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Rethinking Uganda’s Land Question 


Norah Owaraga wrote this short paper on request and sponsorship of the Makerere University Business School (MUBS) in partnership with Friedrich Ebert Stiftung for presentation at the 15th Public Economic Forum that was held at Protea Hotel, Kampala on 5th May 2016. The theme of the forum was: “Rethinking the land question, food security and agricultural transformation in Uganda.” This paper was specifically requested as a response to the forum’s session on “land tenure, access to land, and food security in Uganda.”

The author was requested to address the following two questions:

• Who are the actors involved and what are the roles of these actors in land access under the different tenures?

• What lessons can we draw based on best practices as well as failures of the ongoing and past policies on the land tenure to mitigate conflict and food insecurity.

Historical Context:

“Oh Uganda the land that feeds us by sun and fertile soil grown; for our own dear land we’ll always stand the pearl of Africa’s crown.” These are the lyrics of the third stanza of the National Anthem of the Republic of Uganda (RoU). The RoU is defined by land (Google Maps, 2016), for without the land which forms the RoU there would be no RoU. Prior to the RoU coming into being, in fact, there were other nations, the first nations, which occupied and claimed, as their own, the land now claimed as for and which forms the RoU. The peoples of the first nations that occupied what is now the RoU include: the Iteso, my people, who according to Uganda’s most recent population census of 2014 (Mugerwa, 2016) are the fifth largest sub-nation within the RoU; but in the past were the second largest. The first nations include the Baganda, the largest sub-nation within the RoU and over 50 other sub-nations, as recognised by the Constitution of the RoU. At its formation, therefore, the RoU had no land; the land belonged to the first nations that occupied the geography that is now of the RoU. 

The coming into being of the RoU, of necessity, was a contentious process in which the first nations were partially and in some cases fully dispossessed of their land. The dispossession of the first nations of their land by the RoU was not necessarily overt, as in they were not always forcefully and physically removed from their land. It was mostly covert, as in they remained physically occupying their lands but the significant authority over the utilisation of their land was usurped from them. 

The formation of the RoU was not negotiated amongst the first nations, but rather it was in line with the colonialist principal of effective occupation (Original People, 2016). The formation of what is now the RoU was first negotiated at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85; a conference at which none of the first nations were represented. At the Berlin Conference the English who colonised our forefathers claimed territorial authority over the geography that is now known as the RoU. The English colonialists, thus, needed to have effective political and territorial control, over the territory, the RoU, which they had claimed. In order to achieve territorial control, they hoodwinked leaders of the first nations into entering into treaties. That, in essence, is how the territory that the English colonialists claimed at the Berlin Conference, the RoU, came into being. 

At its independence from colonial rule, on 9th October 1962, the RoU was not handed back to the authorities of the first nations, but to the Government of Uganda (GoU). While receiving the instruments of power, the first Prime Minister of the GoU, Apollo Milton Obote, in his speech acknowledged the fact that the RoU was composed of multiple sub-nations. He noted (Daily Monitor, 2013): “The technical progress of the last half-century has transformed our country in countless ways. But, fortunately, we have continued to keep our own customs and culture. It is up to us now, more than ever, in shaping our new country to achieve a consolidation in which neither the rapid progress of recent years nor the age-old customs of our forefathers are lost or diminished, but rather fused into a new national characteristic in which the best is preserved, while the worst may be thrown away.”

Land Tenure Systems:

Prior to being colonised and prior to the carving out of the RoU, all land within the geography that is now the RoU, was owned and managed by the first nations under their own laws - rules, regulations and authorities.  All land within the geography that is now the RoU, indeed, was prior managed mostly under communal land tenure systems that followed the laws of the first nations. Within kingdoms, such as Buganda, the ownership and authority over their land was held in trust by the institution of the Kabaka and not the individual Kabaka. The current Buganda Land Board (BLB) is in fact making every effort to reinstate the authority of the Kabaka over the lands of Buganda. The BLB, for example, has requested all who occupy Kabaka’s land to register their titles with the BLB in order to regularise their tenancy.   

Within the first nations, such as the Iteso, which were without kingdoms and were governed under the clan system, the ownership and authority over their land was held in trust by collectives of clan leaders, such as my father, who is among the leaders of the clan of the Ikaribwok Isekelio of Pallisa in Eastern Uganda. Historians (Fountain Publishers, 2011), have documented that among the Iteso, the clan was the basic social and political unit. It was administrative and judicial in character. With regard to land tenure, the clans administrated and solved conflicts over land which was held in three types of tenure – land accessed to entire communities - the commons – for grazing, relaxation, firewood, foraging, etc.; family land, and this was the majority of the land; and individual land holdings, mostly only among the significant male elders. 

