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Go slow on amendments to the land law

Edmond M. Owor
Once again, the detested appetite to mutilate further our rather young national constitution is out of the woods, and is rearing its ugly head!! A retreat of Cabinet and its technocrats, the Permanent Secretaries, resolved to amend the land law to empower Government to compulsorily acquire land before compensation occurs.

Article 26 which is again under threat, is explicit about the process of lawful land acquisition, and provides for fair and adequate compensation to the relevant parties to ensure citizens' rights to property are not violated in the process.

And when we are talking of violation, it is the vulnerable and marginalized Uganda who will suffer because they will either be inadequately compensated or not compensated at all. They cannot afford the costly litigation to defend their rights, and cannot challenge the unfair land acquisitions or dissatisfactory compensation payments.

As civil society, it is not surprising to see this simmering amendment back. My intuition indicated that it was a matter of time before we faced this threat just again. In 2014, the same proposal was muted, and we shouted our voices hoarse. The eventual withdrawal was suspicious! There were several responsive actions by the Civil Society, with Uganda Land Alliance convening a national consultative meeting, which discussed and formally presented a people centred position to the Law Reform Commission. In 2015, we held several events, including a charged press conference. We also held a very engaging meeting with selected Members of Parliament (MPs), which was intended to rally not only their individual support but of all other MPs who would choose reason as opposed to "waking-up-to-vote" in case the Bill reached the floor of Parliament. The likes of Hon. Gerald Karuhanga, Hon. Florence Ebil, Hon. Beatrice Anywar and Hon Stephen Mukitale Birahwa graced this meeting.

In the meeting with the legislators, the politicians gave the initiative the reception and energiser we needed. They also argued it in the context of the political pulse at the time, referring to it as a political problem that needed a political solution, and emerging at an appropriate political period. All in attendance promised to go and rally their constituents and fellow legislators. One warned: Do they want another war in Northern Uganda? Let them try!! And guess who was part of this group, and also passionately spoke on that day. Hon. Betty Amongi, the current Minister of Lands Housing and Urban Development. Her arguments then had this understanding of the sensitivity of governing land, including political repercussions. My thinking is that, in her heart of hearts, she probably has not changed. I look forward to meeting her for a chat on this matter.

If I can remind our MPs who were privy to the position we shared last year, Civil Society voices working around the land sector maintain that we are not against development. In our work, we have witnessed the process of compulsory land acquisition take place to make way for infrastructural and industrial development including both oil and mineral sector development projects. Our concern is the citizens land rights that are not protected in the face of investor needs.

While we have not seen the exact details of the proposal, we shall assume they are not fundamentally different from the one that was withdrawn. However, from the MinisterĄŻs stressful efforts to explain the Cabinet decision, attempts to introduce the said changes to Article 26 are bound to disrupt citizensĄŻ rights to own land and other property. Our view as land rights activists is that this is not just a procedural change but a veiled assault on the right to property. Without the assurance of prompt payment of fair and adequate compensation prior to the taking of possession or acquisition of property, citizens are effectively deprived of their right to property for an unspecified and indeterminate amount of time.

We have already witnessed disruptions arising out of the land transactions in the Albertine Graben as a result of the discovery of commercially viable oil reserves. Communities in Karamoja sub-region, just like their counterparts in Northern, Eastern and other parts of the country are fast losing their land to "investments", or are being affected by the growth of the industrial mining industry and growing demand for land for other commercial investments.

Indicators of good governance include subscription to international standards and declarations. It is, therefore, deserving that any amendments to the Constitution or land laws should seek to strengthen citizensĄŻ land rights, in line with international standards including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labour Organisation Convention 169, both of which espouse the standards of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) as key to protecting community property rights in the process of land acquisition.

Mr. Owor is the Executive Director of Uganda Land Alliance

Posted 7th, September 2016
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