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COMMENT: Understanding the meaning of land


When land is understood in cultural and political terms, its value is not only monetary

COMMENT |MWAMBUTSYA NDEBESA| Tensions over land threaten state integrity in Uganda. The proposed constitutional land amendment seems to have generated a lot of passion and tension both in the political and non-political class in equal measure. The debate has generated a lot of heat but without light at the end of the tunnel.  As the country debates this controversial subject, there is need for the population to appreciate that there is a gulf of difference between the definition of land and the meaning of land.  And the government valuer who is supposed to mediate between the land owner and the state when it comes to compulsory acquisition of land by the state should factor the meaning of land into his calculations beyond just property value when determining the price of land.

Land is an elusive concept.  From a purely economic point of view, land is a property or commodity.  From this perspective the value of land is a reflection of the price embedded in this commodity.  Similarly and from a purely technical and legal angle land can be compensated using an economic and financial price measure.  On the other hand, there is the cultural and political meaning of land. When one talks of my fatherland, ancestral land, homeland, burial land, Buganda land, Acholiland, Adholaland, Itesoland, clan land or am the son of the soil, he is not referring to land as property. The former meanings have cultural and political connotations.

When land is understood in cultural and political terms, the value of land is not measured in monetary prices of shillings or dollars. It goes into the domain of emotions and sentiments which are difficult but not impossible to resolve. In the political meaning of the word, land is associated with nationhood or country or motherland. Just listen to the national anthems of different cultural institutions in Uganda and you will get what I mean. A new district created on the basis of tribal boundaries is not just an administrative area. It signifies a nationality and evokes emotions of community living. That is why the Itesot and Japhadola are conflicting.

Let us give examples in historical and contemporary Uganda’s context to explain the difference between the definition and meaning of land and between the value and values of land.  The ancestral land issue partly caused the 1966 Kabaka crisis in Uganda.  In the 1900 Buganda Agreement some parts of Bunyoro kingdom were taken away and added onto Buganda kingdom.  It so happened that these areas which were called Buyaga and Bugangaizi were later popularly known as the ‘lost counties’.  You can imagine and picture a county getting lost. Empirically and intellectually speaking a county cannot get lost like a pin.  However, in terms of the emotions of the heart, a county can get lost.  According to the Banyoro the land of the lost counties was not just a property. It was a land that had ancestral burial grounds for the Kings of Bunyoro and, therefore, you could not put a price to it even if the government wanted to compensate the Banyoro for the loss of these counties.

Similarly, there has been a raging conflict in Rwenzori region between the Bakonzo and Bamba.  There is a sense in which the Bakonzo of Rwenzururu kingdom feel that Bugyendera county which is in Bundibugyo District of the Bamba Kingdom is a lost county.  This is because although Bugyendera County is physically in Bwamba kingdom, the majority of the population occupying Bugyendera county land are Bakonzo.  This conflict evokes issues of nationality and stirs up conflicts.  The same can be said of the land conflict in Apaa between the Madi and Acholi.  It could also be said to be behind the potentially explosive conflict between the Bagwere and Bagisu over a swamp in Eastern Uganda.

There are many potential and latent land conflicts in the country that have the potential to cause inter-communal disputes and violence which constitutes a security threat to the existence of Uganda as one country.  Creation of more and more tribal based districts and traditional institutions is riding on a dangerous tiger. Today it is Kasese and Tororo, tomorrow it will be somewhere else.

The above land conflicts bring to mind issues of land meanings and the value of land.  This kind of understanding of the meaning of land raises many questions about the proposed land constitutional amendments that need answers.  For example, who determines the value of land?  Does the government valuer understand the meaning of land which implies nationhood or even soil?  Do the various land administration institutions such as the Uganda Land Commission and District Land Boards also understand the difference between land as physical property and land as a country, nationality or ancestral land? The Land Inquiry Commission is particularly enjoined here to pay particular attention to the issue of land conflicts arising out of the cultural and nation meaning of land when making recommendation about land disputes not necessarily between individuals and individuals only but also between communities and communities and between communities and the central government.

Land conflicts in Uganda do not arise only out of multiple ownership only but also multiple meanings.  Therefore, those who are trying to address land conflicts such as the Land Inquiry Commission, the Land Commission, Parliament District Land Committees and above all the Office of the Government Valuer should bear this in mind.  If need be they should seek the services of conceptual historians or conceptual sociologists to get further insights into the meaning aspect of land conflict.  There is a sense in which these many districts and traditional units are institutions of tribal discrimination.  To these institutions the capitalist concept of land as a commodity does not make much sense.  There is now a clash between the economic value of land and the cultural value of land.  The two domains do not operate on the same wavelength.  Therefore, to effectively resolve land conflicts the mediator must not only have the technical understanding but also the cultural understanding of the meaning of the land.


Mwambutsya Ndebesa  is a lecturer at Makerere University in Kampala


One comment

  1. Thank you so much for this comment. The explanation if understood by state and non-state peace actors in Uganda, will change their approach to the responses to the increasing violent situation between communities

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