The Iteso, like most communities in Uganda, are patriarchal – the head of the family is a man. Traditionally, even when the husband dies, a male relative – son, brother, uncle, etc., is assigned the responsibility of ‘heading’ the homestead of the deceased. Polygamy is widely practiced in Teso (the geography occupied by Iteso), as is the case among most communities in Uganda. A typical family among the Iteso, therefore, does not always conform with the ‘one-man-one-woman-and-their-children’ character of the global-western family. In Teso,  a family will likely comprise of one man and multiple wives, often living within a homestead, however, each wife typically has her own houses/rooms; and among the more wealthy, such as was the case of my paternal grandfather (RIP), the husband has his own house as well.

Through the Iteso oral tradition of transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next, I learned, especially from my partnal grandmothers (RIP) – seven were still alive when I was growing up -,  that among the Iteso there are clear gender-roles; which gender-roles also determined how land was allocated among family members and for what usage. This means that within family owned land was the provision for individual family members to be given access to land. Among the Iteso, the role of food production is primarily the role of women, who are further tasked with the responsibility of food preservation in order to ensure that there is food in the home all year round. 

The man of the homestead is obligated by Iteso culture to ensure that the women folk in his homestead have an allocation of land on which to produce food for home consumption. The Iteso men are typically obliged to help the women on the more ‘tougher’ farming tasks, such as opening virgin land and ox-ploughing and then let the other ‘simpler’ farming tasks – planting, weeding, harvesting and post harvest handling – to be done by the women. If there be surpluses of the harvest from the ‘women’s land’ which was determined for sale and or for free give away the Iteso men take on a significant decision-making role.  Otherwise, if the harvest from the ‘women’s land’ is utilised only for food consumption the decision-making of how it is distributed throughout the year is left to the women of the home, each for her harvest, in order to ensure the family members’ nutrition.

The English colonisers who established the RoU wisely appreciated that they could not ignore the laws of the first nations, nor could they allow the laws of the first nations to operate in parallel with the law of the RoU – the State Law. State Law at the formation of the RoU and subsequently the GoU in reality is the law of the English colonisers. In order to acquire land for the RoU, the English colonialists needed to and they deliberately subjugated the laws of the first nations. They did so, Prof. Mahmood Mamdani surmises (Mamdani, 2012), by coining the terms ‘customs’ and ‘customary’ in order to categorise and relegate the laws of the first nations as inferior to State Law. 

To further undermine the first nations, asserts Mamdani, the English colonialists created their own versions of ‘customary law’ – taking from existing laws of the first nations those provisions which the English colonialists could ‘civilise’ and integrating them within State Law and outlawing those which the English colonialists considered ‘barbaric’- basically laws that would interfere with the colonialists’ interests.  If Mamdani’s thesis holds true, as I believe it does, then ‘customary’ land tenure systems that are provided for in State Law are a bastardised version of the laws of the first nations. They are an artefact of political power - first by the English colonialists and subsequently by the successive GoU. 

It would appear, in fact, that Obote’s wish that the laws of the ‘new’ independent Uganda are a consolidation in a manner which the age-old customs of our forefathers are respectfully and meaningfully fused into State Law did not come true.  In matters land tenure, in particular, it would appear that the laws of the ‘new’ Uganda threw away the best in the laws of the first nations. Consequently, the land tenure systems in State Law likely serve the interests of the English colonialists and those of GoU and not necessarily the interests of the peoples of the first nations, now citizens of Uganda.

In order to legitimise State Law, after all, the English colonialists coerced our forefathers to sign treaties, which became part of State Law, and which effectively disempowered the authorities of the first nations, particularly in matters to do with land tenure. At a stroke of a pen, using State Law, the first nations were dispossessed of their lands which were taken over by the RoU and which are administrated by GoU under a colonialist imposed land tenure system which, among others, introduced individual land ownership – freehold, mailo and leasehold. 

Scholars (Owaraga, 2012), for example, have documented that Mailo is a system that started in 1900, in which land in central Uganda – then known as Buganda – was divided between the King of Buganda, chiefs, notables and the protectorate - the English colonial GoU. Under the mailo tenure system, land ownership is held in perpetuity. The Mailo system it would appear could have been among the incentives that were utilised to coerce/hoodwink the leaders of the first nations, at the time, to sign treaties with the English colonialists that allowed the English and subsequently GoU, to gain control over the land.

