By Norbert Mao

The framers of the 1995 Constitution were farsighted enough to provide for compulsory acquisition of land in the public interest. The government, including local governments can compulsorily acquire privately held land. All they need is to pass the test of public interest and then make a prompt, fair, and adequate compensation prior to the taking of possession or acquisition of the property. Public interest in this case means projects devoted to the general welfare of the nation.

This provision is the soul of property rights in the constitution. Therefore when the government, under the pretext of speeding up the implementation of public infrastructure projects, introduced amendments watering down those fundamental rights, the uproar in opposition to the bill was justified. The line Minister and technical team tried in vain to sell the bill but MPs under pressure from their constituents refused to buy in.

From the outset some of us made it clear that the diagnosis of the problem was reasonable but the medicine prescribed, namely the introduction of clawback clauses to water down constitutionally enshrined property rights is suspect. The government was prescribing a drug whose side effects would be worse than the disease it intends to treat.

The public continued to be suspicious. The reasons for public suspicion is that a lot of private vested interests lurk behind what is presented as public interest.

Recall the eviction of School children from Shimoni Demonstration School to make way for a multimillion dollar five star hotel. This was presented as a means to change the Kampala skyline and promote tourism. Ten years down the road there is no five star hotel. Some sources told me that the core investor, a Sheikh from one of the oil rich countries, after seeing the tears of wailing school children during the violent eviction, decided to abandon the project. The government is tight lipped about the status of the project.

Another case is the Nakawa-Naguru estates saga. Recently, the media reported that the promised 5000 housing units which were used as the reason for the eviction of thousands of families were white elephants after all. Yet the project was touted as a way to build affordable accommodation for city dwellers and aid slum redevelopment.

Unless the government reinvents itself as a trustworthy people centered agency, the word “public interest” will continue to be a dirty word tainted with veiled private greed. This lack of trust is the one thing that led MPs to reject the bill prompting the government to beat a hasty retreat. One hopes that the bill will not be brought back because the solutions to the problems the amendment was intended to solve lie outside the constitution.

Exaggerated compensation and collusion between land owners and project managers is another serious problem. I know of many cases where colossal sums of money were dubiously paid yet genuine claimants are left unpaid. There was a case in Buwama, Masaka road, where power transmission pylons were constructed over a swamp. Initial inquiries showed that the land was public land. After the pylons were constructed a mysterious owner showed up claiming billions. He even produced a brand new land title. He was compensated in unclear circumstances.

Another case was in Mbarara. Power transmission pylons were being constructed via a rural dairy farm. The owner of the farm, a well connected man close to the ruling party stopped the construction and presented an outrageous claim. The total land that the project claimed could not exceed five acres. In his claim the land owner claimed that the high voltage power lines would affect his cows and reduce milk production. The contractors negotiated in vain with the land owner. Eventually the Electricity Regulatory Authority stepped in and proposed that the land should be purchased. 900 million shillings was paid for the five acres of land. That is a whooping 180 million shillings per acre for a parcel of remote rural land! Anyone who drives past the farm today will see that the pylons are still fenced in. You will also see cows happily grazing under the pylons oblivious of the claims that the high voltage power lines overhead would endanger them.

Graft, gross corruption, greed, incompetence and collusion have tainted land acquisitions relating to public infrastructure. These are the problems the government should focus on. The speck in the eye of the constitution is nothing compared to the log in the eye of the government.