By Nakut Faith Lord
Your Excellency, it is an honor for me to communicate to you in an open letter for the very first time. Kindly forgive my limited knowledge on protocols, language and tone. I pray you find space to take note of the concerns I have raised through this note despite the limitations therein.
Your government is greatly celebrated for creating and sustaining peace and stability in Uganda and beyond, and indeed credit should be given where it’s due. Your Excellency, we are travelling and going about doing our business without any security threat and sleeping soundly despite the criminal elements that creep in and disturb especially the urban areas.
Whilst we appreciate that guns went silent, Ugandans have had to painfully and sometimes silently bear with enduring and heightened wars ranging from economic, social, legal, etc. For purposes of this letter, allow me concentrate on the land wars or preferably land raid as I am well conversant with raids (being a lady hailing from Karamoja) given the cattle raids we have had in Karamoja.
Land disputes/conflicts in Uganda have scaled up lately and could probably be the underlying reason for disgruntlement of many. According to Kimbowa (2019) for every land dispute, there is likely to exist a powerful rich individual trying to evict others.
Considering that the rural areas comprise about 76% of the population, they contribute 89% of the national poverty (UBOS, 2018) and could easily fall prey to mischievous schemes of the rich few who want to own all land. This implies that the low-income earners, the poor and the powerless who make up the majority of Ugandans lie in vulnerability to lose their only economic resource – land.
Your Excellency, I greatly commend you for some deliberate actions you have sometimes taken to respond to emerging issues in our country. In 2017, you appointed a Commission of Inquiry to look into the land matters. You took a great decision to select seasoned and eminent professionals to serve in a very sensitive assignment. Lady Justice Catherine Bamugemereire and her team have manifested the highest level of patriotism and helped expose the brunt of land grabbing and dispossession of the citizenry by the corrupt. This Commission has enabled many poor Ugandans access justice, which would have otherwise been a dream rather than a reality in the existing judicial structures.
How fate sent me to the Commission of inquiry on land matters
In 2010, Amodoi Peter Ayopo, a highly placed and privileged Karamojong from Bokora County, Lotome sub-county in Napak district, used his esteemed position at the Office of the Prime Minister, to survey land (168.9 hectares) in Kautakou, Ngoleriet Sub county, Bokora County, Napak district. His action to survey this particular land belonging to the people of Kautakou was clandestine and driven by selfish interests. The land in question was well known to him, having been born and raised in the neighborhood but he deliberately ignored the bonafide owners of the land.
In May 2011, Amodoi sold the said land to Uganda Investment Authority (UIA), having been privy to government plans to establish industrial parks, and in June 2014, he transferred title to UIA.
When I later learnt of this fraudulent action and deprivation of the poor and helpless people of Kautakou, I did raise an alarm and also took initiative to write letters to several offices, including the one for Minister for Karamoja Affairs. In addition, we held a peaceful protest to submit our petition to relevant authorities. We visited UIA and camped at their offices even though we were not welcomed. The above attempts never yielded any positive results and no responsible officer seemed to get concerned about our plight.
In 2017, having heard of the Commission of inquiry into land matters, I opened a file in the Commission. A few months later, I heard their term was coming to an end and yet our case had not been handled. It was frustrating but we prayed for a miracle to have this Commissions’ term renewed since it seemed the last hope left for us. Your Excellency, we thank you for granting the commission more time; you obeyed the voice of God and heard the cry of the many disadvantaged people.
In 2014, Kautakou community decided to seek legal redress from High court and they engaged a law firm. However, due to financial challenges, the community failed to sustain the fight for justice. In an attempt to seek pro-bono services from one organization that offers such services, its Executive Director said he would not take on any case involving government.
Having suffered the stress of seeking justice, and tried all options and failed, it was easy for me to agree that either Uganda had gone to the dogs or the dogs had invaded our country. However, my interaction with the Commission of inquiry restored hope and made me notice that there were remnants of leaders who are above reproach. It was my first time to witness a team of investigators working tirelessly and professionally without asking for any bribe.
To be given a chance to be heard is in itself a privilege. The Commission of inquiry gave the Community of Kautakou the privilege to be heard, a benefit we could not get in any other institution we have visited. In addition, the Commission provided an environment that made it easy for our illiterate elders to present their evidence and concerns that would not have been easy in ordinary/normal courts. The opportunity for mediation was a plus!
While we the wider poor ‘Bazukulu’ still have hope that our day of redemption is at hand and are celebrating the prevailing stability plus the inner peace brought by the renewed assurance that the state cares, the news of winding up of the Commission of inquiry is worrying and it has substantial risks as listed in this note.
High legal fees: Vulnerability of the poor is magnified as they continue to struggle with the usual legal fees in courts of judicature in Uganda. Land cases take longer periods to be cleared and in those periods money is required to facilitate the process. Your Excellency, from your recent wealth creation tour I believe you confirmed that indeed many Ugandans are poor and cannot afford exorbitant legal services.
Fate of pending cases: In my last visit to the Commission of land inquiry, I saw men and women shed tears on hearing that the assignment of the commission was ending while their cases remained pending. In my culture men are not supposed to cry and anything that forces him to shed a tear can only be equated to death itself.
With the closure of the commission of land inquiry, I can bet that land grabbers are NOW having a field day celebrating that the only defender of their next victims (majority being women and children) is no more.
Land disputes could increase citizens’ rage if no follow up action is taken: My experience in the Kautakou land dispute pushed me to do things I would not have done ordinarily, including imagining that state structures that are expected to defend rights of Ugandans were in support of land grabbers. There is nothing as painful as witnessing the silence of leadership on issues that hurt citizens the most.
Lastly, land disputes/conflicts increase vulnerability and make citizens poorer. For the last 10 years since our land was raided, we have not utilized it, our people have had to rent land from the neighbors and yet not all can afford. The implication of this is that it creates food insecurity, malnutrition and desperation.
In conclusion, I have learnt that if all agencies did their job diligently, there would be no reason for Ugandans to hate government. In addition, if government appointed the right people into public offices, then government would get value for money and the citizens would get the right services, and the citizens would be happier. I now confirm that even with soaring corruption, good leaders still exist in Uganda but are significantly fewer and powerless.
Without having to maintain Commission of inquiry as an institution, I recommend a restructure of the management of land disputes in the country to adopt the style used by the land inquiry commission.
If this is challenging, then utilize the human resource that was deployed in the Commission so that Ugandans continue to benefit from their expertise.
The Baganda say “the best way to reward a man who has done a good job is to make him do it again”.
Secondly, restructure the Ministry of Lands and the four units handling land at State House. In the restructuring, you could evaluate the effectiveness of existing functions and remove all irrelevant functions including those that might be aiding land related conflicts.
Contrary to inquiries whose reports have previously ended on the shelf, I beseech your office to implement follow-up actions as recommended by the commission of land inquiry, as this is key in restoring justice and fairness in land administration, land management and land registration.
Institutionalize the Land Commission and give the powers similar to the one held by the land inquiry commission and convert it to a special land court/tribunal with powers to handle land cases expeditiously and without requiring helpless citizens to hire law firms.
Thank you for taking your precious time to read my note.
The writer is a Certified Public Accountant and works with Sightsavers as Programme Finance Officer for Uganda Country Programme.