In Uganda land is a vital asset, source of wealth and symbol of prestige

We are writing these stories not because we are driven by radicalism or assertiveness as some people have suggested but because we want to save a bad situation from getting worse. For those who care to know two worrying developments are taking place in Uganda – land grabbing by foreigners and inferior education for indigenous population. These developments are reminiscent of the recently ended apartheid system in South Africa where the indigenous black population lost most of the land to the minority white population and got inferior education. It took almost one hundred years of struggle, abandoning education, loss of lives and long term prison sentences from 1912 to end this unjust system but the effects are still being felt. Let us examine the land issue as it relates to Uganda.

When we were growing up in poor families in southwest Uganda we were told again and again that our future was in education and not in tilling the land, a profession left for those who failed at school. To drive the point home we were punished at home and at school for whatever wrongdoing by doing agriculture work in school or family gardens. So Ugandans developed a dislike for agriculture and by extension land ownership. Educated people distanced themselves from rural areas and most would not even think of investing a small portion of their income in agriculture or rural development. Village life was something to be avoided.

As towns grew even those who did not do well at school abandoned the land and migrated to towns to do all sorts of things but agriculture. Fortunately because colonial policy had prevented foreign land ownership in Uganda the abandoned land remained idle. However, the neighboring countries of Rwanda, Burundi and eastern DRC had high population densities, poor economic prospects and a repressive colonial regime. People from Burundi and Rwanda in particular began to trickle into Uganda since the 1920s looking for work. Bahutu were employed in crop cultivation areas in Buganda and Busoga; Batutsi found work where herding was the main occupation in all parts of Uganda. Some returned to their home countries, others stayed, acquired land and settled permanently. Because of a sizeable male migration, Buganda at one time had a sex ratio of male exceeding female. Normally there are more women than men. At independence in 1962 over 40 percent of Buganda population was non-Baganda. The next census should disaggregate indigenous and migrant population data to determine the relative contribution of each component to population growth.

Political disturbances since the early 1960s in Burundi, DRC and Rwanda resulted in massive refugees and cattle into Uganda. Thinking that this was a temporary phenomenon the refugees were accommodated happily on humanitarian grounds and allowed to settle temporarily with relatives or drift into the country wherever there was land. In south Kigezi and parts of Ankole land was already scarce, overpopulated and overstocked when the refugees arrived. The pressure on land and poor weather forced migration of refugees and/or indigenous cattle herders to northern Kigezi, Buganda, Toro and Bunyoro and beyond ending up in all parts of Uganda. As the land frontier closed, the new arrivals began to encroach on occupied land by direct purchase sometimes in a manner that was not straightforward. They have had easier access to credit facilities than many indigenous people and have been buying land in many parts of the country. Many indigenous Ugandans have lost much land for failure to repay loans in part because they did not understand the terms of the loans including interest rates and how land would be lost as collateral.

The introduction of foreign land ownership has developed into a major challenge since NRM came to power in 1986. Land became a source of wealth as export diversification gathered speed, cattle herding that require large swathes of land received priority over crop production in some areas and urban development ate into agriculture land. The liberal immigration policy has attracted many migrants especially from neighbors who have been facilitated to acquire land. As land became short, its value rose and the rich began to see it as a profitable investment. The government began to preach that the future of Ugandans is in non-agricultural work in towns. This was followed by sale of land to start business in towns. But most of the business failed. Without land and good education to find a job in non-agricultural sectors, many Ugandans have become landless and jobless. The incorporation of Uganda into the East African community without grasping the full implications of human and livestock mobility on land tenure and use has opened Uganda gates to settlers from other members of the community especially from those areas where population densities are high that land has become the single most contentious issue in Uganda’s political economy.

Incorporating large swathes of rural land into municipal boundaries has meant that land ownership and management have shifted from former rural owners to municipal councils that are offering land for sale to the highest bidder thus kicking former peasant and functionally illiterate owners out into the cold notwithstanding the so-called compensation. There are stories subject to confirmation that land in northern Uganda is being grabbed at such a rate that those returning from internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps have found themselves without land. They have no education to find job outside agriculture. They have become landless and jobless and a potential threat to peace and security especially as most of them are young. Some land has been allocated to foreign developers in circumstances that have left many questions unanswered. Some people with connections are obtaining titles for land that belongs to others and court cases are mounting but the poor are likely to lose the case because corruption has entered the judiciary in a big way and in some cases money has trampled the truth.

As Ugandans begin to understand and appreciate the value of land as life and an asset, source of wealth and symbol of strength and prestige, they are demanding to get their land back, reduce migration and stop land grabbing. As population grows from natural and migration sources land scarcity is going to get worse and struggle for it to intensify. Already the mass media is full of complaints about powerless people losing their land to those who are powerful politically and economically. This struggle represents a time bomb waiting to go off if the situation is not addressed without further delay. Those who believe that dissent will be suppressed indefinitely through the barrel of the gun or pushing Uganda into the East African federation are very mistaken. Land has become a bread and butter issue under any circumstances that discussing it does not require vague language but straight talk to drive the point home in order to find a lasting solution. The people of Uganda are getting enlightened and will not rest until they get what they want. Those who want to take Uganda back to the medieval period of feudalism or to conditions similar to the apartheid system however disguised need to think again. Putting much money into the military and torture houses to silence political and economic dissent is likely to turn out a very bad investment. We are saying all these things with the emphasis they deserve to avert a catastrophe not to incite an armed rebellion.

The international community has recognized the importance of small holder farmers as productive, efficient and friendly socially and environmentally. Funds have been allocated to help them increase productivity and commercialize agriculture. Uganda authorities should access this money to help small scale farmers instead of replacing them with large scale cultivators and ranchers that are largely labor saving and therefore do not create jobs for the displaced peasants and their children contributing to youth unemployment in excess of 80 percent.


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