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Land grabbing hurts East Africa economies

By Haggai Matsiko

Makerere University, the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development and the French Embassy held an international Conference on Land Policies in East Africa that brought many scholars. The Independent’s Haggai Matsiko spoke to Prof Maurice N. Amutabi of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa about land grabbing on the region.

Your paper was about land grabbing after discovery of minerals. How common is it?

In 1988, some geologists stumbled on deposits of Titanium at the coast of Kenya in Kwale area worth US$9 trillion. They brought in a foreign company which paid inducements to Kenyan bureaucrats. They started buying and grabbing land because they knew that the government was coming to compensate them. When government came, it found that most of the people were not locals, they were people who had come in all the way from Nairobi because they knew two three years ahead.  This happens all the time in Kenya. So the beneficiaries for any development in Kenya are not the local people, they are the bureaucrats. It happens because our governments do not plan; if they did they would put buffers against this perpetuation of wealth by the elite at the expense of the poor.


How big is the problem of land grabbing in East Africa?

It is very big because many institutions, the military, the police, schools, hospitals had land that is now no longer there. In Uganda and Kenya, individuals in power masqueraded and registered purported developing companies claiming to have interests in education, health and agricultures and they passed out land to individuals.  In Kampala, look at Nakasero. I am told it was government land. But it has been given to private developers. These people have leases of 99 years before you know it, it will be 999 years this is all because of corruption. In Nairobi, through ministry of defense, the army owned the entire land but you cannot find it today.

How does it start?

The problem dates back to the elites who took over after independence. In Tanzania, Julius Nyerere was not a land grabber but in Kenya, Daniel Arap Moi was a land grabber, Kenyatta was a land grabber and they grabbed a lot of land.  But in Kenya it has been systematic with the elites staying in power. You had Jomo Kenyatta as the first President; his son is now deputy Prime Minister. Oginga Odinga was the first Vice President; his son is now Prime Minister and many others. So there has been a perpetuation of that land grabbing issue which is now very had to break. It is the same families in power.  In Uganda you have always had breaks. You had Obote who was not a land grabber, then Amin came in then Binaisa, Lule and the later on Obote and Museveni today.

With the discovery of oil, Uganda has found itself in a land grabbing crisis in that oil region, how can such a situation be solved?

We need to have social protection policies that say that if a resource has been discovered in a certain area, the people who stay and not the secondary buyer should be the beneficiaries because in most cases these people are always ignorant and poor.

So when people come and give them what appears so much money, they are tempted. So government officials should announce that these people should stop selling their land and should caution them.

What impact has this had?

We cannot expand our institutions. The land that Makerere University had is now surrounded by private hostels and so on. It cannot expand. This increases the value of the land and increases the chances to speculate. When government wants land they hold it at ransom.

The population for the EA countries is growing. It is estimated that by 2050, Uganda’s population will be about 100 million. What is likely to happen?

Our governments do not have plans. Kenya talks about 2030 vision but there is no vision there. Ask any of the countries where we will be in the next say 50 years, they will not tell you, they can only guess for the next 30 years. In countries like China and Brazil, they have projected for the next 50 years.

Our leaders are only occupied with immediate survival, if they hear the Maasai are complaining; they give little money. There is government by crisis, when they see that Karamoja is in crisis, they send there Janet Museveni.

What extent do you think land grabbing has contributed to inequitable distribution of income?

I would say by almost 70 percent because all these economies are largely agricultural. Land is at the centre of economic development but unfortunately it is being hoarded by very few. There are many areas in Uganda and Kenya that could be irrigated but we are not using this potential. Most of these things require credit facilitation; we can’t get loans without title deeds. The famine problem we are facing today is because land is being hoarded. Following the new law in Kenya to have vacant land taxed, people fence large vasts of land get a lion and a few cheetahs and claim that it is sanctuary. They are circumventing the law.

As we come together as EAC, what are some of the things our governments need to do so that the land resource is optimally utilized to foster development?

It will be creating rules and regulations for fair play because it will be very unfair for Kenyans, Rwandese or Ugandans to rush to Tanzania for land and so on. For example in the US, you cannot populate a ministry in Alaska with more than 40 percent of non – Alaskans. There needs to be some rational way not to cause tension like what happened in South Africa when Zimbabweans, Malawians moved in and the South Africans started killing them, sending them away, calling them makwerekwere.

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