By Lydia Namubiru
LAND conflicts will escalate in at least 30 districts in Uganda unless urgent measures are taken to resolve them, experts have warned.
A â€˜time bomb in waitingâ€™ is how the NGO Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE) calls the looming land crisis as a result of population pressure and lack of proper land policies.
The conflicts include border disputes with neighbouring countries, inter-district border disputes, wrangles between landlords and tenants, and tenants resisting acquisition of land by investors.
The disputes over international boundaries include Migingo island in Lake Victoria pitting Uganda against Kenya, a 9 km stretch in Yumbe between Uganda and Sudan, the Katuna border area with Rwanda and the Mutukula border area with Tanzania.
Disagreements with the Democratic Republic of Congo involve Rukwanzi Island in Lake Albert, Semliki, Medigo area in Pakwach and Vurra border area in Arua.
The disputes over Migingo Island and Rukwanzi Island have already led to violence. In August 2007, Congolese soldiers killed a Ugandan-based British oil worker accusing him of illegally crossing the border.
And last week Kenyan slum dwellers uprooted the railway line to Uganda protesting what they called continued Ugandan occupation of Migingo Island.
Disputes over district borders exist between Moroto and Katakwi, Sironko and Kapchorwa, Bundibujo and Kabarole, Moroto and Lira, Tororo and Butaleja, Butaleja and Budaka and over Namatala swamp between Mbale and Budaka districts.
In Buganda region, conflicts are expected to worsen between landlords and tenants, the latter increasingly facing eviction as land becomes scarce and its value goes up. Violent evictions have pervaded the area in recent years.
Landâ€™s ministry spokesperson Dennis Obbo argues that the proposed land amendment bill will solve many of the conflicts in Buganda as it seeks to give more protection to the tenants.
However, the bill has been fiercely resisted, particularly by interest groups, and it has been shelved for now.
In Gulu district, returnees from internally displaced peopleâ€™s camps are locked in land disputes over boundaries as original land marks have disappeared and the elders who knew them have died.
In parts of Ankole and Bunyoro, royals who hold large chunks of land are embroiled in conflicts with people who have occupied their land for decades.
In Kasese, three indigenous tribes are fighting over a small portion of land that was not taken over by the Government for game parks or forest reserves.
â€œThe people of Kasese have been squeezed into â€˜a corridor for survivalâ€™ as the rest of the land mass is inaccessible because it is gazetted as Government protected land,â€ says one of the research reports by ACODE.
According to the researchers, the Government holds 65% of the land in Kasese while the districtâ€™s three tribes of Bakhonzo, Basongora and Banyabindi are left to share the remaining 35%.
As a result of land scarcity, the Basongora cattle keepers encroached on Queen Elizabeth National Park upon their return from the Democratic Republic of Congo where they had been chased out.
Violent clashes broke out with the Uganda Wildlife Authority which tried to evict them back into the survival corridor.Â â€œTo say the least, Kasese is sitting on a time bomb, which could explode anytime,â€ says the report.
In the Eastern part of the country, the Karimojong of Moroto accuse the Teso people of Katakwi of having altered the border line in their favour in the 1960s, when Curthbeth Obwongor from Teso was minister of local government.
In 1966, the altering of the border caused heated disagreements in the area. The Karimojong petitioned then President Milton Obote, who subsequently cancelled the alteration and dismissed Obwongor from parliament.
The dispute, however, flared up again in 2004 when then LC5 of Moroto, Terence Achia, locked horns with his Katakwi counterpart, Steven Okure Ilemukorit, over parts of Napak, Kodike and Alekilek which the latter claimed belonged to Katakwi.
â€œThese recent claims and counter-claims by politicians are threatening to inflame the conflict and could result into generalized violence,â€ the report says.
The situation in Kibale, which has seen bloody disputes in recent past, is far more complex than any other region and dates back to colonial days.
The colonial government gave part of the Kibale land to chiefs in Buganda Kingdom. When the so-called lost counties were given back to Bunyoro kingdom after independence, the Baganda landlords fled with the land titles. As a result, the occupants on about 70% of Mailo land in the area have no security of ownership.
In addition, the Government has over the decades resettled different groups of people in the area. Immigrants now comprise 50% of the districtâ€™s population, up from 10% five decades ago. A rift between the indigenous Banyoro and the immigrants has become apparent in 1990s and has continued to grow.
Bulisa district is another trouble spot where oil prospects are just the latest catalyst to a looming land war. According to the area MP, Birahwa Mukutale, the British colonial government took 80% of the land in Bulisa and Bugungu to gazzet it as Murchison Falls National Park and Budongo Forest reserve.
The remaining 20% was then zoned into grazing land near the lake and land for cultivation near the park. This land has been communally owned and used for over 60 years. â€œUnfortunately, in 2004, Bulisa was invaded by nomadic herdsmen who do not respect the zoning. As a result, there are daily conflicts between cultivators and herdsmen,â€ says Mukutale.
In addition, the herdsmen claim they individually hold land titles for about 40 sq miles in Bulisa. But the indigenous residents refute these claims, arguing that all this land is communally owned.
What should be done?
Officials in the lands ministry agree with the ACODE researchers. â€œThe hot spots are many,â€ says Dennis Obbo, the ministryâ€™s publicist. â€œWe have found that wherever there is productive use of land along an administrative border, there is conflict.â€
Mapping the land conflict areas and noting the unique drivers of conflict in each area should be the first step to avert war, according to Onesmus Mugyenyi, the executive director of ACODE.
â€œWe carried out this research because we wanted to show the Government that conflict mapping should be adopted as a strategy for resolving disputes. It should be done on a regular basis so as to help plan interventions.â€
â€œWe are hoping that the land policy will sort out many of the problems,â€ says Obbo. The government is also in the process of buying land from absentee landlords to help insecure tenants acquire land titles.
â€œThe government has so far bought over 76 hectares of land with money from the Land Fund.â€
The Bulisa MP believes that systematic demarcation of land would also be part of the answer. The Government is currently carrying out pilot projects in the districts of Iganga, Ntungamo, Kibale and Mabale.
The World Bank is set to fund the project in another 28 parishes countrywide. In this exercise, all land will be surveyed and land owners will be able to secure their tenure by registration and acquisition of land titles.
The high population growth rate, which goes hand in hand with climate change, is another area that needs to addressed, according to the Africa Peer Review.
Estimated at 3.2% a year, Ugandaâ€™s population growth rate is third highest in the world. The average Ugandan woman gives birth to seven children in her lifetime. By 2050, Ugandaâ€™s population is expected to reach 120 million, three-fold the current population.
â€œThis is a serious challenge that affects the growth levels in Ugandaâ€, says the 2009 Peer Review report. â€œIt is strongly recommended that Uganda considers adopting and implementing a national population policy as a key element in its poverty reduction strategy.â€
As most of the land conflicts are in highly populated areas, a population policy might also be a key element in averting an escalation of land wars in Uganda.