Article 237, sub-section 1 – of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda (ROU) clearly stipulates that land in Uganda belongs to the citizens of Uganda and shall vest in them in accordance with the land tenure systems provided for in the Constitution. The Constitution of the ROU – Article 237, sub-section 3 – provides that land in Uganda shall be owned in accordance with the following land tenure systems: a) customary, b) freehold, c) mailo and d) leasehold. The Constitution of the ROU further provides in Article 237, sub-section 4 that a) all Ugandan citizens owning land under customary tenure may acquire certificates of ownership in a manner prescribed by parliament; and b) land under customary tenure may be converted to freehold land ownership by registration.”
Uganda’s customary tenure, in its ideal form, is consistent with land ownership in the ‘traditional African sense’ (Owaraga 2012). In the traditional African sense land is a resource to which people have use-rights; combining land tenure elements of ‘customary’ and of ‘simple market’ societies – disallowing unconditional individual ownership; while, by allocation or by rent, but not by sale, accessing land use to individuals, in accord with a community authority. Customary tenure is traditionally the predominant tenure under which land in Karamoja is managed. Uganda’s freehold, mailo and leasehold systems, in contrast, are based on individual ownership similar to tenure systems characteristic of the ‘possessive market society’ and, ideally, consistent with land ownership in the ‘global-western sense’ (Owaraga 2012). In the global-western sense land is individually owned, with exclusive rights in exchange for cash, and is acquired through formal contractual arrangements between seller and buyer.
The Government of Uganda (GOU) is increasingly promoting the global-western sense of land ownership – it is promoting the greater individualisation of land, in order to confer permanent use rights to individuals and enlarging the scope of individual rights to transfer or to sell land relatively freely. The GOU’s attitude is evident in Uganda’s policies. It has changed from its minimalist approach to customary ownership of recognising customary groups without intervention in the groups’ internal affairs to a more transformational approach of issuing certificates of title of customary ownership that confer rights equivalent to freehold tenure, and to facilitate the conversion of customary land into freehold tenure. The GOU’s major reason for the promotion of individualisation of land, it would appear, is so as land in Uganda is ‘better’ utilised for the ‘modernisation’ and the ‘development’ of Uganda.
A case in point is GOU, through Uganda Investment Authority (UIA), prioritizing its interest in extracting minerals from under Karamoja land which has generated conflict between UIA and communities in Karamoja. The affected Karimojong communities are protesting the acquisition of 10 acres of their land by UIA for the establishment of an industrial and business park; a park believed to be primarily for the benefit of external investors in the minerals sector. The affected communities claim that the manner in which UIA acquired the land did not sufficiently fulfill all the requisite legal requirements for its acquisition of that particular land. Apparently, the manner in which UIA acquired Karimojong land is the norm in relation to other purchases that have been made by the GOU and other investors in Karamoja. “They (elite Karimojong) sell the land to investors without consulting residents. Land in Karamoja is communal – if anybody wants to buy it, they must consult elders but not grab it”, a Karimojong elder explained (Ariong, 2014). Whereas, UIA has clarified that it did not grab the land that it acquired (Sebbowa, 2015), the tone of its response raises doubt as to whether, as a government institution, they are on the side of the communities from whom the land was allegedly ‘grabbed’ or they are on the side of the individual who allegedly ‘grabbed’ the land.
UIA purchased the land from an individual, Peter Amodoi Ayopo, a Karimojong, who at the time was working as a Commissioner in the Office of the Prime Minister (Sebbowa, 2015). According to UIA Ayopo provided them with a legitimate freehold title indicating that he was the owner of the land; and on that basis UIA went ahead and bought the land from him. However, it is common knowledge in Uganda that land in Karamoja is traditionally under communal customary tenure. This, therefore, means that a buyer, such as UIA, when presented with a land title that suggested that land in Karamoja was under freehold tenure – especially so for a title freshly and recently acquired – the buyer, UIA, had the responsibility to carryout due diligence to establish the manner in which the land changed from customary tenure and to be held under freehold and leasehold tenure. Even though UIA did its due diligence but it ended up purchasing land that was fraudulently acquired by Ayopo, then UIA needs to have taken up the matter with the Uganda Land Board who issued the title to Ayopo; or it needs to insist that Ayopo pays it back its money for misrepresenting himself as the legitimate owner. In any case, if it were conclusively proven that Ayopo acquired the land fraudulently through deceit then there was no meeting of the minds between Ayopo and the legitimate owners of the land. De-facto it means that if Ayopo fraudulently acquired the land he sold to UIA, then UIA’s acquisition of the land is automatically nullified. “The issue of the land of Kautokou (the land which was acquired by UIA) is a result of deceit like of you the educated” insists a Karimojong elder (Tebanyang, Lowanyang, & Svindseth, 2015).
