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Certificates of Customary Ownership Risky Business

Uganda’s Constitution stipulates that “all land in Uganda shall vest in the citizens of Uganda and shall be owned in accordance with the following land tenure systems: customary, freehold, mailo and leasehold.”

A significant proportion, the majority, of Uganda’s land is under customary tenure - except in Uganda’s central region where the majority of the land is individually owned. Moreover, the bulk of Uganda’s individually owned land is under unregistered freehold mailo.

Uganda’s customary tenure, in its ideal form, fits within the description of land ownership in the ‘traditional African sense’, as described by Johan Pottier (2007) in his book: “Anthropology of Food – the social dynamics of food security.” In the ‘traditional African sense’ of land ownership, land is a resource to which people have use-rights.

Land ownership in the ‘traditional African sense’ combines elements of land tenure in ‘customary’ and ‘simple market’ societies, as prescribed by Crawford B. Macpherson (1964) in his book: “The political theory of possessive individualism – Hobbes to Locke.” Land tenure in ‘customary’ and ‘simple market’ societies, such as of the Iteso people of Uganda, disallows unconditional individual ownership; while, by allocation or by rent, but not by sale, accesses land use to individuals, in accord with a community authority.

Uganda’s freehold, mailo and leasehold systems, in contrast, are based on individual ownership similar to that in a ‘possessive market society’, as prescribed by Macpherson. These three tenure systems fit within land ownership in the ‘global-western sense’, as described by Pottier, where land is individually owned, with exclusive rights in exchange for cash, and is acquired through formal contractual arrangements between seller and buyer.

National household surveys in Uganda consistently find that the majority of households in Uganda claim they own land, although the majority of Ugandan land owners do not have land titles. The majority of Ugandans, apparently, perceive ‘ownership’ of land in the ‘traditional African sense’.

Deducing from Uganda’s National Development Plans, the National Resistance Movement Organisation (NRMO) Administration, in contrast, holds the conventional economics view that land ownership in the ‘traditional Africa sense’ is inefficient and an impediment to development.

The NRMO Administration seemingly implies that the ‘traditional African sense’ of land ownership impedes its plans to transform Uganda from a ‘peasant-based economy’ to a ‘modern country’, because, according to the NRMO Administration, it makes acquisition of land in the ‘global-western sense’ difficult.

Insensitivity of the NRMO Administration to the ‘traditional African sense’ of land ownership is likely the reason why many in Uganda are averse to the whole idea of registering land that is under customary tenure through the issuance of Certificates of Customary Ownership (CCOs).

Seemingly, CCOs, as they are promoted by the NRMO Administration and their ‘development partners’, are incompatible with the ‘traditional African sense’ of land ownership and are more in tune with the ‘global-western sense’ of land ownership. CCOs are currently promoted as that which provides customary land owners with ‘security of tenure’ and at the same time can be used as collateral for bank loans. Some find it oxymoronic to infer security of tenure in a document that potentially facilitates land dispossession and land grabbing. Read more on the risks to CCOs here

Photo Credit: Muleni Safaris Uganda

About the Author: Ms. Norah Owaraga is a descendant of the Iteso People of Uganda, a Ugandan, a scholar, a cultural anthropologist, an entrepreneur and an administrator. As of April 2012 she is the Managing Director (MD) of CPAR Uganda. Whereas, she is the MD of CPAR Uganda, the views herein expressed in this analysis are not necessarily those of CPAR Uganda. Read more of her views on land tenure in Uganda here.