By Frank Kiberu
It is close to traumatizing to watch land-related news these days. Especially on Luganda-speaking media houses, there is at least three news items everyday of people fighting for their land rights.
Whether this is a mere coincidence or a well-orchestrated ploy to portray land in Buganda as chaotic and in need of urgent reforms, we can’t sufficiently tell.
But what we can tell is that there is a growing appetite for land in Central Uganda, with some ‘monied’ individuals using weaknesses in the justice, law and order sector to disenfranchise the majority poor of their only source of livelihood – land.
For instance, there was a touching story on TV of residents from three villages in Mukono who were crying out to new Lands Minister Judith Nabakoba to save them from eviction by a rich man who had acquired a Freehold title on Kabaka’s land. Despite the fact that a freehold title cannot be issued on Mailo land, this rich man somehow managed to compromise the government system and get it. It was reported that even when the rightful owners of this land (Buganda Kingdom) wrote to the government’s registrar of titles seeking cancellation of this title as far back as 2019, this title has never been cancelled!
This one scenario tells the entire problem about land in Uganda – corruption, connivance and incompetence. Yes, some people, including ministers, want us to believe that Mailo Land is Uganda’s problem, and should thus be scrapped, but the example from Mukono suggests otherwise.
First, just like Katikkiro Charles Peter Mayiga has consistently preached, the incompetence and corruption in Uganda’s police system is the beginning of all problems. In the said case, people faulted the police for shielding agents of the rich man who would come and hack their animals and slash their gardens. In most of the prominent new items about evictions, the police are always seen guarding the tormentors!
Then this rotten system goes further to government offices in charge of lands. Why would the lands office in Mukono or elsewhere issue out a freehold title on Mailo land when they know that this is illegal? Why would the Commissioner Land Registration take years without correcting this illegality? Why would court issue an eviction order without making a locus visit? These are some of the systemic loopholes that need urgent fixing before we rush to amend land laws, in pretense of correcting ‘historical injustices’.
Yes, there are underlying challenges in land ownership in the central region, especially brought about by multiple land rights (landlord and tenant), but history tells us that multiple interests have always existed on land even prior to the 1900 agreement and that people can live harmoniously if everyone met their obligations.
On Buganda Kingdom land, for instance, the Kabaka, through Buganda Land Board, has always encouraged peaceful and organised settlements and the only requirement from tenants is payment of nominal annual ground rent as prescribed by the land laws. I understand that those with leases also pay ground rent fees in peace. My parents in Masaka are on Kabaka’s land; they pay annual Busuulu of Shs 5,000 and I have never seen them in running battles with Mengo officials. They have always had a harmonious relationship.
It was good that following the recent meeting between the Kabaka of Buganda and the President of Uganda, the prime minister came out with a government position noting that bibanja holders are encouraged to pay ‘Busuulu’ to their landlords. In case of absentee landlords, the law is going to be altered to empower sub-counties to collect this money. Good enough, the Kabaka is not an absentee landlord. He has always welcomed the idea of people paying Busuulu, however little it is!
I think this is the way to go. We have seen all land in government hands (including the 9000 square miles that rightly belongs to Buganda) being mismanaged by district land boards who dish it out to superficial landlords as freehold titles. That is why we see whole villages facing eviction because of these absentee landlords who acquire land in square miles and want it for only themselves This is the kind of selfishness that proponents of proposals to remove Mailo land have – to put land in the hands of a privileged few. Government has already proven to us that land is not safe in its hands. Why give it more?
What we should encourage is for people to identify their landlords, register with them and pay their annual ground rent as prescribed by law. Everyone will live happily.
Frank Kiberu is a tenant on Kabaka’s land.