some places, water supplies.
Also, forests have been cleared to make way for plantations and wetlands have been drained, damaging the rich natural biodiversity.
Why it happens
Yusuf Nsibambi, the Kampala District Land Board chairman explains that land grabbing takes place because it is a limited resource, which cannot be reproduced.
“Land is not elastic and there is pressure for everyone to own the little that is even there. We are scrambling for a limited resource,” Nsibambi states.
The active players in land grabbing that Nsibambi points out are the rich people and those in power, who use their money and positions to carry out their actions.
How land is grabbed
According to Nsibambi, the active actors with the money use State machinery, including the police, RDCs (Resident District Commissioners), military to evict people. They also manipulate the registry by hiding and faking land titles.
“The most affected are the poor, widows, illiterate, in other words, people with limited capacity to access the legal system in the country,” he says.
Muhammad Kikomeko, a lawyer and partner with KM Advocates and Associates, states that land disputes are not necessarily only resolved by court as many tend to think.
“Dispute resolution tends to depend on whether the land has a title or not,” he says.
Kikomeko explains that most of the disputes involving land without titles are resolved by area local administrative authorities, chiefs, senior citizens and village elders who tend to have more knowledge of boundary demarcations in their areas of influence, and secondly because of their leadership roles, age and experience.
“Many people tend to respect them and accordingly do trust them in mediating and negotiating out such disputes,” he says.
Of the non-traditional court mechanisms, LC1 and LC3 chairpersons are more pivotal in solving such disputes than any other forum. There are also legal aid clinics, entities that provide free legal services to those without land titles.
“Their lawyers do mediate out disputes between adversaries before such disputes go to court level for instance with the justice law centers, Uganda land Alliance, and LEMU (Land Equity Movement of Uganda), among others,” Kikomeko states.
For titled land, Kikomeko states that most of the disputes are settled in court given the fact that most of titled land holders relatively have some means to pursue litigation (a legal proceeding in court).
Meanwhile, land surveyors have also taken on an increasing role in land dispute settlement on matters involving boundary disputes on titled land.
One woman’s story
A study, Property Grabbing from Ugandan Widows and the Justice System Response by the International Justice Mission (IJM) reveals that land grabbing specifically left the lives and livelihood of widows and orphans devastated. The findings, which were launched in March, showed that about 20 per cent of the victims reported that attempts were made on their lives – and more than 30 per cent reported threats against their children by powerful neighbours or relatives trying to steal their homes or land.
The study also found that although violence against widows and orphans is common, local authorities have not taken serious action to stop it noting that of all property grabbing cases opened between 2005 and 2009 and closed as of the review time (September-November 2012), not one perpetrator was convicted of a property-grabbing crime.
Berna Akumu Opio, 48, is a widow with three children. Her land was grabbed five years ago by relatives after her husband passed away.
“They served me a notice stating that I had no ownership of the three acre piece of land in Soroti that my late husband left me,” she says.
When she took the matter to the courts of law and the responsible parties were summoned, they threatened to end her life.
“Despite the threats, I still went on and pursued the case and won,” Akumu says.
But even the final court ruling did not deter the relatives away as they forcefully took charge of the land and sold it.
Akumu went back to court but lost after suspecting that the magistrate was bribed by her relatives. She later relocated to the city with her children out of fear that her family would all be killed.
UGANDA’S LAND TENURE SYSTEM
• The recognised land tenure systems are four and these include Mailo, Customary, Freehold and Leasehold. The Land Act 1998 defines Freehold tenure as that one that derives its legality from the Constitution and the written law. Freehold tenure may involve either a grant of land in perpetuity, or for a lesser specified time period. The Act specifies that the holder of land in freehold has full power of ownership of it. This means that he or she may use it for any lawful purpose including sell, rent, lease, dispose of it by will or transact it in any other way as he or she sees fit. Only citizens of Uganda are entitled to own land under freehold tenure. Non-citizens may lease it for a period up to 99 years.
• Leasehold tenure is a form of tenure where one party grants to another the right to exclusive possession of land for a specified period, usually in exchange for the payment of rent. Any owner of land in Uganda – whether through freehold, Mailo or customary tenure – may grant a lease to another person. In practice, much of the land that is leased was previously owned by government bodies, particularly the Land Commission and the District Land Boards, and these tend to impose some development conditions on the land’s subsequent use.
• The Land Act 1998 treats Mailo tenure almost identically to freehold tenure. Registered land can be held in perpetuity and a Mailo owner is entitled to enjoy all the powers of a freehold owner. The only significant difference is that Mailo owners should not use these powers against the interests of customary tenants or lawful occupants. This provision was introduced due to concern at the possible mass eviction of thousands of people who were occupying Mailo land, as customary tenants or squatters, at the time when the Act was passed.
Sheila Kaija, a 38-year-old mother of two, who is currently engulfed in a land dispute with an uncle, points out that the biggest problem in handling such wrangles, is that the whole process is lengthy and very exhausting.
“At the end of the day, we the victims become frustrated and finally give up,” Kaija states.
So, what’s the way forward? Nsibambi states that the courts of law need to be strengthened since there are remedies available under the law and Constitution to protect the vulnerable.
“The only problem is that the same courts are being compromised,” Nsibambi says. Despite this, land owners are advised not to give up if their land is wrongfully taken. The courts are the best course of action.
The percentage of land wrangle victims whose lives were threatened. They were threatened in the hope that they would sell their land.