CPAR Uganda Ltd

facebook twitter 

MLHUD Implement UNLP and Facilitate Evolution of Customary Tenure

Author: Ms. Norah Owaraga

On Monday, 14th May 2018, I experienced and observed officers of the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) who were at work in Pallisa in Eastern Uganda, about 200km by road north-east from Kampala Capital City. The UNRA officers were in Pallisa handling compensation matters in relation to the up-grading and widening of the Pallisa-Kumi road. The contracted road constructors, Arabs apparently, are already in Pallisa and have reportedly begun to source local employees and service providers.

However, road construction will not begin until all those landowners whose land is needed for road widening are compensated. I am one of those landowners, hence the reason I had the opportunity to observe UNRA officers handle compensation matters. You see, UNRA began the process way back last year, I believe, and in fact, in the entire village in which I am landowner, all the other affected landowners have reportedly already been compensated, except two.

Yes, one of the two was me and the reason is that I am an absentee landowner and so every time UNRA was in the field doing verification, mapping, etc., I was not physically there, even though I was represented by my cousin sister. When it came to signing off on the compensation papers, UNRA insisted on me physically being present. Seeing as I had failed to show up on location, UNRA took the time to call me on Saturday, 12th May 2018 and to request me to please go to the village in Pallisa to meet with them there, so that my claim is settled and witnessed by the Village Local Council (LC1) Chairman.

The land that I owned and which UNRA needs for widening of the road is under customary tenure. I bought my land in 2010 from a female owner, now since deceased. In order for the sale to me to be executed and legitimised, a meeting was called between representatives of the clan of the seller and representatives of the clan of the buyer. When the parties agreed, the agreement was signed/thumb-printed by eight witnesses, by the seller and by the buyer; and it was endorsed and stamped by the LCI Chairman. Thus a total of 11 persons authenticated the sale.

Even though, the sales meeting discussions were conducted in Ateso, the language of my people, the fifth largest first nation of Uganda, our sales agreement was handwritten in English and on a single sheet of ruled foolscap paper. It should be noted that among the witnesses of both parties where persons competent in the English language as well as in Ateso. In our land sales agreement the size of the land was specified and the boundaries defined on the basis of naming the owners of the land that shares boundaries with my land, including the fact that on the south, my land bordered Pallisa-Kumi Road.

Eight years ago, when I bought the land, I never envisaged that I would have to sell it. And so, when only two of my names – Alinga and Norah – that I am known by in my ancestral community were the ones included in the sales agreement, I did not bother to clarify that I, according to my birth certificate, have four names – Alinga and Owaraga are indicated as the surname; while Esta and Norah are indicated as the other names; and in that order. The use of only two names in the land sales agreement would not be an issue if it was the two names that I normally ‘legally use’- Owaraga Norah. On my legal identification documents, except for my birth certificate, my names are Owaraga Norah.

It is good that I have a birth certificate. Many Ugandans reportedly do not have birth certificates, for they were never issued with one. In this incidence of UNRA compensating land owners, my birth certificate came in handy and I believe saved me from the potential hassle of conclusively demonstrating that Alinga Norah, the buyer and Owaraga Norah are the same person. But even then my birth certificate was not enough. UNRA requested the LC1 Chairman to confirm that Alinga Norah is Owaraga Norah.

The LCI Chairman had no problems confirming that Alinga Norah is Owaraga Norah, because he knows me from our cultural community records as the daughter of my father, Eng. George William Owaraga; borne of my father’s wife, my mother, Betty Anne Apio Owaraga; as indicated on my birth certificate. The LCI Chairman also knows that my aunt, Agadi Josephine, who was a witness to the sales agreement, is the sister of my father with whom they share a father, my grandfather Ejakait Engatunyu (RIP).

Now, why I am writing this story, you may be wondering. It is because, lately, in popular national discourse, the spread has intensified of factoids that are deliberately being told, in order to present customary tenure in a negative light and in order to discredit customary tenure so that it is converted into other forms of tenure that better facilitate the interest of neoliberal capitalism.