Why is the GOU, through UIA, seemingly insisting on disenfranchising the legitimate land owners? Why is the GOU not going after Ayopo and or the concerned officials in the Uganda Land Board? Is there abuse of office, therefore, corruption in the handling of this case by Ayopo, officials in UIA, and officials in the Uganda Land Board? Where did Ayopo get the money to pay for the land? How much did he pay for the land? To whom did he pay the money? What proof of ownership did he present to the Uganda Land Board that enabled him to convert the land from customary tenure to freehold? Considering the protestations of the Karimojong, these questions beg answers.
To add salt to the wound, the purpose for which UIA acquired the land is seemingly for the benefit of others non-Karimojong. How is the industrial and business park of benefit to Karimojong while they enjoy their semi-nomadic pastoralist way of life? Should it not be the role of UIA to as well promote investments related to animal production and value addition in animal by-products? For example, is there room within the UIA Karamoja Industrial and Business Park for the return of a type of “Cattle Factory” similar to the one that was established in 1958 in Karamoja, which used the labour of inmates to produce beef products for the army and then was moved to Soroti after independence (Tebanyang, Lowanyang, & Svindseth, 2015)? Naturally, the suggested new ‘modern’ cattle factory, as an example, would be one which would ensure that Karamoja’s cattle economy is at the centre – Karimojong as part of or even the full owners of the investment; Karimojong semi-nomadic pastoralists as the major suppliers of animals and animal by products; Karimojong as the workers in the factory and therefore Karimojong households as the primary beneficiaries. In this way the investment would better bring economic benefits to Karamoja while not disrupting and disenfranchising the Karimojong of their social and cultural rights.
On the face of it, it seems that the proposed ‘development’ intervention by the GOU, through UIA – the industrial and business park, deepens poverty for Karimojong – particularly the kind of poverty as defined by Amartya Sen as “un-freedoms of various sorts: the lack of freedom to achieve even minimally satisfactory living conditions” (Sen, 2008). The acquisition/grabbing of land by UIA exemplifies how GOU interventions in Karamoja seemingly promote poverty of un-freedoms; which leads to a vicious cycle of poverty, including that of the kind defined in the classic view of poverty as shortage of income. Has GOU set a precedent that will propagate a perception that minerals extracted from Karamoja are blood minerals? Who are the companies, individuals, ‘investors’, who are targeted to benefit from the establishment of the UIA Karamoja Industrial Business Park? Will the UIA and all the investors who will use the pack ensure that all their activities will go through a systematic environmental impact assessment in order to ascertain the effect – positive or negative – of their actions in Karamoja? How will the positive effects be encouraged and equitably shared? How will the negative effects be ameliorated?
Clearly, the ‘development’ initiative by the GOU, through UIA, has begun on the wrong footing. Not only through its acquisition of land in a seemingly irresponsible and likely fraudulent manner; but in its negative consequences experienced already and potentially to come. Alienating thousands from their land – through land use eviction and arguable also through physical eviction. Physical eviction in the sense that when the mining activities or construction activities begin – it is quite likely that the peace of the Karimojong ancestors that were laid to rest on the land will be disturbed – perhaps through physical removal and re-location or through being trampled over. This is disruptive and disrespectful of the spirituality and religious practice of the Karimojong – the GOU brutally forcing spiritual disconnections that the Karimojong have with their ancestors. Restricting their access to their shrines at which they do thanks giving and blessing ceremonies. There is a case to be made in favour of the Karimojong from the perspective of freedom of religion and worship as well.
