In the land of conflicts
Land is the foundation of life for most Ugandans. In central Uganda, an ancient land tenure system has caused an impasse for both landlords and tenants hence causing conflicts for decades. An innovative approach to conflict solving, and awareness-raising is about to create change.
When it has rained, the rust coloured soil gives the lush surroundings a deep green shade. Just like any other farmer, Jackson Mbohimpa (50) prays for rain every season. The land has provided for his family for generations and as a child, he used to help his parents to grow banana plantains on this land. When his father died, Mbohimpa took over the five acres of land in Kaabowa village, in central Uganda where his family has lived for decades. Today, he lives a simple life together with his wife and their eight children. Life could have been peaceful, but for the past 15 years, an ongoing land conflict has caused sleepless nights for Jackson and his wife. Over the years, several people have claimed to be landlords, and they all have different demands and threaten Jackson and his family with eviction. "I received the first eviction notice in 2007. Since then, I have dealt with three people who claim that we illegally occupy their land. I am told to pay busuulu (annual ground rent) but how can I pay when I do not know who the true owner is?" Mbohimpa says.
"I think of suicide"
The children are playing on the ground in front of the house where large bunches of beans are drying in the sun. Jackson is proud that he has been able to take his children to school with the help of the little income he makes from his land. He tries to think positively about life, but that is hard when the future is so uncertain. His eyes get full of tears when he talks about his biggest fear. "This land is my whole existence. Where do I take my family if we lose this land? Whenever I see evictions on TV, I get so scared. At times things have been so bad that I have thought of taking my own life," he says. We are in Mubende district in central Uganda. The place is known as the heart of land conflicts in the country. Here, almost everyone has faced some kind of problem when it comes to land. Land issues are a huge challenge here. Many landlords come to claim they are owners and they leave the tenants confused and in fear. Absent landlords are another problem. Some landlords are hiding since they know that they have the right to evict the tenants if they do not pay busuulu for a certain period of time, says Sheif Magezi, who is chairman for Mubende district.
The unique Mailo tenure
In Uganda, land is an invaluable asset for most citizens, and more than 80 percent of the population is predominantly reliant on agriculture for livelihood. Before colonialism, there was communal ownership of land which was abolished by the protectorate government. In 1900 the British government signed an agreement with the Buganda kingdom in the central region of Uganda, which fundamentally changed the land structure in Buganda and beyond. The colonial government conferred to chiefs, and other notable personages, individual ownership rights to large extensions of land called Mailo estates. These estates were already settled by peasants under customary tenure, and now they became tenants (kibanja holders) on private land. However, these tenants have no formalised tenure agreements
Mailo is one of four tenure systems provided for under the 1995 Constitution of Uganda, and it is the most complex land tenure system in the country. There are no ‘new’ private Mailo land areas, only the original Mailo areas from 1900 until 1908. The constitution recognises the occupancy by peasants on Mailo land, but the ownership of the land remains with the landowner. These dual rights over the same piece of land are what makes Mailo unique but are also the cause of conflicts. On one hand, this leaves the peasants, especially women and children, vulnerable to forceful eviction by the Mailo landowner. For the landowners on the other hand the fragmentation of their land by occupants limits the opportunities for agricultural investments. This is exacerbated by the fact that the existing laws and regulations are barely known at the local level and therefore not well implemented.
"Land - the foundation of everything"
"We have laws in place but very few people (landlords and tenants) are aware of their rights and partially observe their obligations. The law requires that the tenant pays the busuulu and in case of default for three consecutive years, the landlord can apply to the court to take over the land. Illegal evictions are common and usually happen when absentee landlords claim failure by the tenant to pay for the land use," says Enoch Mutahi, Senior Land Management Officer in Mityana.
Mutahi claims that land disputes have increased over the years. The population is increasing at a high speed and land does not expand. Previously, having tenants on your land was a status symbol. Today, people on your land are just a burden and the landlords feel they do not benefit from them, he says. According to Mutahi, land governance has not been given enough priority in Uganda. There are many Acts and policies which have been put in place to reduce the land conflicts, but the implementation has been slow. "The government mainly funds infrastructure, poverty reduction, and health care.
I ask myself: how can you fight poverty and hunger without focusing on land matters? Land is the foundation of everything."
"New landlords - new challenges"
On the outskirts of Mubende town, lives John Kalule. His family has been living on their kibanja (Luganda word for a piece of private Mailo land of a tenant) for the past 130 years. When his father died in 2012, Kalule inherited a kibanja which was divided among the siblings. This was the start of years of conflicts with the landlord. Kyalimpa (the landlord) had an agreement with my dad, but when he died, he started taking advantage of the situation and wanted us away from his land, says Kalule. Previously, there used to be another landlord whom Kalule´s family had paid busuulu to. According to Kalule, the new landlord never accepted busuulu and just wanted reasons for the family to get evicted. "Whenever we came to the farm, Kyalimpa and his children used to abuse us and tell us to leave," Kalule says.
