In a recent online conversation, journalist Agather Atuhaire asked scholar and activist, Robert Kalundi Serumaga, about why he had framed all land sales and purchases in Buganda — especially to folks who identify as non-Baganda — as a coerced purchase, and by extension, land grabs.
The discussion was on the tribal, nepotistic nature of Museveni’s government and Kalundi Serumaga had connected land to the tribal question in Uganda (Buganda, to be precise). Building from the 1900 Buganda Agreement, Serumaga argued that with 99 per cent of the land in Buganda being documented, there was immense pressure on land in Buganda because buyers — and thieves alike — are guaranteed of some notable documentation.
Even if the documentation is to be acquired fraudulently. Baganda are hurting because they have been dispossessed by both grabbers and “buyers” alike, Serumaga set the puzzle upfront. Please note that Serumaga did not emphasise the original colonial crime — turning land that was held in trusteeship to chiefs as private property — but focused on the pressure and rush to own land in the heartland of Uganda, where buyers disproportionately come from one region and or ethnic community.
Atuhaire’s question wondered about “honest buyers” who aren’t grabbing land but are entering into smooth transactions, and the sellers (persons identifying as Baganda) vacate their land in happiness after getting compensation at market value.
What is the problem with that? Atuhaire’s question is steeped in neo-liberal paradigms “free market economics”; the idea of “rational choice” where all actors in the marketplace come as rational, thinking and independent individuals. They sell what they own by their own volition, and get their worth according to market forces of demands and supply. What is the problem with that? This is surely the puzzle of our time.
WHEN VICTIMS SELL THEIR LIVES
In his response, Serumaga focused on Museveni’s embrace of neo-liberal policies at the beginning of his reign in 1986 and the impoverishment that came thereof. Privatisation or Structural Adjustment as was called, meant getting governments out of all businesses.
Let the market forces of demand and supply drive the economy. It was forcing African economies to commit suicide. Insecure Museveni embraced these policies like a teenager falling in love for the first time. He saw it as opportunity for himself and clan — as Major John Kazoora would tell us — to masquerade as businessmen and capitalists and gift themselves to hitherto public properties and estates.
These non- businesspersons, former rebels and clan members — who simply occupy government positions and earn small salaries as public servants — own prime properties in Kololo, Bugolobi (formerly belonging to Coffee Marketing Board, UEB, etc.). They own ranches, and many other prime estates.
To own these things — most of them concentrated in Buganda — meant bankrupting the most industrious and richest part of the country, which historically remains the centre of economic, political and cultural production. Cooperatives, native banks, public parastatals — about
150 of them — were all eaten and collapsed by Museveni’s men, and clan.
Plus lucrative land-based businesses such as growing coffee and cotton. There was a surge in rural poverty in Buganda, and then land became the only item left to take to the market. Serumaga concluded that these aren’t willing sellers but, rather, victim sellers pushed
to the market by their impoverishment by the Museveni state. But then, if this impoverishment touched the entire country, from where do the land buyers get all this disposable cash?
HOW NEPOTISM REPRODUCES ITSELF
The Ugandan economy, designed to be owned by foreigners — from bankers, telecoms, miners, coffee traders, electricity supplier, plus extortionist tax regimes and poor infrastructures — does not enable local businesspeople to thrive. We have seen the failure rates over the years. Even folks we thought had made it are scampering for bailouts.
So, how are some of our compatriots so rich and able to buy large tracks of land on our so-called free market? The answer is simple: from government. Then the next question: who is in government? Museveni’s government is arguably the most nepotistic, and crudely arrogant government in Uganda’s history. There is a great deal of denialism on Museveni’s nepotism and tribalism to the point they even have a law on sectarianism, which punishes those who talk about it.
There are tonnes of studies and surveys (most notably, by The Independent Magazine/ journalist Andrew Mwenda, and several observers) that have showed a disproportionate number of people from one region and ethnic community —and sometimes semi-literate kindreds
— occupying both the most politically influential (UPDF, UP, RDCs, State House, Electoral Commission), and most lucrative positions in government (such as Uganda Revenue Authority, State House, UNRA, etcetera).
Because one enters this public position on an ethnic-clannist connection, they are dutybound and hardwired to extend the connection. Merit is jettisoned through the window. So, our rich land buyers are either beneficiaries of government tenders to supply or construct things (only easily accessed through the ethnic connection) or are importing goods from abroad, and are thus evading taxes (because, again, they are the right ethnic or are fronts of the right ethnic).
Others are in prime businesses (such as mining, coffee deals, on boards of foreign companies) where they share dividends with those in power — again, through the same ethnic connection! They even have votes in the national budget just for them, such as Shs 1.9bn for promoting coffee consumption.
Down the chain, you find seemingly hardworking people, who might claim, and actually appear to have no direct connections with the government. This is because the chain is long and convoluted — and it benefits them indirectly and oftentimes, without making itself clear.
But if you checked upwards—and closely looked at what this Ugandan economy enables and disables — their hard work is not sufficient explanation of their good fortune. (Because everyone is working hard).
It comes down to the nepotistic network, and chain. No wonder, a land seller, even with a bulging bank account, rarely celebrates a transaction, but mourns the loss of their land to a tribal, thieving cabal.
The author is a political theorist based at Makerere University.