An analysis (Owaraga, 2012) on the basis of data from the year 2010 reveals that GoU had grabbed from the first nations 60 percent of their land. Only 40 percent of the first nations’ land was still under first nations’ tenure. Currently, in 2016 it is likely that the percentage is even greater of the land that has been fully grabbed away from under the authorities of the first nations. According to the data from 2010, the widest land grabbing by GoU has occurred in Central Uganda where 99 percent of the land is no longer owned and administrated by the first nations. In Central Uganda land is predominantly now individually owned under unregistered freehold mailo, registered freehold mailo and leasehold. Using the same data of 2010, in comparison, 76 percent of land in the north, 54 percent of land in the east and 47 percent of land in the west of Uganda was still owned under some type of the authorities of the first nations.

This status quo – land grabbing sanctioned by State Law - is the root cause of raging land conflicts in Uganda – amongst families, clans and first nations. Sadly, the Uganda National Land Policy (UNLP) 2013 (Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development, 2013) embodies the hall marks of State Law – continued undermining of the laws of the first nations. It does so, for example, by promoting factoids which present the laws of the first nations as the problem for it equates them to the concocted customary tenure which is in State Law. The UNLP correctly observes that the concocted customary tenure within State Law does not provide security; that it impedes advancement of land markets; and that it discriminates against women. Where the UNLP is at fault is by equating the concocted customary tenure in State Law to that of the first nations.

By creating a smoke-screen of falsehoods, such as are included in the UNLP, the GoU effectively facilitates land grabbing.  The smoke-screen provides justification for provisions in the UNLP, such as titling of the lands still under the authorities of the first nations, which in turn sanction accelerated land grabbing of the remaining 40 percent of the first nations’ land. It is easier to make land a commodity and to commercialise it when it is titled land - those whose names appear on the title can sell the land with ease; which they are doing without consideration of the other users, ‘women’s land’ especially, as provided for in the traditional tenure systems of the first nations, such as of the Iteso.  

Land and Food Insecurity:

The premise of the UNLP, its vision: “transformed Ugandan society through optimal use and management of land resources for a prosperous and industrialised economy with a developed service sector”, when unpacked, clearly espouses the continuation of the undermining of the authority of the first nations over the land which they occupy. One can deduce from the vision of the UNLP the perception that the first nations are necessarily backward and need transforming. What does the UNLP mean by optimal use of land? Does it mean that the first nations are not using their land to optimum? Optimum for what purpose – is it for food or for generating resources for the GoU’s gross domestic product (GDP)? 

The goal of the UNLP further elucidates as follows: “to ensure efficient, equitable and optimal utilisation and management of Uganda’s land resources for poverty reduction, wealth creation and overall socio-economic development.” In order to achieve its goal, according to the UNLP, the GoU plans to “shift an estimated 65 percent of ‘peasants’ who currently contribute 22 percent of the GDP from subsistence to commercial agriculture to move out of poverty and attain food security using land as the major resource.” The GoU is surely Machiavellian in the manner in which it is promoting a single story that there is a need to modernise Uganda's agriculture from subsistence farming to commercial farming. That single story suggests that commercialisation of agriculture will usher in better utilisation of Uganda’s land that is claimed currently underutilised by the majority, the first nations, who are falsely categorised as ‘subsistence farmers’. 

One of the modernisation views that is promoted by the GoU, for example, is that ‘subsistence’ farmers if allowed to continue producing should be grouped in zones (zoned/zoning) so that farmers within a particular zone should mono-crop and all produce a single crop in order to produce significant bulked quantities of produce from that single crop in order to supply it to industrialists for value addition. Another modernisation view that is promoted by the GoU is that ‘subsistence farmers’ should be replaced on the land by large scale farmers.  Large scale farmers in this context are often viewed as those who have the capacity to produce large quantities, usually through mono-cropping and through the use of high technology – including machinery - tractors, artificial fertilisers and pesticides and perhaps even genetically modified crops. 

The premise of the GoU’s single story – modernising Uganda’s agriculture – seemingly is the idea that it is better for Uganda’s farmers to grow to sell and then buy to eat. Furthermore, the rationale for the GoU’s single story seems to hinge on the reasoning that if Uganda’s farmers move away from subsistence farming into commercial farming then Uganda will become primarily an exporter of value added products as opposed to being mainly an exporter of primary products; thus earning more through international trade. Inbuilt within the GoU’s ‘modernise agriculture paradigm’, most importantly, is the acceptance, consciously or sub-consciously, of covert agrarian reform – changes in the way Uganda’s agricultural land is used and by whom. 

Changes in the way that agricultural land is used normally have a knock on effect of changing the status of ‘subsistence farmers’ to something else.  It is the changes in agricultural land use and their knock on effect - the change of status from being a ‘subsistence farmer’ to something else, for example, to being an urban-dweller-service-provider, a net buyer of food, a food trader, a roadside meat roaster, an eyebrow cutter, a roving pedicurist, etc., that is of interest in the context of this paper. That is the Achilles hill of the thinking that drives GoU’s policy. It is so because the long term impact of the change in status for ‘subsistence farmers’ is rarely and is scantily accommodated within the dominant discourse of the GoU’s single story. 

