By Dr. Rose Nakayi.
In this first of two-part series about mailo land reforms, Makerere University law don Dr Rose Nakayi provides a thought-provoking reflection on mailo land as well as alternatives to solving issues related with the tenure system.
In Uganda, evictions of the poor from land by the dominant economic class have been common in the last two decades. They have mainly been classified under the broader rubric of land grabbing. Land evictions are a microcosm of Uganda’s political economy and offshoots of lapses in land governance and the unending land reform processes.
Eviction scenes are usually characterised by the following: a group of people (most often hired goons) destroying crops; a grader destroying structures or debris from already destroyed structures; victims trying to salvage their belongings from the debris (usually basic household items such as overused mattresses, plastic plates, cups, and clothing); stick-wielding victims voicing their frustration in front of media microphones/cameras, affirming their claim to the land and calling on a powerful agency or a politician to intervene (at times these calls to intervene are directed at the government using the popular Luganda phrase, “tusaba gavumenti etuyambe” (we are begging for the government’s intervention/help); women crying profusely, pacing around the scene, asking rhetorical questions (usually concerning their dire helplessness as widows/sole providers for their families and wondering how they will pay off that loan or feed the children now that the food is destroyed); and people in uniform wielding guns and court papers purportedly authorising the eviction.
This description of evictions is a metaphorical representation of the actors, powers, agendas, and interests at play in land contestations. It is usually the face of other invisible forces deeply rooted in the letter of the law, power play, and asserted by a court of law through interpretation or misinterpretation.
The scene can be appropriately captioned “noise versus uniforms, guns and court papers”. The poor can only amplify their voices of dissent by wielding sticks, while the instruments of state authority (uniforms, guns and court papers) remain in the hands of their tormentors.
The scene also presents a number of dichotomies: a class struggle between the underclass/poor and the dominant economic class, between the powerful and the subordinated/oppressed, citizens and subjects. The constitutional notion of citizenship bestows upon all Ugandans the right to state protection.
Land conflicts have, however, presented a dynamic where the rich and powerful are more of citizens than others, for they can use the law and state institutions to assert their “entitlement” against the underclass/poor. Those who lose their land in this context become “subjects” whose claims are dismissed as merely an annoyance rather than “rights” worth defending. The “subjects” can only cry out for help as a privilege rather than a right.
This is evidence that the most recent land law reforms of 1995, 1998 and 2010 have not yet benefited the majority of victims of land evictions. Their socio-economic existence is destabilised. To them, the law is a powerful tool in the hands of the economically and politically dominant group.
The Constitution of Uganda recognises four tenure systems: mailo, freehold, customary and leasehold. Evictions have taken place on land held under all four tenure systems across the country. Not every eviction is unlawful, but unlawful evictions abound in Uganda’s history, and have intensified in recent times.
They cause land conflicts, destabilise society, retard land-based production and curtail free marketability of land. Debates on land reform are frequent and the country is currently debating another range of reforms on the mailo system of land tenure.
There is need to understand the dialectic views about the need for reforms in this area, and I offer some discussion here. I take a teleological approach, avoiding the polemic debates on how we got here and focussing instead on what we could learn from and do about the sticking issues in the land reform processes in Uganda.
I also explore the pro-commercialisation and other efforts aimed at land restitution in other countries, as well as the politics of the “entangled” interests on mailo land in Uganda, and how this shapes the efforts and politics of disentanglement. Land law has been used as a tool in the politics of entanglement and disentanglement.
I argue that the law is not the magic bullet; it rarely addresses the underlying intersectional quandaries of a social, economic and political nature that normally converge in the spaces of the poor/underprivileged. Law should be coupled with other legitimate efforts aimed at disentangling the convergence of the issues referred to above and understanding the roles played by the various actors in land conflicts and their resolution.
Land reforms elsewhere
Land reforms elsewhere are characterised by scenes where (just like in Uganda) voices of protest confront forces wielding state authority sanctioned through law reforms, the poor pitted against the economically empowered in the struggle over land.
A number of African countries have undertaken land reforms in the recent past, achieving—according to official supporting discourses—a constellation of gains ranging from correcting historical flaws, improving tenure security, promoting the capital value of land, and protecting indigenous communities, among others. South Africa and Zimbabwe stand out in the Southern Africa region.
South African reforms have included a broader agenda to annihilate the dangers associated with the land dispossessions perpetrated against the black population during the apartheid era.
