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Public Dialogue on Land Reform and Tenure Systems in Uganda

The KAS supported public dialogue for Friday March 7th, is being organised by Makerere University Convocation in conjunction with the Human Rights and Peace Centre (HURIPEC) It part of KAS's contribution towards free debate on land reform in Uganda.

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Land Reform and Tenure Systems in Uganda

“Connecting Land Issues to National Peace, Governance and Human Rights”


The acts of founding Uganda (essentially between 1896-1900) were also simultaneously the acts of creating and implementing the first policies of the new state. These were on land ownership and occupancy. This is all reflected clearly in the contents of Uganda's ultimate founding document, known as the 1900 Uganda Agreement. Land, and its ownership, is an issue that therefore lies at the heart of the thinking of the Uganda state.

Despite this, Uganda has demonstrated a singular failure to evolve an approach to land matters that can withstand the test of time, and underpin its other policies related to economic develpment such as the Plan for the Modernisation of Agriculture (PMA). The country today is being increasingly consumed by an essentially political argument over land, but one that has drawn in engagement from many other perspectives and professions, ranging from the legal to the highly technocratic. The country has witnessed major legal upheavals in terms of land ownership policy, starting with major “reforms”in 1928, that have been repeated in 1967, 1975, and 1998. The current government of Uganda proposes further proposals to “solve” a problem that -judging from all the previous attempts at solutions- seems to have defied government -if not state- capacity to find a lasting solution.

Today, the Land Question presents many immediate problems in terms of the search for policy solutions regarding ownership, occupancy and optimum use in the immediate. Tied to this is the more fundamental issue of legitimacy of authority over all public matters including land policy. The coming into existence of Uganda as a state was a demonstrably contested development. This naturally subsequently led to a contentious and tense relationship with the residuals of the forms and concepts of public ownership and authority that preceded the formation of Uganda. It is perhaps no wonder that policy formulation over “pre-Ugandan” resources (land, water bodies, forests), evokes greater political excitement than policy proposals over resources that were created by the formulation of Uganda (public banks and parastatals, public schools, etc) do, as these may be seen more as "Uganda's property", as opposed to property that existed before Uganda, and to which prior claims to ownership are being made over and above claims made by the new State.

In this way, the current land controversy may therefore not, in fact, be a combination of many problems, but one problem -the legitimacy of governance- with many manifestations. It is against this background that a question is posed whether this continuing controversy on land does not represent the most fundamental challenge to the State of Uganda to govern, since it is also its earliest policy consideration? To elaborate, what may be under challenge here is not the specific proposed amendments to the 1998 Land Act, but the the very idea that, on matters such as these, the Government of Uganda has any, or exclusive authority to intervene in these matters. Since land policies remain the original founding politics of the new state, if they consistently provide failure and controversy, what then will succeed?

The specific controversy between the ostensibly "cultural" Kingdom of Buganda and the central Government of the Republic Of Uganda has thrown many of these issues into sharp relief. As a problem, it comes in two parts: there is disagreement as to the legitimacy of the Central government to retain physical control (including the right of disbursement) over land seized when the 1962-1966 federal arrangement was violently ended. The other part is in relation to the appropriateness of the Ugandan state seeking to make new legislation that undermines the neo-traditional land occupancy arrangements that were first put in place in 1926. However, it has also served to cast the issue as one of a conflict between the state of Uganda and one specific ethnicity within Uganda. This only serves to mis-cast the matter, and even obscure the more fundamental, more universally applicable issues. Indeed, the Buganda case does not even serve as the best possible case study for understanding and resolving what is a much wider challenge of the apsiration to real legitimacy that the new state has sought since its creation.

There are in fact numerous instances of contenious relationships directly linked to issues of land ownership and use between the State and its citizens/communities. The most recognisable pattern over the decades has been the state apprpriation of land for purposes of "conservation" of wildlife. Two Ugandan examples are of the Benet-Ndorobo community of Mt Elgon forest which is also a national park, and the Batwa comunity of south -wstern Uganda, whose eveiction was caused by the creattion of Bwindi National Park.

Beyond the often popular conservation argument, the State does retain the power (if not the right) to apprporiate land for security and developmental (or investment) purposes. In addition, it may also create de facto or legislative measures that determine usage, or create limitations thereto, over land that it does not directly own itself. In some cases, and this lies at the heart of the current Buganda land controversy- this may amount in practice to a de facto transfer of ownership from owner to occupier.The state legitimately argues that it holds the authority and has the duty to regulate, by legislation or otherwise, the conditions under which all land in Uganda should be owned and used. All this gives rise to a number of questions answers to which are difficult to discern.

