We need land reforms that are fair to all
Let's face it: much as the country is divided over government’s proposed land amendments, the law will have no effect nor provide a lasting solution to the land problem in the country - unless money is provided by government for the peasants and landlords to secure their land rights.
In the new amendments to Section 31 of the Land Act 1998, the government has empowered district land boards to determine a suitable annual nominal ground rent payable by a tenant. On failure, the government insists, the lands minister would set the ground rent.
“Where the board has not determined the annual nominal ground rent payable by a tenant by occupancy within six months after the commencement of this Act, the rent may be determined by the minister,” the new proposal reads in part.
Contrary to the previous law, the government has reduced the timeframe for the payment of the ground rent from two years to one year after the minister has approved the rent payable to the mailo land owner.
Similarly, in a veil attempt to ‘protect’ the interests of the registered land owner (landlord), government is proposing an amendment to section 35 of the Land Act that will make it difficult for tenants to assign their tenancy by occupancy ( sell) to a third party without giving the first option of taking the assignment of the occupancy (sell) to the land owner.
What this means is that tenants by occupancy or Bibanja, holders can’t sell or subdivide their land without giving the registered land owner priority; if they did , they commit an offence and are liable for imprisonment not exceeding four years.
Under the new arrangements, illegal occupancy has been criminalised. The land owner can approach the police and evict trespassers because it is criminal and anybody liable commits an offence and imprisonment for four years and a fine of about Shs1.9m. On the other hand, the landlord is also under an obligation to give notice when selling his/her land.
Where one secretly sells his or her land this will be illegal and no title will be given. But then again, how many tenants in this country have the resources to purchase land on the open market. This is the root cause of the problem- which unfortunately, government has failed to address in its quest to secure land rights for the landless Ugandans.
And much as the provisions of the land amendments which purport to secure the rights of bonafide occupants ( people who have lived on any given piece of land for more than 12 years before the coming into effect of the 19995 constitution) and the lawful occupants (those entered on land with the consent of the registered owner by virtue of the Busuulu and Nvujjo law of 1928), do not confer a superior title to that of the registered land owner (landlord) in practical terms the law creates two competing rights/interests.
With these contradictions in the law, it has increasingly become very difficult for registered land owners and tenants to deal with land as a factor of production.
Neither of the two people ( landlords and tenants) can transfer or assign their interest in land without first compensating/ or buying out the other. This is the sad reality that affects the principles of land law which provide that if you want to deal in land you don’t have to investigate outside the register.
The government has conveniently opted to ignore this fundamental principle of law thus making it difficult for people to purchase or sell a vital resource to ensure economic growth/development.
This situation can best explain the strategic tendencies of landlords to sell/ assign their interests to military men or powerful political actors who can employ the power of the gun or political muscle to wrestle the tenants off the land without compensation. Or worse still, for the same government officials to instigate/or encourage peasants to take over land without compensating landlords.
The other problem with the present regime of our land law is the lack of a definitive provision on how much land a kibanja holder should have and the mechanism of getting a tenant off the land if the landlord wants to develop that land whether ground rent is paid or not.
The amendments provide for only one ground under which tenants can be evicted and that’s if they fail to pay rent. So what happens when a landlord wants to sell his land even if ground rent has been paid by the tenants whose means are so limited that they have no money to purchase land in the first place? And which sane businessman or developer will purchase land which is heavily encumbered?
The country needs land reforms that are fair to all- landlords and tenants alike and, government should as a priority put in place a land fund that will help the affected people to source for alternative land or buy themselves out without causing imaginary political or tribal conflicts.
The writer is a journalist and advocate