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Mengo or Museveni: Who talks for peasants on land

By Bob Roberts Katende

Margaret Namuyanja, 60, lives in a one-room house with her grandchildren along Salama Road in Makindye, a Kampala suburb. It is midday and she is hurriedly preparing food for her two grandchildren, who are about to come home from school.

Namuyanja finds her life troubling trying to adjust from a spacious home in Ndeeba, a budding trading centre along Kibuye-Masaka Road, to a small house at Salama, where virtually everything is at arm’s reach. Her troubles began in December last year when someone claimed he had bought the land where her house was located. ‘I did not have a title to prove that the plot was mine. I had been staying there since 1974 when I got married to my late husband,’ Namuyanja says.

She is a victim of increasing pressures on land for commercial purposes. ‘By the time we came there, there were no storey buildings that you find now,’ Namuyanja says. When the man she only indentifies as Mugagga (rich man) persisted, she left in January this year.

Her story mirrors that of so many other tenants who have borne the brunt of forceful evictions in recent times because they don’t posses land titles for their land despite having stayed on it for decades. Land experts blame this on the changing land policies beginning with the 1900 Buganda Agreement.

At the signing of this agreement, tiers in regard to land ownership were created. A thousand of the kabaka’s chiefs each received eight square miles making a total of 8,000 square miles. The people who were staying on that land and had defacto ownership effectively became tenants at the stroke of a pen and were required to pay levies to the kabaka’s chiefs. The law hence recognized them as lawful and bona fide occupants and title-holders thus became registered land owners.

‘We don’t have the actual numbers of tenants on kabaka’s land. The process of registering tenants is ongoing,’ says Katumba Segawa, communications manager of Buganda Land Board, which oversees 350 square miles owned by the Buganda Kingdom. He agrees that the number of tenants is quite large and may take the board years to come up with a concrete figure. But the minister of Lands and Housing, Daniel Omara Atubo, says there are 600,000 land title holders and over 20 million people with no land certificates.

It is this big portion of the population that government says will benefit from the new law, the Land Amendment Act Amendment Bill 2007. Its main aim is to give security of tenure by criminalizing unlawful evictions. ‘It’s a fact that there have been rampant evictions especially in Buganda. And government had to use all means including closing gaps in the current law to put an end to it,’ says NRM’s Anthony Yiga, MP for Kalungu West, Masaka, justifying the necessity of the bill.

However, the bill has faced opposition from different stake holders that include churches, Uganda Land Alliance, Uganda Bankers’ Association, and particularly, the Buganda Kingdom and MP from the opposition who read sinister motives into the bill. The seriousness of the matter and possibly the far reaching consequences the law may have has made it to stay on Parliament’s shelves for more than the mandatory forty five days since its first reading on the February 5, 2009.

For example, both the kingdom and opposition MPs are against amendment of Section 31, which grants powers to the minister to determine nominal rent payable by a tenant in case the district land boards fail to fix it within thirty days.

‘It shouldn’t be a minister but an independent body,’ says Bukoto South MP Mathias Nsubuga who belongs to the Democratic Party and. These ministers, he adds, ‘are politicians who can be used to do anything. Suppose he says that a tenant should pay a thousand shillings!’

Buganda Kingdom information minister Charles Mayiga weighs into the debate: ‘This is extremely dangerous if we allow ministers to involve themselves in land matters. We should separate the different arms of government. We should let the judiciary and police to deal with land matters,’ he advises.

‘Of course, Mengo objects to this because it’s the biggest landlord in Buganda. They fear that what the minister may decide may not be in their favour,’ MP Yiga counters.

The envisaged independent body in the Land Act would have been the land tribunals. Both Yiga and Mathias agree that these should have done a good job but they were never empowered financially by the government that explains why they collapsed.

‘They also lacked impartial people knowledgeable of the law. The district lacked a criterion of who should be part of the tribunal. They ended up messing it up by handpicking incompetent people,’ says Joseph Balikuddembe, Busiro South MP and member of DP.

Another contentious issue is Amendment 32 A1 which states: ‘A lawful or bonafide occupant shall not be evicted from registered land except upon an order of eviction issued by a court only for non payment of the annual nominal ground rent.’ Due to pressure from within and without cabinet, this section has been amended to read that other reasons apart from non-payment of annual nominal rent should be considered before eviction takes place.

Mengo says the bill seeks to empower tenants to act against their landlords. For example, the draft says that a tenant who attempts to sell his interest in the land without giving the first option to the landlord is liable, on conviction, to a fine not exceeding ninety currency points or imprisonment not exceeding four years or both while on the other hand a landlord who attempts to sell land without giving the first option of buying interest to the tenant, the draft bill renders that transaction invalid and the commissioner is not supposed to ‘make any entry on the certificate of title in respect of that transaction.’ A currency point is equivalent to Shs 20,000.

The bill also criminalizes a person who participates in the eviction of a bonafide occupant from registered land. Upon conviction, a person is ‘liable to imprisonment not exceeding seven years and court may order that person to pay compensation or damages to the person who was evicted.’

Yiga says all this was not catered for in the current law.

‘The criminalization of the relationship between the landlord and tenant who have co-existed for years is an ingredient for disaster,’ Mayiga says. This is also supported by Kavindi County MP Sam Otada, who says any misunderstanding between the landlord and tenant should be solved amicably.

However, political commentators say, there was no need for another law. They say all that was needed was the strengthening of the existing laws. The law seems to have been made for Kampala according to Otada. ‘We have laws on books which can be relied upon to solve any problems related to land for example you can initiate action against anyone who trespasses on your land,’ says Charles Mayiga. They claim Museveni wants to play politics of gaining support from peasants who make the bulk of his supporters.

‘There is politics of course,’ Yiga says, ‘The president always says he supports the peasants.’ If politics is at play, then there is bound to be a loss on one part. ‘Yes, the bill infringes on the right of the land lord to fix his rent,’ Yiga admits. ‘Peasants have misconstrued the bill to mean that they can never be evicted whatsoever,’ he adds.

What are the options?

‘Government needs to avail adequate funds to the Land Fund kitty,’ suggests Yiga. The peasants in this arrangement will request government to pay the land lord. Post Bank will retain the title on behalf of government until the peasant completes paying the loan. ‘This is absolutely impossible. If a tenant fails to pay Shs 1,000 in rent, where will he get the money to pay for the loan that carries a 28 percent interest in Post Bank?’ Balikkudembe asks. This means, he adds, ‘government will come and take over the land as a result of peasants failing to pay the loans. This is what people are worried about; that government is bent on stealing people’s land and nothing else.’

The bill talks about compensation of tenants in case of unlawful eviction. ‘But it doesn’t give face to the compensation. We should have ratios for example of between 25 and 75 percents for both the peasant and the landlord respectively for the value the peasant occupies,’ advises Balikuddembe. ‘The ratios should not be specific. What needs to be encouraged is the spirit of dialogue between the landlord and the peasants,’ advises Mayiga.

As for Buganda, he says we shall continue to tell the people what is right. Once you have a legitimate cause it can never be killed by bad laws. Instead legitimate causes kill bad laws,’ Mayiga concludes.

As politicians tussle it out with each claiming to speak for the peasants, Namuyanja only relishes the good times she had at her former home. ‘How I wish I was rich enough, probably they would not have taken our land,’ she says as tears form in her eyes.

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