2.Time for a new social contract?

Since 1900, the relationship between the governments/state of Uganda and those it governs has evolved in a particular direction.The underlying argument and driving force has been "the quest for development". As an initially strictly agricultural econony, this outlook has naturally impacted most directly on the question of finding the most appropriate configuration of land occupancy and use to help promote agricultural development.

Thus, land in Uganda has been privatised, seized from native communities, "conserved", allocated along various patterns and also handed to non-nationals. A quick survery of the history of these decisions immediately shows that none of them were the result of genuine democratic and participatory processes. In the one case of participatory discussion, (the creation of the 1998 Land Act) it can still be argued that this was done in a Parliament that was itself the product of a manipulated democratic process, and therefore whose legitimacy is questionable, at best.

Land is, and remains the central factor in the lives of the bulk of Uganda's predominantly rural, agricultural society, and often also the only asset of real value that ordinary citizens may hope to have ownership of, or access to. In this way, the question of the creation and management of effective and sustainable land poicy remains the largest and most fundamental challenge for anyone aspiring to run the state of Uganda. The extent to which the current relationship betwen the State and those it governs can be truly described as a "contract", particularly with regard to the formulation and execution of policies on land remains a hard question to answer.

3.Why the Symposium

Makerere University Convocation, Human Rights & Peace Centre and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) intend to use this public symposium as a platform to facilitate genuine and honest dialogue among stakeholders to discuss contemporary land issues facing the country. The one day symposium under the theme “ Land Reform and Tenure Systems in Uganda: Connecting Land Issues to National Peace, Governance and Human Rights” is being convened with the view to creating a platform for a "de-ethnicised" discussion on governance and land as a whole, while at the same time not shying away from the ethnic aspects of the debate.

4.Organization of the Symposium.

The dialogue will commence with a statement by Hon. Omara Atubo on the Government position regarding contemporary land issues. This will be followed by a classical presentation on land policies in Uganda highlighting the progress/or failures and explicitly analyzing the implications for good governance and human rights. The presentation will be made by a well-researched individual who is knowledgeable about issues of land in Uganda. There will be a panel of experts on land matters to follow the presentations. The panel of experts has been selected from a multiplicity of stakeholders from; Government agencies whose mandate directly or indirectly deals with land issues, civil society organizations engaged in land related advocacy and management; Academicians knowledgeable in land issues, and the media.

Land policies and reforms in this country have affected many communities disproportionately. Testimony presentations from the most affected communities will be a key session in this dialogue. In this regard, voices of affected communities will deepen the level of dialogue and consensus building. Representatives of five communities will make the presentations. The communities are: Buganda, Bunyoro-Bulisa, Benet, Busongora and Acholi. Lastly, the symposium will include screening of the film: “Living Above The Line” (Writer and Director: Kalundi Serumaga), which is a 60 minute exploration of the circumstances under which the Benet Ndorobo people of Mt Elgon are being driven out of their forest home in the name of both Environmental Protection as well as Development. The film will be showed in segments of twenty minutes each as per the programme. The irony is that the Benet now lead poorer and less secure lives as a result, and the destruction to the forest is on the increase.Theirs is the first community to have successfully pursued litigation against a sitting government and obtain a consent judgement. The film explores how this judgement will really change things for the better on the ground. The film -made between September 2006 and June 2007- looks at life from the point of view of the Benet, who want to remain in their forest home; more recent farmer settlers in the region; The Uganda Wildlife Authority; and Ugandan Civil Society. It also travels briefly to communities in Eastern Kenya and South-western Uganda, that are facing similar challenges.It is an opportunity to learn much more about the lives of ordinary Africans, from their own point of view through beautiful footage and lively interviews. All participants will be free to participate either by asking questions or giving ideas and opinions during the plenary discussions.


This symposium targets:

•Members of the Executive arm of Government, Parliament and Officials from the line ministry (Lands)

•Academic staff and students of Makerere University.

•Members of communities/institutions most affected by land policies in Uganda

•The legal fraternity including the judiciary and members of the Uganda Law society

•Civil society organizations like the Uganda land Alliance, LEMU, Uganda Joint Christian Council and others with interest in land matters

•Representatives of the President’s office particularly the Land desk and Resident District Commissioners

•Political parties, and

•The Media

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Makerere University Kampala, Senate Building, Lower Conference Hall


Peter Girke

Peter Girke (2021)

Leiter Personal Ausland +49 30 - 26996 - 3365

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