What is the long term impact on Uganda’s current ‘subsistence farmers’ of 'modernisation' interventions which change the way in which Uganda’s agricultural land is used? Are all Ugandans equally impacted – positively or negatively? If negatively impacted, what legal recourse is provided for within State Law and international law for those so impacted? How may those who are negatively impacted be assisted to seek redress and justice? Take for instance, the thousands of women who are losing their ‘women lands’ for food production to GoU interventions that are promoting the growing of food crops for sale for value addition. 

Using the example of Teso, to which authority should the thousands of women of Teso go - those whose ‘women’s land’ for food production was covertly grabbed in order that their husbands grow epuripur, the improved variety of sorghum (Ebiyau, Serunjogi, & Arach, 2005), that was specifically modified by National Agriculture Research Organisation (NARO) – Serere Agricultural and Animal Research Institute (SAARI) for brewing of bottled beer? 

Modernisation interventions such as the epuripur for beer are often touted as a success on the proclamation that they supposedly improve household incomes. However, a closer investigation will undoubtedly reveal that such interventions which commercialise food very often than not cause or facilitate food insecurity at household level. It is doubtful that it is not a mere coincidence that there have been significant changes in the composition of the food that the Iteso prefer – Atap ugali - over the past 30 or so years. The composition of atap ugali has changed from consisting of pure millet, then millet-cassava, then millet-cassava-sorghum, then cassava-sorghum; and now mostly only cassava. 

Millet is now a high value commercial crop for brewing ajon (local brew) that is sold in bars, mostly in slum areas in urban centres. Sorghum for eating has been replaced by epuripur for bottled beer brewing. The changes in the composition of atap have clearly, consistently and progressively downgraded the nutrition value of atap.  It is logical that this trend is contributing to the higher malnutrition levels among Iteso children and Iteso in general. I am convinced that similar examples such as the epuripur with Teso can be easily identified in other parts of Uganda as well.


As Uganda rethinks the land question, it is important that we ask ourselves the following questions: Where should our history and the rethink of the land question begin? Who is currently actually putting food on our table? How has the food on our plate changed over the years? Whom are GoU policies subconsciously planning to kick of the land? Are we safe? As for me, I am convinced that we need to start the re-think of the land question by recognising the existence of the first nations and by revisiting Prime Minister Obote’s words of wisdom that he gave on the occasion when Uganda became an ‘independent’ nation. 

We must appreciate that most of the food that is consumed in Uganda by Ugandans and beyond is currently produced by those farmers that are often falsely referred to as ‘subsistence’ farmers, as mere peasants, as backward and as needing modernisation. Which begs another question: why is it the case that those Uganda citizens that are the most productive are the ones least recognised and appreciated? It is instead they whom GoU policies plan to kick of the land so that others, presumably more competent and ‘modern’, take over the lands and practice modern farming methods which would feed the nation. What logic is this, one wonders? Those being kicked of the land are currently producing food that sustains the nation and surplus for sale – Uganda is a net exporter of food. 

Land tenure systems that are planning to kick off the land the peoples of the first nations are not only criminal they are both morally and economically flawed as well. Let us keep Uganda the land that feeds us all by its fertile soils. Let us not hand it back to those who had originally grabbed it from us in the first place. 

Works Cited:

Daily Monitor. "Prime Minister Milton Obote's Inagural Independence Speech at Kololo Airstrip on October 9, 1962." Daily Monitor. October 9, 2013. (accessed May 9, 2016).

Ebiyau, J., L.K. Serunjogi, and T. Arach. "Commercialisation of Sorghum in Uganda." African Crop Sciences Conference Proceedings, 2005: Vol. 7. pp. 695-696.

Fountain Publishers. Peoples and Cultures of Uganda (Fourth Edition). Kampala: Fountain Publishers, 2011.

Google Maps. Republic of Uganda. May 6, 2016. (accessed May 6, 2016).

Mamdani, Mahmood. "The contemporary Ugandan discourse on customary tenure: some historical and theoretical considerations." The Land Question: Socialism, Capitalism and the Market. Kampala: Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), 2012.

Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development. The Uganda National Land Policy. Kampala: The Republic of Uganda, 2013.

Mugerwa, Yasiin. "Baganda, Banyankore, Basoga dominant tribes." Daily Monitor. March 26, 2016. (accessed May 5, 2016).

Original People. The Berlin Conterence of 1884-85 (The General Act of the Berlin conference). 2016. (accessed May 5, 2016).

Owaraga, Norah. "Conflict in Uganda's Land Tenure System." Africa Portal. May 2012. (accessed May 5, 2016).