Last week the Kampala suburb of Kasokoso witnessed running battles between residents and the police, punctuated by tear gas.
This was a carryover from an incident the previous week in which area mayor Mamerito Mugerwa was roughed up and his car torched.
Unsurprisingly this kind of violence and disregard for authority has at its root a land dispute.
National Housing & Construction Corporation (NHCC) claims ownership of the 250-odd acres of land in the area. Unfortunately over the last decade or so encroachers have settled on the land, built permanent structures and even buried their dead.
According to local authorities they had warned NHCC of the creeping encroachment as long ago as 2005. I guess bureaucratic sloth or sheer incompetence prevented management from enforcing their ownership rights at the time.
So now NHCC is ready to develop the area and have come up against stiff resistance from the residents, who may have no legal claim to the land, but that fact may count for nothing in the face of the real fear that they may lose their homes.
It is not by accident that land is becoming an increasingly emotive subject.
Uganda has one of the highest population growth rates in the world with our population projected to double every 20 years. A natural extension of this growth is that we have the youngest population in the world with more than half the population below the age of 15 years.
In addition there are increasing waves of internal migrations, putting huge pressures on urban areas.
It will be interesting to see how this incident plays out.
Looking at it from afar it should look like a cut and dried case. NHCC with the help of the law enforcement agencies exercising its ownership rights should throw off the squatters and commence construction.
However one can expect politicians to jump into the fray and justify the residents’ right to the land with some populist logic.
This is not the first such dispute and it will not be the last and it has far reaching implication for national stability and sustained economic growth.
To begin with NHCC may eventually get its way, but this will unleash on our streets a few hundred homeless and desperate citizens – a political headache at best or a trigger for widespread chaos at worst.
Economically the issue of land rights goes straight to the heart of development ambitions. If there are questions about land rights or their enforcement investment by anyone becomes very difficult.
To let the residents of Kisokoso have their way would send a negative signal to people – locally and abroad who may have plans of investing in the country. If squatters can dispossess legitimate land owners, what will stop them doing the same to buildings, vehicles, plant and machinery, investors will wonder.
But there is an even more nefarious underbelly to many of these land wrangles.
A diabolical industry has grown around these land disputes.
Politicians and connected people sponsor some of these people to camp and quickly develop on land owned by other people. These “connected” people then either masquerade as arbiters by virtue of the positions they hold in the central government or in the local administrations and engage in an extortion racket under the guise of facilitating compensation for the squatters.
A variation of the same theme is that they facilitate the encroachment with a view to an eventual takeover of the land for themselves for much less than the market value.
Land issues are a political time bomb in themselves but government needs to come down hard on these shenanigans and nip these rackets in the bud.
For political reasons government may choose to look the other way, but they then risk the racket snowballing into a situation where real estate development becomes a hazardous business dooming us to our slums and poorly planned neighbourhoods.
It maybe too much to ask of a seating government to resolve land issues once and for all but the costs of not getting a grip on these issues will reverberate through history with many unforeseen consequences.
Look at Zimbabwe. After more than 20 years of feet dragging on the issues of land redistribution, political expediency dictated that the Robert Mugabe’s governments take drastic action a few years ago, allowing illegal occupations of farm land to stand, decimating the country’s reputation as the food basket of southern Africa and bring a once promising economy down to its knees.
The wealth disparities in Zimbabwe underpinned by an unfair landownership, a hangover from the colonial era are indefensible but what is probably more unforgivable is Harare’s allowing the situation to fester long after they had assumed the reins of power.
Ironically the gap between the rich and the poor is even more dramatic now, more because the poorer have become poorer and more people have fallen out of the middle class to join their downtrodden cousins.
The point is we should not see Kasokoso as an isolated incident, another bit of drama or something that happens to “other people”, we need to seat up and take notice because Kasokoso may very well be a sign of things to come.