This week the central government returned to Buganda 213 land titles that it had its possession in an ongoing process of thawing of an uneasy relationship.
The government appropriated these and other lands that belonged to the kingdom when a contest of wills between then prime minster Milton Obote and Kabaka Mutesa II, the then president, tilted in the former’s favour.
The invasion of the Lubiri in 1966, the abolition of the Kingdoms and the abrogation of the 1962 constitution resulting from this fallout, triggered a series of events key of which the rise to power Idi Amin, plunged Uganda into two decades of insecurity and instability that we are only just recovering from.
The return of the properties were prompted by a combination of the pragmatism on the government’s part and sustained pressure from the Mengo establishment.
From a purely politically perspective it is not difficult to rationalise government’s holding on to the properties and the timing of their release now.
Mengo provides arguably the most coherent organised group outside of the NRM in Uganda today. While dominated by the landed gentry of the kingdom, and therefore at odds with the thousands of official and unofficial on their vast land holdings, they symbolise the will of the Kabaka. The perception is that they can marshall the tribe to a cause of their choice and as a result it would be full hardy to be at odds with them.
With this in mind reinstating the kingdom’s lands, it was thought, would be like handing Mengo the trigger to cause mischief. Their tacit support for opposition presidential candidates since 1996 has only served to discourage the NRM’s hardliners from doing business with Mengo.
It is not clear what has changed now to allow government relinquish this bargaining chip.
One can speculate that the NRM after years of building a nationwide political base feel confident enough to release the land. Or that the lands are so encumbered now that by the time Mengo is done with liberating their estates enough water will have gone under the bridge and the antagonism would have died down. Or that concessions were made by either side not to act aversely to others interests as condition for the release.
Attorney General Peter Nyombi said the titles released constitute 60 percent of the land due to Mengo.
The political calculations aside this development is a positive one for the country as a whole.
The fact that the government has been holding on to these titles suggests that the economic potential of the holdings has not been properly utilised all these years. With the titles now liberated one can expect that the full economic potential of these lands will be unlocked generating jobs, boosting economic activity and increasing tax revenues.
A selfless administration of the land can also see some of the proceeds going towards the improvement of social services in the region, a useful tool to lowering poverty levels in central Uganda.
It is possible that there will be some hurt feelings as the kingdom moves to consolidate its properties and one hopes these can be handled delicately. The rapprochement between government and Mengo is good for the country as a whole and opens up numerous avenues for collaboration in taking this country forward.