The Ugandan government’s latest push to move the Land Amendment Bill (introduced in December 2007) forward in the legislature depicts the bill as a pro-tenant measure to address the problem of forced eviction. The real motivation for the bill and its anticipated affects are the subject of heated controversy, seemingly opposed or at least questioned by landowners and tenants alike.
Forced eviction is both an urban and a rural problem in Uganda, although to a lesser degree than in many African countries. Indeed, the 2006 Global Survey of Forced Evictions published by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) praised President Yoweri Museveni for taking a “strong public stand against illegal evictions,” although it noted that both government agencies and private owners continue the practice.
In the last year, Ghetto Radio reported on the ongoing eviction and demolition of about 120 homes in the Kisenyi area of Kampala, during which agents of the land owner, a former Kampala mayor, distributed what appeared to be forged eviction notices bearing the name of the City Council. In the Kayunga District, about 200 kilometers northwest of Kampala, more than 17,000 people were evicted from their farms when the landlord sold his land to a Kampala businessman. According to the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, these farmers received no compensation and many had nowhere to go but a displacement camp.
Both government and private evictions often fly in the face of the law. For example, in February 2008, ten days after the murder of a Belgian tourist at the Mt. Elgon National Park allegedly carried out by cattle thieves, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) evicted more than 4,000 people from communities indigenous to the Mt. Elgon area. The UWA acted with the assistance of the Ugandan military, known as the Uganda People’s Defense Forces, and justified its action as “humanely” addressing “encroachment in the park.” The eviction, however, directly contradicted an October 2005 decision by the Uganda High Court in Mbale, which ruled that the Benet were the “historical and indigenous inhabitants” of the park and should be allowed to “carry out agricultural activities.”
In the face of such impunity, it is unclear how legislative reform alone could be expected to significantly protect tenants against forced eviction. And, despite the tenor of the recent public campaign, a closer look at the Land Amendment Bill’s provisions increases skepticism. In a March 11, 2009 editorial, the current Minister of Lands, Housing and Urban Development began with an apparently sympathetic overview of the underlying causes for forced eviction: landowners failing to give tenants notice before selling land; landlords’ and tenants’ inadequate knowledge of the law by both landlords and tenants; and landlords’ ability to gain lever support of local law enforcement and land administrators. But, the Minister’s subsequent overview of the proposed amendments is not as convincing. For example, the bill proposes to criminalize both illegal evictions and illegal tenants or trespassers – merely upping the ante on both sides.
The bill is a continuation of Museveni’s overall land reform begun in 1998, which attempts to modernize the confusion of overlapping systems of private, public, and customary ownership left after the colonial period and former President Idi Amin’s rule. But, his Museveni’s reforms are met with general suspicion from both the Ugandan elite, who accuse him of trying to set up a system in which land may be sold to foreign business interests, and rights groups, who believe he is undermining communal land ownership more appropriate for the large population surviving on subsistence agriculture.