Whose is it?

Mr. Lubowa Charles had hoped and prayed for this moment for a long time. On a cold and wet February morning, in an office at Mengo Chief Magistrates Court, in the west of Kampala, the words coming from the judge caused him to heave a great sigh of relief. Not given to emotional outbursts or public display of joy, one could not tell the exhilaration within. The seven year journey that had begun in 2007 had ended. The land in contention was declared his. He was elated for the far he had come, for the justice that had been meted out.


However, the graying 75 year old man was not blind to the working of the system; though he was optimistic, he was real too. Just a week before, he had said “These court cases can go any of two ways.” His victory was sweet but short lived. His opponent declared that he would be appealing the court verdict. Although grateful for the landmark reached, he had to brace himself for more waiting and a trial whose result was uncertain. They both had land titles.


Land in Uganda


Land in Uganda

The issue of land is a very sensitive one in this nation. Land is a fundamental factor of production and is indeed Uganda’s prime and critical asset in development.  Land issues in Uganda date back as far as the colonial period. When Uganda became a British protectorate, most of the things changed including the land tenure and its management. The colonial administration created contradictions through the various systems of land tenure which are still prevalent today raising issues with land ownership.


The Poverty Status Report May 2012 notes that ‘In rural areas, land is the most valued asset since it acts as a safety net – selling or renting out land is widely perceived to indicate extreme hardship. This is the root cause of pervasive underemployment in the agricultural sector … A fluid market in secure rights to land is required to boost agricultural growth and facilitate urbanization as a driver of growth. Land is one of the most important assets in Uganda, particularly for poor farmers, but the dominant mailo and customary land tenure systems are plagued by overlapping claims and restrictions to land use. Conservative estimates suggest that the investment disincentives resulting from tenure insecurity reduce agricultural productivity by 25 percent. Restrictions to the land market inhibit the movement away from agriculture and make it more difficult to reuse the same piece of land for higher value activities over time.’

Article 237 of the Constitution states that “Land in Uganda belongs to the citizens of Uganda and shall vest in them in accordance with the land tenure systems provided for in this Constitution.” It goes ahead to note that “Land in Uganda shall be owned in accordance with the following land tenure systems— (a) customary; (b) freehold; (c) mailo; and (d) leasehold…Upon the coming into force of this Constitution and until Parliament enacts an appropriate law under clause (9) of this article, the lawful or bonafide occupants of mailo land, freehold or leasehold land shall enjoy security of occupancy on the land.” Land ownership is subject to the constitution and Land Act (227). For one to acquire land, they go through the Lands office as provided under the Registration of Titles Act (230). Only 20 per cent of this land is titled and 80 per cent is under customary tenure system, according to The Uganda Vision 2040.


Owning a piece of the cake

Climbing up Lubya hill is not a fete for the fainthearted. Panting and out of breath, with sweat lining my brow, I reached the top of it to the home residence of Mr. Lubowa. In a wide compound of green with a cool evening breeze, I was welcomed.

“Have you ever seen a more beautiful place in Kampala?” he asked, proudly looking around the compound. My gaze followed his, taking in the well manicured lawn, trimmed shrubs, fruit trees, thin strip of plantain garden and the imposing double storied house.

“If I have, they are few and do not come to mind.” I said in answer to his question.

“It is very beautiful,” he continued. “like a village yet not a village. Urban yet rural.” I asked him to tell me more about his land. “It sits on a little more than half an acre. It used to be an acre but then my neighbor to the left encroached on a quarter of it. It was before I moved on to the land and I was advised to let it go.

“Then my other neighbours to the back encroached on half an acre and I was not going to let it go this time. One of them has a title for it.”


Where does the problem lie?

Unfortunately, this case is one in many. Land has been an issue in the news over the last ten years and an issue for the masses for longer. Land grabbing and unlawful acquisition of land is rampant in Uganda. After a two and a half month closure of the lands registry office on December 15th 2012, the new computerized offices were opened.

During the closure, the Ministry scanned and updated land titles and transported them to the six newly-created zonal offices. Members of the public were to go to these offices for services including registering a caveat, mortgage, transfer, letter of administration, replacement of damaged titles and title search. Officials said that when completed, the system would cut the processing time for a land title from 14 days to ten minutes. The hope was that this new system would reduce irregularities.

“We started using the computerized land registry. People can now get their computerized land titles in the land offices and communicate to us if they face any problem,” lands minister Daudi Migereko revealed. “The computerized national land information will solve problems of forging titles, missing files and the red tape in searching land information. Storage and retrieval of information will be easier and faster.”
“There is need to realise the link between land rights and development. Though land is vital for national development, land grabbing, unclear acquisitions, evictions and compensation flaws continue to be reported. With the increase in population to 34.1 million, the levels of development, land access and ownership rights continue to be compromised despite the presence of mechanisms to avert the problem.” writes Tom Balemesa. Land is a very important asset because for many it provides a living since Uganda is intensely agricultural. It provides a home too – a place to belong. It is accurate to say that lack of land security leads to poverty.

“The rapid explosion in population growth experienced in Uganda in the past 20 years; the discovery of oil and the emergence of a middle class empowered by kyeyo (a term for Ugandans who seek manual work abroad) has created a serious demand for land both in the urban as well as rural areas across the whole country. In the past 10-15 years, Uganda, not unlike any other African country, has seen a rise in demand for land never before experienced and this, partly fuelled by an economy that has had two decades of boosted donor funding and inward investment from large scale industries, and this has meant that land has seen two, three and sometimes, tenfold increases in their prices over a few years for example a 50m x 100m plot of land in Najeera cost only about $3,000 – $5,000 in 2000, the same plot will set one back about $100,000 – $200,000 today.” This is the opinion of Frank Okello Abe, a Solicitor and Lecturer in England and Wales and the ‘ab initio’ Chairman of Acholi Land Reform and Consultative Group,  which he notes in his article ‘How to achieve land reform with small changes in our law’


Hope in the midst of it all

In grey trousers and a white polo shirt, with a small black rosary gracing his neck, Mr. Lubowa, who is quite strong and agile for his age, tells me, in detail, of the journey taken with his land which is situated in Kasubi, Lubya, on the outskirts of Kampala. “I bought the land in 1974, when Kasubi was uninhabited. When I bought it there was only one house on the hill, and it was a shack. I have the papers to prove it. This man who came in 2004 cannot claim to own the land.”

On this day, five months after the court verdict he notes “I went to court today. After weeks of follow-up I found that the judgment had been typed. All that is remaining is for the judge to sign it.” Will the justice system grant him true and utter victory in the end? For Mr. Lubowa, and many like him, the hope is that the answer is in the affirmative; that the feeling of exhilaration at being named the rightful owner of his land will be lasting.

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