The next time you are visited by someone asking whether you are selling your land, hasten to file a case with the police.
Do the same if a wealthy, politically-connected individual buys land in your neighborhood. Chances are high that this is (or will quickly turn into) a land grabber who uses seemingly innocent but equally coercive means to accumulate wealth by dispossessing others.
I am not suggesting that police will be keen to help (they have been accused hundreds of times of being compromised by the wealthy and powerful, something upon which no one will ever have evidence) but, at least, in the event of a judicial battle, you would have reported an incident of infringement first.
I am also not suggesting that the judiciary should be trusted too much. Not at all! But for reasons of ‘civil vigilantism’, these responses could save the day.
As the land market surges with increasing local and multi-national interest (influx of Chinese, German and South African investors), dispossession is taking more subtle and benign forms of violence.
Investing in real estate and large-scale land acquisition are becoming easy options for our political and public service thieves. People whose profiles appear in newspapers everyday on different misappropriation charges are struggling to find ways of hiding their monies.
They have accumulated so much that they are afraid of keeping it in their houses, neither are they ready to bank it (there are mafias in the banks, you know!). With buying land presenting a safer option, working with fronts, they are voraciously dispossessing unsuspecting compatriots.
With cases of mob justice against land grabbers on the rise against a messy and incomprehensive land tenure regime (and land office), land thieves have mastered new tactics.
In addition to accumulating through small plots, as they work to conquer entire villages, they no longer openly evict occupants on forged land titles!
This is too risky nowadays in that it not only attracts bad press, but could also end in mass protests or public lynching. Instead, they cajole, intimidate and force a sale, and then (working with police, and local judicial systems) quickly offer to compensate.
Aware that people are penurious to the bone, cannot afford fuel for a police officer nor the exorbitant fees, the language and frustrations of litigation, land grabbers nowadays are quick to “make it easy” for the aggrieved. Technically, this compensation is forced selling.
It is a form of dispossession even if the victim was offered the best terms. The condition is bad for landowners who are not residents, and worse when they have no visible developments such as buildings or sizeable agricultural investments.
If it is grazing or fallow land, the grabber convinces himself – and their networks – that this is ‘idle land’ for which the owner sees no need. After careful study, they master the supervisory patterns of the right landowner; identify their level of education, possible political connections, and anticipated responses.
With a faked ownership title, they swing into action and start transforming it. By the time the owner gets wind of the invasion, a building, a wall fence, or borehole is already in the ground. These things would be so exquisitely done that the original owner is scared to even countenance knocking them down.
Besides, there would be mean-looking security officers, often in police uniforms, guarding the site and ready to arrest their victim for ‘criminal trespass’.
Amidst this mess, the victim is advised to report the matter to police and seek redress in court. Absolute nonsense! These seemingly friendly avenues of redress are actually part of the terrible script.
The thieves know well enough the overwhelming demands police and court processes present to ordinary persons. Often, frustrated landowners resort to sorcery before surrendering to their fate.
In cases of ‘empowered’ victims, by the time they secure a court order stopping any developments, a lot would have happened, opening the story to a long and expensive court process.
Overwhelmed by the political and judicial connections land grabbers mobilize, the frustrated victim would be pleased with any offers for compensation.
Ownership changes hands by a little inflection in the language – from purchase to compensation – and a longer process than would have been with direct purchase. Thoroughly scorched, the victim returns home wondering why they even attempted a fight in the first place.
The author is a PhD fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research.