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Parliament must craft a water-tight law on land

By Vision Reporter

Added 28th November 2007 03:00 AM

THE Government and Mengo have drawn daggers at each other over what has always underpinned skirmishes between them – land! This is over the Government’s plan to reform the land law and end what it sees as peasant marginalisation by the 1900 Buganda Agreement beneficiaries; the owners of large tr

THE Government and Mengo have drawn daggers at each other over what has always underpinned skirmishes between them – land! This is over the Government’s plan to reform the land law and end what it sees as peasant marginalisation by the 1900 Buganda Agreement beneficiaries; the owners of large tr

By Denis Mutabazi

THE Government and Mengo have drawn daggers at each other over what has always underpinned skirmishes between them – land! This is over the Government’s plan to reform the land law and end what it sees as peasant marginalisation by the 1900 Buganda Agreement beneficiaries; the owners of large tracts of redundant mailo land. As expected, Mengo is crying foul over the proposed reforms and has accused the President and his ‘clique’ of harbouring a hidden agenda to grab Buganda’s ancestral land.

Landless peasants desperately seeking to curve out a livelihood have often illegally settled on redundant mailo land patches. Obviously the landlords reserved the right to evict the landless squatters and have often done so with impunity.

Since independence, nearly all governments have unsuccessfully attempted to address the thorny land tenure issues. President Amin in his 1975 decree transferred all land ownership rights to the state. People could only use their land on a lease basis.

Unfortunately, the decree had more serious implications for land occupants without titles to the land they occupied: they could be evicted at any time without the legal requirement for prior notification.

President Milton Obote had a few proposals in the early 1980s but with his government preoccupied with marauding NRA guerrillas, nothing significant ensued.

President Yoweri Museveni has probably been more passionate about the plight of landless peasants. During his guerrilla war days in the jungles of Luwero, he was reported to have promised landless peasants harbouring him that he would end their landlessness after capturing power. He has since engineered radical land reforms through the 1995 Constitution that guaranteed security of occupancy to bonafide occupants of mailo, freehold or leasehold.

The constitution, however, did not solve the historical conflict between mailo landlords and tenants. In fact, it crystallised an ownership stalemate between landlords and bonafide occupants.

Since 1995, land conflicts have intensified with the illusion of ownership created under the new constitution. The 1998 Land Act which could have ironed out the legal contradictions was also incurably defective. Consequently, some evicted peasants seeking to invoke their bonafide occupancy rights through the courts of law have seen their cases thrown out – thanks to inoperable, flawed legislation.

With frustration among landless peasants rising, Museveni has castigated the courts as biased against the peasants, incompetent and possibly compromised. Instead, he has proposed an alternative revolutionary justice system for land arbitration which he believes will be pro-poor.

The new system will empower the lands minister to stop peasant evictions using administrative directives to Resident District Commissioners, police, land boards and land committees. It will also give powers to the lands minister to approve occupancy to a tenant if the landlord does not approve it within six months.

By implication, the proposed revolutionary justice system will render courts of law incompetent to arbitrate over any land cases! Will RDCs, land boards, police and land committees deliver balanced justice? Won’t the revolutionary justice system be prone to political manipulation? To whom will the aggrieved appeal, if he or she is not satisfied with the verdict from the revolutionary justice system? The public already has a skewed perception of RDCs. Won’t using them as the vanguard for protecting peasants’ rights jeopardise the credibility of the outcome?

Truth be told: I support the President’s intentions to secure land ownership rights for the landless peasants. However, I categorically disagree with his approach! I put it to him that the means is probably more important that the result! The proposed revolutionary justice system and the overthrow of the traditional court system for land arbitration could catalyse anarchy and plunge the country into chaos.

While inaction on the part of the Government is as anarchical as an extra-judicial revolutionary justice system, the Government has a responsibility to adopt an approach that will not plunge us in the same predicament as that of Zimbabwe. All that we will need is a serious parliament to craft a good, comprehensive water-tight land law; enhanced capacity of the courts to expedite land cases; and a President who believes in, and respects the professionalism of our judicial system. The courts may have their weaknesses but nothing in the world will justify an extra-judicial revolutionary justice system for land arbitration.

denis.mutabazi@mrrd.gov.af

The writer is a Rural Livelihoods Specialist working with the United Nations in Kabul, Afghanistan

Parliament must craft a water-tight law on land

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