Battle lines drawn as land amendment causes uproar

MPs, cultural, civil and religious leaders unite in protest

Government last week side-stepped one controversy; the raging age limit amendment debate, and introduced another in parliament, the Constitution Amendment Bill 2017 on compulsory land acquisition.

The tabling of that bill in a rather riotous parliament set the stage for another bitter battle with MPs, activists and political leaders.

According to the bill tabled before parliament by Mwesigwa Rukutana, the deputy attorney general, government contends that it has lost money due to delayed infrastructural projects. Some of these delays are occasioned by disputes over compensation of owners of land to be utilized in public projects.

“The bill seeks to enable government or local governments to deposit with court, compensation awarded by government for any property declared for compulsory acquisition,” reads one of the objectives of the five-clause bill.

A cross section of civil society activists, religious, cultural and political leaders have said the draft legislation is poisonous and tailored to legalize land grabbing. Godber Tumushabe, the executive director of the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLISS), told The Observer on Saturday that the amendment, if passed, will be the most significant change to the 1995 constitution.

“The right to ownership of property is so fundamental for the citizenship; it’s the basis for any citizen to actively engage in the economy and the politics. Therefore, to see government trying to undermine that foundation for our economic, democratic culture and practice is very outrageous,” Tumushabe said.

Activist Godber Tumushabe discusses with deputy Attorney General Mwesigwa Rukutana recently

He added that now that government had appropriated all public land that was supposed to be held in trust of all the people of Uganda, it is moving fast to even give away people’s privately owned land.

“This is total fraud because if they are serious people who want to defend the citizens, why wouldn’t parliament determine the duration for compensation because those are the few safeguards that are there. I think this is the maximum that this government can do to disenfranchise its people,” Tumushabe said.

Nsereko Mutumba, the spokesperson for the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council, said they will stop at nothing in opposing the bill which he described as “dangerous.”

“This amendment is intended to deprive people of their property. We urge members of parliament to reject it because it’s dangerous for government to seek to amend the law that will affect the whole country simply because it has faced problems in one part of the country,” Mutumba said.

He added that for government to be interested in one’s land and at the same time provide a valuer who they can influence to undervalue someone’s property is tantamount to land grabbing.

Noah Kiyimba, the spokesman of Buganda kingdom, promised a showdown if government pushes on with the amendment.

“We believe in the constitution that vests all the powers in the hands of the people and these people are saying this amendment is bad. A law that is not fair cannot work. We will come together and fight to see that it [bill] doesn’t go through, and in case it goes through, we shall challenge it,” Kiyimba said.

In 1998 and 2008, government bitterly clashed with Mengo whose head, the Kabaka, is one of the biggest landlords in the country over similar plans to amend the Land Act. Although on both occasions the law was finally passed, it left a sour taste in the mouth of Mengo, culminating in a frosty relationship that went on until 2013 when the two sides agreed to bury the hatchet.

Kiyimba also punched holes in the government’s claim that it is the disputes over compensation that have resulted into loss of monies due to delays in project implementation. He instead blamed corruption and collusion among government officials who manipulate the situation to benefit from such delays.

“Government should instead focus on removing officials who delay compensation in order to benefit from it,” Kiyimba said.

Medard Lubega Sseggona, the MP for Busiro East, agreed with Kiyimba.

“We need to improve the operations of the government because all the institutions of the state have collapsed and the delays are because they are waiting for him [Museveni] to make a decision or because his corrupt officials want money,” Sseggona told us on Saturday.

He wondered how one can consider him/herself a landowner when government can just take it away at anytime without compensation.

“What Museveni is doing is trying to steal people’s land using the law. The only difference between him and the man who comes in the middle of the night and takes away your car is that he [Museveni] wants to take it during the day under the cover of the law,” Sseggona said.

On her part, Winnie Ngabiirwe, the executive director of Global Rights Alert Uganda, said the amendment is a disguised land grabbing scheme.

“Government has been failing to compensate people timely; now they want to make it official and they do it with all the impunity that there is,” Ngabiirwe told The Observer on Saturday.

She added that while it is understandable that government must provide infrastructure and investment, this must not come at the expense of people’s livelihoods.

“The essence of development is that you don’t take away what people already have but build on it,” she said.

On her part, Gomba East MP Robinah Rwakoojo said, “If the land acquisition is meant for a public purpose, as long as it is in the public interest, government can acquire it. However, they have to make sure that compensation to landowners is prompt and adequate.”

Silas Aogon (Kumi municipality) said, “When you see how MPs reacted last week, it was a protest against the bill. It is a true reflection of what is happening down there with the people. Are we curing the problem without worsening the constitutional situation? The amendment should not leave the common man worse off...”

Joshua Anywarach (Padyere) said, “The current law provides for adequate and prompt compensation but when you say the compensation will go on concurrently with projects on someone’s land without prior
compensation, you are doing forceful acquisition of land.

“Government is going to grab the poor of the poors’ land and they are targeting northern Uganda. We are not going to support this.”

Franca Akello (Agago Woman) said, “I don’t think my people who I represent will allow me to support such a bill that takes away their powers to own land. The preliminary provisions we have seen show that government intends to compulsorily acquire land, especially in areas where government has interest in developments.”

Mathias Mpuuga (Masaka Municipality) said, “I find government’s argument a bit problematic. If you want to utilize somebody’s land forcibly, then there is a problem. The law says you can negotiate with that person but after the government valuer has done his job. The problem is not with the law but with corruption; one, in the office of the government valuer, and some corrupt officials in Finance ministry.”

Gilbert Olanya (Kilak South) said, “This bill is so dangerous for us who come from areas with huge chunks of land. The current law we have in the Constitution is really perfect. It gives time to the landowner to know how to utilize his or her land but the compulsory acquisition is very risky for the common man. It is good for the rich because they can bribe their way out but for someone who is poor in the villages of Amuru or Gulu, it is really dangerous.”

Ssemujju Nganda municipality) said, “We are all aware that Mr Museveni wants to take charge of every piece of land in this country, including private land and we will not allow him. Even if he takes this matter to heaven, we shall find it there but we will not allow Museveni to take charge of people’s land.”


Despite her objection, Ngabiirwe expressed pessimism that with the current NRM- dominated parliament, the bill is likely to sail through with ease.

“If government is to take people’s land, there must be very strong safeguards against abuse such that ... we don’t lose our land in the name of investing; that our livelihoods are not taken away from us,” Ngabiirwe said.

In his submission to the Justice Catherine Bamugemereire-led commission of inquiry into land matters in Uganda, Robert Kalundi Sserumaga, a researcher and journalist, noted that any move by government to separate people from their land against their wish would be disastrous.

“It is time to move beyond the shortcomings of the law and of politics. Let all land be restored to all its original owners through their native institutions, and then let government negotiate afresh – perhaps through a series of regional land summit- on the terms under which those communities may let the state of Uganda use their land,” Sserumaga submitted.


© 2016 Observer Media Ltd