A Ugandan land grab shortchanges the poor

There's an old Acholi proverb: "Land is like a fish with its mouth wide open, waiting to swallow you." If there's one thing that unites the Acholi people, it's the obsession with land.

For the past four or five years I've been observing the growing land conflict in Acholi. The land question has become a leading subject of debate and discussion.

There seem to be many different people who want to have land in Acholi, and they have many ways of getting it. Some have used the government structures; others have simply grabbed it by force. Officers of the Uganda People Defense forces (UPDF) have been accused of amassing huge chunks of land in the region in the wake of the devastating conflict with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

Multinational companies are coming in for criticism, too. Firms from the UK and Germany have also joined the land rush in Uganda, by means both peaceful and dubious. Many people in the country worry that the local people's loss of the right to own and access land completely subverts efforts towards poverty reduction and will instead deepen income disparities, making the poor even poorer.

The majority of Ugandans live in rural areas or villages, so they rely on land as their major source of livelihood. This places land at the centre of any social, political, and economic relationships between individuals and the state. Most of them are peasant or subsistence farmers growing food crops. Cattle raising and grazing are a big part of their way of life.

Some of those who have traveled around the northern part of Uganda see that the land is vast and empty, capable of supporting a much greater population. Others view these huge chunks of land slightly differently, as idle and non-productive. This is certainly true to some extent, since most of the people occupying the land here do not have the capacity to cultivate it or make investments on a larger scale. For many, the LRA War and the displacement that followed it disenfranchised them, also economically.

Having just spent days traveling across northern Uganda, I can confirm that the land is mostly unoccupied, especially as you move away from urban centers.

"When one flies over Acholi land, the entire countryside is just a dark jungle. It looks like land just created by God yesterday, and that God is still thinking about creating human beings to occupy it." That quote comes from the Honorable Okello-Okello John Livingstone, former Chairman, Acholi Parliamentary Groups (APG). (The photo above shows another MP, Gilbert Olanya, addressing the locals in a village in the Amuru district, where people are being evicted to make way for the Uganda Wild Life Authority.)

Many who do not come from the Acholi region have wrongfully presumed that these enormous lands do not have owners. Some have seized the opportunity to settle illegally, turning this alleged "idle land" into commercial ventures, making profits at the expense of the rightful land owners who continue to languish in poverty.

"Land grabbers who use force or tricks to acquire the land will be fought in all possible ways," says Okello-Okello John Livingstone. "They are not different from bank robbers. Land is the only asset that the people of Acholi are left with."

The 1995 Constitution vests ownership of the land in the citizens of Uganda. Article 237 provides for the tenure systems under which land should be owned: customary, freehold, leasehold, and mailo. This was a revolutionary constitution that returned rights to ownership of land to the people. Needless to say, its principles have often been ignored or abused.

Land as a factor of production has become vital in understanding the political economy of Uganda. What I have realized is that the uncontrolled practice of capitalism and land-grabbing in Uganda has become a serious problem.

It has become evident that capitalism is the major root of the problems the ordinary Ugandan citizen experiences, from war, to poverty and crime -- not to mention flagrant land-grabbing, and not only in the northern part of the country, but elsewhere as well.

What is happening in Uganda is totally unacceptable, and there is a desperate need for a solution, but nobody is doing this. The poor are being stripped of their last assets and made poorer. When I was growing up in the early 1990s, the land question almost never came up in the Acholi or Uganda at large. This may have been because the population was relatively small, and people knew their traditional land boundaries.

Following the end of the LRA war and the subsequent displacement, it was easy to foresee that a number of people would become vulnerable and lose their lands precisely in northern Uganda, where many held land without legal documentation. This has been dramatized by the recent land rush and conflict in this region and the controversial Madhvani court ruling. Following the ruling, Judge Wilson Musalu Musene ruled that the local plaintiffs failed to prove that the land they owned was theirs by customary ownership. This was disputed by the community, who saw that they were being robbed of their land.  

As the people in northern Uganda try to return to their land and start their lives anew, land is the only springboard for recovery that they have left. For many, losing their land means losing everything.