By 2010, a significant proportion, 24.8 percent (6,876.92 square kilometers of Karmoja’s 27,700 square kilometers) of Karamoja’s land was covered by exclusive mineral exploration licenses and location licenses (Rugadya, Kamusiime, & Gayiiya, 2010). Mining activities necessarily entail the disruption of other livelihoods activities – access to land resources is usually denied to others by those who hold licenses. Sadly, in many cases the land in Karamoja for which mining concessions have been given is in the most fertile areas; meaning that the land is out of bounds for pastoral and crop farming activities, as well as prohibiting access to natural plant cover for building materials, medicines, wood fuel, etc. (Rugadya, Kamusiime, & Gayiiya, 2010). This has a direct negative impact on the food and nutrition security of the affected communities.
So-called development interventions, such as the one for which UIA acquired land, are disruptive to the pastoralist way of life – causing poverty by removing the freedoms of Karimojong to have access to natural resources – land use – for pastoral resources, firewood, medications, herbs, ngakiokes (the small stones used by women in milk processing and cleaning of gourds), settlements, spiritual and ancestral connections (Tebanyang, Lowanyang, & Svindseth, 2015). ‘Modernization’ initiatives in Karamoja, generally, have in the past disrupted migratory routes and Karimojong’s access to grazing areas so as to make way for mining, cropping and wild life ‘conservation’ activities for the greater benefit of others non-Karimojong; consequently the economic disempowerment of Karimojong. The history of the forceful acquisition of Karamoja’s land for other purposes goes way back to the 1920s by the colonial British GOU and of the successive post-independence administrations of the GOU, for instance, the establishment of Kidepo National Park on 1,442 square kilometres of land (Mamdani, 1982). Land alienation of the Karimojong forces them, together with their large herds of livestock, to survive on less land and on lower quality land; and it is a contributing factor to practices that are degrading the environment in Karamoja.
‘Modernization’ initiatives typically benefit ‘foreigners’ at the expense of the Karimojong and thus contribute to increasing income poverty in Karamoja – removing productive assets from Karimojong to be used and benefited from by ‘foreign investors’, inclusive of Karimojong who benefit individually from greed. Consequently, modernization interventions in Karamoja end up turning Karimojong from being communal owners of land to unemployed masses whose survival depends on them accessing low paid causal labour or accessing free handouts from relief aid or as internally displaced persons who migrate to urban centers to become beggars. Indeed, the divide is seemingly getting wider between the well-connected (Karimojong and non-Karimojong) with excess and the majority of Karimojong that are struggling to access resources in order to acquire basic and genuine needs; and it is visible. The reality in Karamoja today is that the achievement of the ideal of natural resources being managed for the greater good of the whole community as opposed to for the benefit of a few individuals is getting ever so difficult.
In Karamoja, GOU policies seemingly foster exogenous cultural conflict, legal land alienation and disruption of local land right systems for the benefit of well-connected individuals or organizations. Exogenous cultural conflict is nurtured in Karamoja because instead of complementing each other the Karimojong ‘traditional’ systems and the ‘modern’ systems of the ROU compete; and in some cases they are incompatible. Outsiders hardly take the time to examine the economic viability of the Karimojong semi-nomadic pastoral cattle economy. The Karimojong cattle economy is traditionally contextualized within a communal system of property rights. Within the communal land tenure systems, the ideal is that individual community members in enjoying their use rights function similar to lands held in private – they may pass their occupancy rights to their heirs and they retain exclusive rights to the crops grown on the land that they occupy. It is therefore wrong to assume, as is the norm, that individual rights are inconsistent with customary tenure. Unfortunately, on the basis of this misconception, the push by the GOU of Uganda for registration and titling of Karimojong land has provided opportunity for well-connected individuals to convert Kariomojong lands once held under communal customary tenure to private tenure systems – freehold; and thus enabling individuals to commercialize and profiteer from Karimojong land.
No doubt, there is a need to examine how historical factors, cultural factors, social institutions – formal policies and informal beliefs and traditions – have facilitated or not the ability of the Karimojong to produce their own food and to earn and afford food, while enjoying their chosen way of life – the semi-nomadic pastoralist way of life?
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Mamdani, Mahmood. “Karamoja: Colonial roots of famine in north-east Uganda.” Review of African Political Economy, 1982: Vol. 25:66-73.
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