However, this is not the only land conflict Kalule has experienced in his life. His family has another six-acre large kibanja which has been fought over for years. The landlady never accepted busuulu and claimed that the Kalules family had to either buy out the land or leave for good. When Madam Nalujja bought the land, she knew that my family had been here for over 100 years, yet she started demanding a lot of unreasonable things, Kalule says.
Awareness is the key
In Kayanga village, west of Mityana town, about 100 people have gathered around a large tree. They are tenants and involved in a project to secure the rights to their land. «Improvement of Land Governance in Uganda» (ILGU). The project is part of the Global Program Responsible Land Policy, which is implemented by GIZ on behalf of the European Union and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).
Since 2017 the project supports landlords and tenants on private Mailo land in Central Uganda to secure their rights. Together with partners from the government, NGOs, and civil society organisations, the project focuses on awareness-raising, mediation of conflicts, and documenting land user rights. Since the project started, about 65,000 households in central Uganda have secured their land user rights.
"You cannot end these conflicts unless you make people aware of their rights and obligations. As a tenant, you need to pay busuulu yearly in order to protect yourself from eviction. The landlord is entitled to be given priority to buy land from the tenants by occupancy who may be on the land and willing to sell," says Lindah Nanyonga, Field Expert - Awareness Raising and Conflict Resolution, GIZ.
Discussions go violent
Tenants and landlords are offered help to solve disputes in an Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee.
"Most people are tired of fighting and grateful to get help. We manage to solve 75 out of 100 conflicts through these discussions. When conflicts go criminal, they are referred to court,"
says Alex Bogere, Project Officer for «Partners for Community Transformation» (PaCT). To discuss land matters in Uganda is challenging, and to create change is far from easy. At times the awareness sessions end in chaos. People refuse to listen and become violent. Some tenants are richer than the landlords and do not respect them. «Our spirits say we do not need to pay busuulu,» some tenants told me, Bogere says.
Tenants are offered to document their land user rights together with the landlord, neighbours and partners from the government. After the documentation process, they receive a Land Inventory Protocol (LIP) - a social document with detailed information about their «kibanja» and its size. "Some people are sceptical and think we are there to take their land. But, after they understand that this project is meant to protect their rights, they come and ask us for help," says Tracy Mugisha from Spot Surveyors and Engineering Consultants, a private survey firm.
From tenant to landowner
For John Kalule and his family, the eight-year-long conflict with landlord Kyalimpa was solved in the Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee. "We discussed the matters and got help to create peace. We also got help to measure the size of our kibanja and the landlord has accepted us now. He even agreed on sharing part of the land so today I am not a tenant anymore. I got my own land title," Kalule says.
The second land issue was also partly solved via the project. After discussions and help to sort out the issues, Madam Nalujja agreed to start receiving busuulu. Unfortunately, she has never given us a receipt for almost three years now which makes us fear again, Kalule says.
Lost his career
Land Management Officer Enoch Mutahi has been involved in the project since the start and has witnessed a change in the communities. Many conflicts end in tragedy. Some tenants even go to the extent of murdering their landlords. After we started creating awareness and mediating the conflicts on the ground, we have seen a significant reduction in the number of conflicts, Mutahi says. 58-year old Fabiano Kkubo knows how dangerous it can be to be involved in land matters. The kibanja owner and father of 14 children has been an agent to the landlord for many years. One of his duties as an agent is to make sure that the tenants pay their busuulu. A job not without challenges.
"I used to be a leader in the local government but my position as an agent made me lose my job. I became highly unpopular due to the fact that I demanded busuulu",
he says. Awareness in the community is slowly creating change. Now, both landlords and tenants, are aware of their rights and obligations and many people are telling me to contest for the political position again, Kkubo says.
"Women have rights"
In another part of central Uganda, close to Mityana town, lives Juliet Magazu (54). When she got divorced, she had to leave the land they had lived on for years. After her husband died in 2012, the widow and mother of 8 fought for her rights to come back to Kitovu village, the place which she calls home, but shortly after, life became even more challenging. "There used to be several men who claimed they were landlords and they asked me to pay busuulu (annual ground rent). I never knew who the real landlord was," says Magazu.
