This week President Yoweri Museveni disbanded the land unit operating out of state house and handed over their function to a special committee in the Lands ministry.
On Tuesday lands state minister Aidah Nantaba who heads the committee got off to a running start announcing that they had identified at least 500 land titles that should be rescinded.
The committee consists of officials from the police, UPDF, solicitor general’s office and the judicial service commission.
The committee is on some Robin-Hood mission to save peasants from illegal evictions. The minister has already cut herself out as the scourge of the large landowners, staying evictions and resettling people with much bombast and drama.
In the process the junior minister has won much popularity among the squatters and has not endeared herself to many landowners, many of whom are legitimate landowners and have been hard done by her overbearing ways.
Uganda’s land tenure system – most of which is informal and may not stand up in a court of law, is fraught with problems and is politically sensitive. It is also hampering farm productivity and holding back agricultural commercialization.
The way to handle this is to regularize the land tenure system so the established institutions like the Uganda land commission, police and courts of law can handle land issues – as they are supposed to.
As it is now by perpetuating, even accentuating, the informality of the land ownership by creating parallel structures we are doing more harm than good.
The government needs to bite the bullet. Fund the land tribunals proposed in the land law and step aside as the relevant institutions take the lead in sorting out land issues.
The challenge of course is that not only will the process of regularizing land ownership be a long and arduous process, but it might very well anger a lot of rural people who have settled on land that is not rightfully theirs and may go from land lords to squatters in a blink of an eye.
The reason there is no systematic action being taken on the land issue is the realization that these kind of “pretend” owners maybe a significant enough number as to cause a political threat. So apolitical decision has been made to kick the tin down the road, postponing any real action on resolving the issue at worst or at best employ someone to kick up a storm and make as if something is being done about the issue.
The land issue is critical for our ambitions to take this country to middle income in the next three decades, one because by regularizing the tenure system and in effect commoditizing land you can have the land becoming more productive and raising incomes of the land owners and the people they employ on the land.
And secondly, how the government handles land ownership rights sends a powerful signal to not only people wanting to go into agriculture but also to investors interested in other asset classes. The logic would go that if the government can be so blasé about land ownership what’s to stop them from waking up one day and doing the same to real estate, plant and machinery?
From a political point of view it probably not in a seating government’s interest to regularize the land tenure system. As mentioned before it may cause a lot of tempers to flare and hurt them at the polls. But also if land is regularized and taxed we can expect those unable to pay tax to sell out and migrate to the cities, fail to be gainfully employed and resort to crime and provide fertile ground for a credible opposition to launch itself from. That is politics.
Something has to give. Either the government takes the tough decisions – regularize land tenureship and tax the land, regardless of the political fallout, knowing that it will be benefit the country in the long run or go on sidestepping the issue and hold back progress for decades.