By Norbert Mao

Of all the contentious issues that faced the making of the 1995 constitution, it is on the issue of land that a consensus was reached. That consensus resulted into the enactment of Article 237(1) that vested the ownership of land in the people/citizens. Only the solitary figure of Yoweri Museveni stood like an inselberg defiant of the consensus reached by the delegates. He preferred state ownership of land!

Since then that matter has been like a lump in his throat. And he has not relented in his attempts to claw back on the rights of the people to own land. In 2005 he tried to bring a constitutional amendment to allow government compulsorily acquire land for “investment”. Parliament rejected that proposal. Since parliament also removed the term limit, he bid his time. Patient as a vulture, he waited and then brought some law ostensibly to protect the tenants on Mailo land and to tame landlords. Subsequently he brought the notorious constitutional amendment to allow compulsory acquisition of land without prior compensation. That one is still in the back burner. It may resurface when we least expect it.

And then in a blink he set up a Judicial Commission of Inquiry to assess the effectiveness of land laws and the processes of land registration, management and administration. He claimed that he was motivated by the many complaints he has been receiving from the public. The Commission has already presented its interim report. The report makes several recommendations some of which have been vehemently denounced.

Two headlines pierced the air soon after Lady Justice Catherine Bamugemereire handed over the interim report to the president. “Abolish Mailo titles, says land probe team” one said. “Buganda tells off government over Mailo land move” another one declared.

In response the Commission issued a clarification which confused matters even further. While insisting that it is not “abolishing” Mailo land, the Commission says it seeks “to fuse the (various) parallel freehold systems into a single tenure”. Can something that is fused with another retain its unique identity? What the Commission should do is to show that the fusion would result into something superior and better.

No wonder, Buganda Kingdom Katikiro Charles Peter Mayiga fired a salvo at the Commission saying Mailo land is just being used as a scapegoat for a corrupt and inefficient land registry, a crime infested police and judiciary that cannot defend the people’s land rights. He termed the recommendation “an assault on our traditions”. He however consoled his audience saying that land is not a moveable chattel that can be towed away. “One day those tormenting us now will be gone and we shall reclaim our land”, he declared in a voice of thunder.

Each country deserves a land tenure system that can respond to its needs. And these needs are ever changing. They range from the need to make provision for the conservation of forests and wildlife, large commercial farms to leverage economies of scale, gigantic infrastructure projects to the settlement of the displaced and the landless.

The Katikiro has good cause to be alarmed. When it comes to land there’s overwhelming suspicion about government’s motive. Fraudulent acquisitions of land and the public land vandalism has been a major characteristic of the Museveni regime. There is fear and mistrust. A cat that has ever been burnt by a hot plate will not risk sitting even on a cold one.

That said, any meaningful land reform process has to emphasize the interests of those who live on the land and get their livelihood from the land. Furthermore, you cannot separate land tenure from the established cultural practices, customs and traditions of a particular polity. Reforming traditions is no easy task. It is like changing the direction of an ocean liner. You turn the wheel several times only to get a half a degree turn. A big change in direction comes from small practical measures over time. The complex and sensitive issue of Mailo land proper will be the subject of my next column.

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