In the area where she lives, eviction of tenants from the neighbouring villages of Rwamagembe and Kibejja in Sigula Parish, Kiaganda Subcounty, has happened several times over the years. I knew many people who had been evicted, and I feared the same could happen to me. I felt helpless, she says. In 2019, Magazu and the other tenants in the area were offered help by the ILGU project to solve the land-related problems they had. They also got a chance to get their land mapped in order to get to know the exact size of their kibanja. "Today I know who my real landlord is and now I am paying busuulu regularly to him.
After knowing that I have secured my tenancy I have started to construct a permanent house for my family, and planted perennial plants like coffee,"
she says. The widow has planted two acres of maize which helps her to take the children to school. "I never learned how to read and write, and it is my dream to educate my children. The land is helping me to make this dream come true," she says.
In Uganda, women do not inherit land from their fathers. The land is traditionally owned by men and most landowners do not include their wives and daughters in their will. Since the project started in the area, the rights of women are slowly increasing. Previously, women were never recognised as landowners since they do not appear on any land documents. Now, women are increasingly getting land in their names, says Joseph Sematta, who is the chairman of Kitovu village.
Landlords live in poverty
Due to the complexity of Mailo land and the dual rights between the landlords and the tenants, it is common to find landlords living in deep poverty. The tenant’s rights to remain on their kibanja make it hard for landlords to generate income from investments on their own land. In a corner of Nalukoko village, Paul Kassamba (85) supports himself with a wooden stick and walks slowly outside his clay house. A colourful straw hat gives shadow to the face, which is covered with deep lines from a long life. He opens an old notebook and squints with his eyes to see the long list of names written with blue ink.
"I cannot tell you how many tenants I have on my land, but I know there are several thousand. Nobody has given me busuulu for years. I am a poor old man today, and this is not the way I imagined to be living my life," Kassamba says. The 85-year-old grew up in a well-off family on Ssesse Island, in the north-western part of Lake Victoria. He has fond memories from his childhood in the luxurious family house. When his family was given one square mile (640 acres) of land from the Kabaka (Buganda Kingdom), Kassamba started a new life here in Mubende district. When the family arrived, the land was covered with peasants. Today, Kassamba has no land on his own. His tenants occupy every part of the area and, compared to him, many of them live in concrete houses with lush compounds.I never had a problem with the tenants and always welcomed them. Back then they used to pay us envujju (tribute). "Now things have changed, and I am left with nothing," Kassamba says.
Invited to the palace
Inside his house there is no furniture apart from a broken bed in a corner of the room. When he talks about his youth and how life used to be, he smiles but suddenly becomes serious again. I used to be an important man who was invited by the king to Lubiri (Mengo Palace) to be trained in how to be a hospitable landlord. My whole life I have been welcoming towards everyone on this land. I often think I should have done things differently. If I had taken other decisions, my life would not be the way it is today, he says.
Begging for food
A few minutes’ drive from Kassambas home lives Aloyizi Bozobanra (50). He is the chairman of the village and one of Kassambas tenants. Around the house lies a four-acre big garden where the family grows bananas, coffee and maize. A landlord should be wealthy and happy but that is not the case for Kassamba. He has no land on his own and often comes to us tenants to beg for food. We even collected money to build him a new house when the other house was falling on him, Bozobanra says. The chairman says that Kassamba has always been a friendly man, but his tenants have ignored his demands for busuulu. When the ILGU project offered to sensitize landlords and tenants in the area on land rights, things started to change.
When the tenants came to know their obligations, they rushed to me to pay the busuulu. I was so grateful for the project and thought that my life would finally change. Unfortunately, some seem to believe that busuulu is a one-time obligation and there must have been some misunderstanding, Kassamba says.
Land - a political matter
Land conflicts in central Uganda do not only affect landlords and their tenants: Land is a political matter, and according to several sources, political leaders take advantage of land conflicts to collect votes. Everyone here has an interest in land. In Mubende district, some politicians cause confusion and they fool people for their own gain. "They do not want the tenants to know the true landlord because they are benefiting from both sides. People here are unaware of their rights and that makes them vulnerable," says Sheif Magezi, chairman for Mubende district. Magezi has for the past couple of years been asking for help to solve the land conflicts in his district.
"I have seen the benefits of ILGU interventions in other areas and I have begged them to come here to help us.
I have nowhere to turn for help and the need for solving the ongoing land disputes is urgent. People go to the extent of wanting to commit suicide," he says. Back in Kaabowa village - Jackson Mbohimpa (50) is one of many farmers in the district who are pleading for help. "I dream of educating my children. If I knew I was safe here on this land I would invest in long-term crops like coffee. I am a farmer at heart, but I fear this life," Mbohimpa says.