Uganda’s Legally Sanctioned Ethnocide of Customary Tenure

“This status quo – land grabbing sanctioned by state law – is the root cause of raging land conflicts in Uganda – amongst families, clans and ethnic groups. Sadly, the Uganda National Land Policy 2013 embodies the hall marks of Uganda state law – undermining the first nations – thus it effectively facilitates land grabbing.”

I concluded in an opinion that I authored and was published in Daily Monitor of Tuesday, November 11, 2014, titled: Land grabbing in Uganda sanctioned by state law. Read more

Dr. Rose Nakayi, a Lecturer at the Faculty of Law at Makerere University Kampala on Thursday, 6th November 2013, validated my conclusions in a presentation that she made during the launch of a Kigo Thinkers paper: “The Land Question”. What follows is a transcription of the third part of what Dr. Nakayi said during the Kigo Thinkers event:

I would use the customary system and the problematic context in which it is. It is no doubt now that between 75 to 80 percent of land, different people put it at different percentages, so I would like to say that 75 percent is customary.

Now in as much as the law provides for this customary and gives it equal status, I usually don’t want to stand and convince myself that it is at the same level as the other land tenure systems, such as mailo, leasehold, freehold. For a number of reasons:

First, (there are) stereotypical attitudes towards the customary – there has been quite a lot of thinking that it is backward; it is antithetical to development; primitive. I mean, I would be very sceptical to assume that it is antithetical to development if I do not see statistics or projects where someone said let’s try to organise the customary landholders and promote them to do a project that is in line with development. I would be sceptical to conclude, because there is a wealth of studies that shows that if you mobilise people on this tenure and allow them, give them the opportunity to use it to make a contribution, they could.  So, before we register failures in this country I would a little bit be sceptical to say that it (customary tenure) is antithetical to development.

And indeed we see that in Uganda there are number of moves aimed at killing it. One of them in the Land Act, in my view, is the provision that you can convert it into freehold. We don’t see a reverse procedure to reverse freehold to customary. And indeed, when we look at the international developments around this question of customary land, we find that there is no way we can talk about customary land in this country without discussing the role of international players such as those that fund us, the World Bank. Structural adjustment programmes, who could be behind it – World Bank. The move to convert or to certify and convert customary – there is a study that was conducted in 2004, on land tenure reforms in Africa and recommendations were made to that effect. Because the belief at the time was we need to convert it, we need to reduce the informal sector to promote development. Someone else wrote a book: “The mystery of capital – why poor countries are poor”, someone called Hernando de Soto. He was adding to the same debate, the customary is not good, get rid of it.

Pilot projects were started in Africa countries, but later the position changed – you don’t have to get rid of it, work with it. So what do we do with those changes that we have already inserted in our laws, promoting the earlier positions?

2 responses to “Uganda’s Legally Sanctioned Ethnocide of Customary Tenure”

  1. The challenge today is that “Development” is perceived to foreign driven by foreigners and cash money investments but us in Teso we know very well that our major investment/social capital are our cows, goats, crops even when on small scale and clans. The value of being food secure first before we think of selling for cash is the epitome our economics. This is what the framers of the land act Ignorantly failed to study and understand our social cohesion. Whenever i travel to Lyantode district or Kiruhura a get a cold of how Capitalism has totally destroyed our Values……….An individual fencing off almost entire village to confine his cows and restrict his neighbors from grazing cows with a bill board instructing “keep Off, No Trespassing”….absurdity.


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