A factoid is “an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print”, in other words what has come to be known as fake news. Three factoids about customary tenure that my story directly falsifies, among others, are:

  • Customary tenure bars women from owning land. False. I bought my land from a woman who was clearly recognised by her community as a landowner. I am a woman and I was fully recognised as a legitimate person to whom land can be sold. Our clans and the LC1s protected our interests as female landowners in the same way that they do of male landowners. 
  • Customary tenure stands in the way of development and of progress. False. When a major national development project comes along it is in face easier for government to settle claims of land under customary tenure than it is for it to settle claims of land held under other forms of tenure.

Yes, the only person now remaining to be settled in the village in which am landowner is a person who allegedly lied to UNRA, according to the talk in the village. Yes, our fellow community members are in the know of what is happening as regards to who is who that is getting compensated among landowners. The legend goes that that person lied to UNRA that their land had been surveyed and therefore was worth more than ours which was not surveyed. 

The land of that person, just like ours, has never been surveyed. This is because, in order for land under customary tenure to be surveyed and the survey holds up, the clan leaders and LC1s must be involved. Allegedly, that person was confirmed lying by local and cultural leaders, the story goes. Seemingly, therefore, the person forged survey papers and it is believed that UNRA has halted payment for that person’s land, until further investigations are carried out; the prevailing folklore in the village has it. 

  • Cultural institutions, which the Constitution confers rights to manage land under customary tenure, have insufficient capacity and no records. False. UNRA and other government agencies, including courts of law, rely on the competence and records of cultural institutions – some records which are passed down in the African oral tradition. For example, the tradition of doing land transactions in a manner that the transactions are witnessed by groups of people and thus establishing a record of how the truth may be verified.

Yes, I did make a good economic return on my investment on land – the compensation amount from UNRA is more than 100 percent of the amount that I paid for the land. The whole exercise of verifying the landowners and determining the compensation amount was done transparently, above board for all to see and it was corruption free, as far as I experienced it.

I know that my case is not an isolated one for I had the chance to observe UNRA officials dealing with two cases other than mine, which were likely not from the same village as I am landowner. In the one case that I observed, moreover, it was a woman who during the mapping exercise, I think, used names that she is commonly known by within her community, but which are not the names on her legal identification documents – the national identity card.

In the second case that I observed, seemingly, there is a dispute between a church and an individual or a family. The representatives of the church (dressed in religious clothing and so easy to identify) were the ones that I recognised, observed and heard harassing UNRA officials for not siding with the church against the other party. The other party apparently had succeeded in getting a court injunction of sorts or was it a lawyer’s letter, something like that, which informed UNRA that the legitimate owner of the land was the other party and not the church. UNRA apparently has halted payment on grounds that there are two claimants to the land, something like that.

The patience and calm with which UNRA officials handled my case and the two other cases that I observed them handle, with respect of us, the citizens, however irate some citizens were; and UNRA’s recognition and consultation of our cultural institutions is everything that I expect from a civil servant. Kudos to UNRA!

I conclude with a plea to the other government departments, particularly so the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development (MLHUD) to emulate UNRA and to:

  • Recognise that the Uganda National Land Policy (UNLP), which came into force in 2013, is more current than the Land Act which came into force prior to the UNLP. 
  • Appreciate that there are some provisions in the Land Act that contradict with the UNLP and the MLHUD should halt implementation of such provisions. 
  • Initiate the process to amend the affected provisions of the Land Act so that the Act is brought current, in accordance with the UNLP. 
  • Implement the provisions in the UNLP which provide for facilitating the evolution of customary tenure systems. 
  • Stop pushing for the conversation of customary tenure into other forms of tenure for this contradicts the UNLP. 
  • Stop being Machiavellian in pushing for universal adoption of Customary Certificates of Occupancy (CCOs) as though they are a must. CCOs are optional; and moreover, according to one school of thought, the CCOs that the MLHUD is currently promoting have been found significantly wanting in providing protections of legitimate landowners and potentially set the stage for land grabbing. 

Photo of sunset at 6:30pm in Eastern Uganda, by Norah Owaraga

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed in this blog post are of the author and are not necessarily those of CPAR Uganda Ltd.