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ANALYSIS: Amending constitution over land

The Kampala – Entebbe Express way. Its construction has had one of the biggest compensation budgets at Shs100 billion for 700 persons affected. INDEPENDENT PHOTO/JIMMY SIYA

When poor peasants cry as the rich elite squabble

KAMPALA, UGANDA |FLAVIA NASSAKA| Hussein Bbale is 46 years old, married with five children. But he lives in his mother’s house in Nyakabale village in Fort Portal town. This is unusual. So how did it happen?

Nyakabale village is about 5kms off the 66-km Fort Portal-Kamwenge highway now under reconstruction by the China Railway seventh Group using a Shs120 billion financing package by the government of Uganda and the International Development Association of  the World Bank.  Bbale is a project displaced person and was supposed to have been compensated. He was not. Instead, his home was demolished and left without a penny three years ago. That is how he ended up as an elderly man still living in his mother’s house which he has left when he was 25, in 1996.

Bbale says he was excited when he first heard that the Fort Portal – Kamwenge road was to be tarmacked. Finally development was coming to his area. At the time the road was gravel and dust was a big problem for Bbale and other residents of Bukwali village which was right next to the road. Even when Bbale was told that his land was to be affected, he did not worry much. The evaluation officials from the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA), the Chinese contractors, and local leaders assured him that he will be compensated with money enough for him to start a new life. That was in 2014. Three years later, he is still waiting for compensation.

He says officials have been promising that his money is being processed. His desperation has been mounting because the road reconstruction is about to be completed and he fears that, once completed, the government will forget him. He was recently advised to sue UNRA. But there is catch. His file cannot move through the courts because his lawyer needs the Shs500, 000 legal fees first which Bbale does not have.

The debate

Meanwhile, Makerere University political historian Mwambutsya Ndebesa is concerned about definition of value of land. He says the meaning of land goes beyond just property value when determining the price of land.  For him land issues come with sentiments and emotions which make them difficult to resolve. He says these should be included in the calculations of value of land. He says if this is not done, the tension over land “threatens the integrity of the state.”

But Stephen Mukitale, an MP from Bullisa, says discussing whether people like Bbale are compensated before or not is misguided.  In an interview before the Bill was tabled, he told The Independent that what is needed is a debate on land policy. He said the land sector has been affected by poor planning, poor funding, and poor regulation. That is what needs to be fixed.

A study done by the Civic Response on Environment and Development (CRED) in the Albertine region that is Mukitale’s home puts the rate of unfair compensation at 68% and failure to compensate at 48%, almost half of all cases. This seems to apply to other projects where people like Bbale continue to suffer. It is not clear what Bbale would make of the elite debate. For him, the issue is clear.

“Government has grabbed my land. It has taken away the source of food for my children,” Bbale laments in an interview.

He is not alone. Almost everyone in Bukwali Village who was promised compensation is going through the same ordeal. Bbale imagines the same could be happening along the whole 66km stretch of the road. Or even along the whole 208km of the Nyakahita-Kazo-Kamwenge-Fort Portal Road that connects President Yoweri Museveni’s Kiruhura district to three other districts of Ibanda, Kamwenge, and Kabarole.

In fact, although Bbale might not realise it, the failure to pay compensation on road projects is a nationwide problem.  In 2014, according to the Ministry of Finance, the Uganda Land Commission had recorded up to Shs59 billion in verified but unpaid compensation to road projects displaced persons. By 2015, the figure had jumped to Shs63 billion. Last year, it jumped to a whopping Shs60 billion to hit Shs124 billion in verified arrears. Now as the problem swells, more and more people are insisting on being paid before projects start. Many are going to court to block court projects. In reaction, the government has come up with an ingenious solution. Rather than finding ways of paying, it has decided to tinker with the Constitution and change the provision requiring prior compensation before a project takes over property of affected persons.

But when the Deputy Attorney General, Mwesigwa Rukutana, tabled the Constitutional Amendment Bill 2017 in parliament on July 13, he was met with boos and warnings. It was an ironical twist because barely a month earlier, Rukutana had himself been fighting for compensation before part of his Millennium Chambers in the Najanankumbi suburb of Kampala City was demolished. It was built on a road reserve. According some reports, the Minister wanted up to Shs10 billion in compensation from UNRA. In another case, children of another Minister took Shs20 billion from UNRA in compensation for a rock. The case was in court and created an uproar over suspected collusion, connivance, and corruption.

Now he was tabling a Bill that seeks to amend Article 26 to give government powers to compulsorily take private land for projects before paying for it in case where the compensation value is disputed.

If the amendment pushes through, the government will be required to deposit with a court of law compensation money awarded for the property declared for compulsory acquisition and kick out the private owner.

The Bill proposes that the property owner can access the given compensation at any time during the dispute resolution. It also gives parliament powers to prescribe the time within which disputes arising from the process of compulsory land acquisition shall be determined.

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