Denis Barnabas

Democracy Lab

From slavery allegations in Brazil to an attempted assassination in Georgia

Tensions soared in Senegal ahead of the Feb. 26 elections as security forces clashed with protestors. Opposition leader Youssou N'Dour, the singer, was injured during a political rally. At least six protestors have reportedly died over the past month. Nigerian ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo met with the government and opposition leaders in an effort to mediate the political standoff.

President Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali said that presidential elections will be held on time in April despite a heavily-armed Tuareg uprising taking place in the north of the country.

The International Criminal Court announced it will investigate possible war crimes committed in Cote d'Ivoire as far back as 2002, after Laurent Gbagbo became president. The court was previously only looking at crimes committed in the violence that followed the 2010 election when Gbagbo, currently in jail in The Hague, refused to step down.


In Burma, the largest strike since 1938 is testing the limits of the new law allowing labor unions. China's leaders urged the Burmese government to reinforce its control over the two countries' turbulent border.

Experts warned of potential security risks in the lead-up to Timor-Leste's general elections in March.

The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva is expected to call on the Sri Lankan government next week to report its progress on investigating possible war crimes committed at the end of the civil war in 2009. The UN also wants to see an accounting of reconciliation measures taken by the authorities.

Amid the continuing political crisis in the Maldives, the Commonwealth urged government and opposition to start an immediate dialogue leading toward early elections at the end of 2012.

Latin America

The Supreme Court in Brazil announced that it is bringing charges against Senator Joao Ribeiro, who is accused of holding 30 workers in conditions approaching slavery on his ranch in the Amazon jungle.

In Bolivia, members of disabled groups protesting cuts in state subsidies clashed with police.

A Colombian journalist was forced to leave the country after receiving death threats. And a judge in Ecuador fled her homeland amid the continuing controversy surrounding a libel suit against a leading newspaper critical of President Rafael Correa. (The photo above shows employees of the El Universo paper demonstrating against the government.)


The president of the breakaway Georgian enclave of Abkhazia survived an assassination attempt as Russia was seen as struggling to maintain stability there and in South Ossetia. Meanwhile, Georgia has started a campaign to lure in South African farmers who feel threatened in their country in an effort to revive Georgia's agriculture.

In Moscow, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin exuded patriotism and nationalism at a well-organized electoral rally that tens of thousands of people in advance of the March 4 presidential election.

Middle East and North Africa

Hearings in the trial of Egypt's former president Hosni Mubarak and his interior minister ended Wednesday. The final verdict is to be presented on television on June 2. While the date of the presidential election date has yet to be set, the supreme court committee overseeing the vote announced that it will open the nomination process for candidates on March 10. Meanwhile, Egypt's finance minister said that the government has finally accepted a $3.2 billion loan form the IMF - a move criticized by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. One commentator argued Egypt should look to Ukraine's institutional reform. Also, read here for insight into Egypt's judiciary.

The people of Misrata, Libya's third-largest city, voted to elect their city council in what was the first large-scale election to be held in Libya. Meanwhile, there were reports of more than 100 killed in tribal violence in Libya's southern town of Kufra, bordering Chad and Sudan.

Despite violence and scattered calls for a boycott, Yemenis appear to have ended Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33 years of rule by participating in a referendum meant to transfer power to Vice President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi. Hadi now faces the difficult job of leading his country's transition over the next two years through to parliamentary and presidential elections.

The Syrian regime continued its bloody crackdown, including the killing and injuring of Syrian and foreign journalists. A UN report accused Syrian security forces of gross and systematic human rights violations. The International Committee of the Red Cross tried to negotiate a two-hour ceasefire to bring urgent humanitarian aid to civilians. Representatives from some 70 nations attended the "Friends of Syria" conference in Tunis to discuss action against the Damascus government and possible assistance to the country's embattled population. Russia declined the invitation.

This week's recommended reads:

A freelance journalist living in Saudi Arabia offers a skeptical look at that country's attempts to deflect demands for social change.

Pundits and policymakers continue to debate the proper response to the crisis in Syria: see here, here, and here.

A New York Times correspondent in Khartoum explains how the 1964 October Revolution in Sudan presaged the current upheaval in the Middle East. A writer at The New Yorker profiles those who would resist Vladimir Putin's bid for re-election as Russia's president.

Finally, a commentator in Argentina, recalling his own country's financial trials a decade ago, urges Greeks to consider a novel solution: "Default Now!"

-- Chloé de Préneuf