Debates about racial inequalities, and restitution and/or compensation have been current in addition to communal land tenure policy initiatives aimed at vesting land in tribal authorities and streamlining its use and access within that traditional body politic. Expropriation without compensation is another hot debate in the South African context.
In Zimbabwe, a number of land reforms took place in turbulent fashion in the early 2000s (of course there were efforts at land reform in the 1980s). Like in South Africa, reforms involved reversion of land from white to black farmers (put simply).
The views about these reforms have been divergent with some believing that they have helped the small-scale farmer to gain ground in the agricultural market economy, while others see the initiatives as disastrous and unsustainable in economic and human rights terms (if all, both black and white, are considered citizens).
Next-door in Kenya, the most recent reforms were heralded by the inauguration of the 2010 Constitution followed by the new land law of 2012 and the Community Land Act of 2016, among others. As elsewhere, the reforms were justified on a number of bases including inequitable distribution of land, historical injustices, landlessness among the poor, increasing trends of land grabbing, and the need to streamline communal land use. In her recent book,
The Struggle for Land and Justice in Kenya, Ambreena Manji argues that one of the problems with reform in Kenya is the parochial view of “land reform” as reform of land law that leads to focus being placed on reforms within the land management and administration institutions that are pivotal to the exercise of bureaucratic power.
This approach diverts attention from the broader questions of access, land justice for the poor and unequal distribution. Manji further believes, “We must attend to insurgent knowledge and ideas of change.”
In essence, any reform programme should aim at deeper and broader change beyond legal reforms in order to address the plight of the subaltern poor caught up in contestations over land.
Such an approach questions the dominant but rather rhetorical narratives of the state as the protector of rights and people, to address situations where symbols of state power (uniforms, guns and court papers) are ironically applied to entrench a skewed power position to intimidate and dispossess victims in land conflicts/evictions.
THE UGANDA CASE
Public debate in Uganda has recently been dominated by discussions on the reform of the mailo land tenure system, with views varying from those that believe it needs to be reformed (and may be abolished) to those that believe that the mailo system does not need to be reviewed.
Uganda has gone through a series of land reforms over the course of the country’s history, with each reform influenced by the political, social and economic factors prevailing at the time. In 1975, President Idi Amin abolished all perpetual land ownership tenure systems and vested all land in the state, which granted periodic leases to land users.
The post-1995 land law reforms re-vested land back in the citizens to hold by virtue of the revived tenure systems (mailo, freehold, customary, in addition to leasehold). Unlike in the past, the post-1995 period saw heightened contestations over land and witnessed classic evictions.
The 1900 Agreement is often seen as the precursor of mega-reforms in the mailo system of land holding. The Land Law of 1908 introduced reforms to address the lack of clarity identified in the findings of the Carter Committee of 1907.
Among the issues raised was whether the 1900 agreement introduced a new system which changed the reciprocal obligations that existed between landlords and tenants (embedded in custom and tradition) prior to its signing. The 1908 law defined and drew the boundaries of the mailo system introduced under the 1900 agreement.
This was following tenants’ complaints of exploitation by landlords who were charging exorbitant rents. In 1975, mailo interests were by law commuted to leaseholds when land was nationalised, a position that was reformed through the Constitution of Uganda in 1995 and operationalised through the Land Act of 1998.
Reforms are not new. The question is why haven’t they delivered on their agenda to address the so- called “land question”? Can reforms focusing on the mailo land tenure (mainly in central Uganda) address all the problematic land issues at a national level or those associated with other tenure systems such as the vast customary tenure predominant in the north?
Are we asking the right questions to guide reform processes? Are we addressing the right problems? Does the operating environment allow for clear and focused reforms? Can focus on “law reform” (to refer to Manji’s conceptualisation) without addressing the underlying socio-political issues resolve the multifaceted nature of challenges encountered in the mailo system?
All these questions have one answer. Land is a part of the political repertoire and, therefore, efforts to bring about land reforms involve managing politics, society, and the economy, yet the balance is not easy to strike.
Although cumbersome for some, the unresolved land issues are exploitable “stock”’ for others. Beneficiaries of the “stock” would, therefore, not opt for approaches that resolve the problem once and for all, since that would not be just a trifling inconvenience but a big loss.
This feature first appeared in The Elephant, www.theelephant.info. It is a platform for engaging citizens to reflect, remember and re-envision their society by interrogating the past, the present, to fashion a future.