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Page last updated at 09:23 GMT, Thursday, 9 October 2008 10:23 UK

Land battle looms in Uganda

Livingstone Chinyenya (r)

By Juliet Njeri
BBC News, Nairobi

With the start of the rainy season in Uganda, Livingstone Kinyenya should be tending to the farm which he says his family has lived on for four generations.

Instead, the 64-year-old now lives as a squatter along the edge of the land where he was born and raised.

He is one of more than 17,000 people who were evicted from their farms in Kayunga District, about 200km (124 miles) north-west of the capital, Kampala.

The peasant farmers were forced to leave their homes after their former landlord sold the land to a Kampala businessman, and they did not receive any compensation.

The Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) says at least 950 of those evicted now live in a camp of tightly knit grass huts on the shores of Lake Kyoga.

'King's anger'

Uganda has witnessed a rise in the number of evictions in recent years.

In some cases, like Mr Kinyenya's, those evicted lack documentation to prove that they are bonafide occupants of the "kibanja" - a piece of land occupied by a tenant.

Buganda king, Kabaka Ronald Mutebi
King Ronald Mutebi is one of Uganda's biggest land-owners

FHRI says that these families, along with 70% of the Ugandan population, depend on the land as their primary means of livelihood.

In 2007, the government introduced a land amendment bill which it says is intended to help poor peasants like Mr Kinyenya and his neighbours.

The bill, the government says, will stop the evictions and regulate the relationship between land owners and tenants.

But the amendment has drawn criticism from land-owners, local leaders and rights groups around the country, and become a political issue that threatens to divide the country.

Some of the harshest criticism has come from the Buganda kingdom, which says that some of the proposals in the amendment are designed to grab its land.

The Buganda monarch, Kabaka Ronald Mutebi, is said to be one of the country's biggest land-owners.

In most cases people got land which was already occupied by other people. By the stroke of a pen, the person who was on the land became a tenant
Kasirivu-Atwooki Kyamanywa
Minister of State for Land

The kingdom has been rallying the Baganda against what it says are attempts to put its lands in the hands of "outsiders" and hurt the kingdom's political influence.

The proposed bill has also revealed cracks in the government, with some ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) leaders voicing their opposition to it.

Vice-President Gilbert Bukenya - a Muganda - has criticised the amendment.

The vice-president was quoted by local media as saying that the bill was "hurriedly drafted without following proper procedures".

But opposition has also come from beyond the Baganda.

Colonial fault

Leaders from northern Uganda, where land is owned communally, have opposed a proposal to allow courts to arbitrate in disputes on communal land.

There has been speculation that opposition to the proposed law could hurt President Yoweri Museveni's popularity around the country.

map

Livingstone Sewanyana, the executive director of FHRI, questions the government's motive.

"On the face of it, the government can be perceived to be well intentioned. The reality is different," he says.

He blames the government for illegal evictions, citing Kayunga and Kaweri.

"It is the state organs, the state agencies, the government which is actually displacing the people through arbitrary displacements, through investor programmes and through the army," he says.

Mr Sewanyana also questions the motives behind the government's proposals on the north.

"Northern Uganda has been under a state of conflict. This has been interpreted as a fertile ground for the state to grab people's land, people who have been in the [IDP] camps," he says.

In any case, he says, landlords have always coexisted peacefully with their tenants, and the government's proposal will just create acrimony.

Fields in Kayunga district
The land is fertile but not all is being used

But the government has denied these claims, saying it has a responsibility to ensure that no Ugandan faces an illegal eviction.

Minister of State for Land Kasirivu-Atwooki Kyamanywa says the land problem in Uganda can be traced back to the 1900 Buganda agreement in which land in Uganda was divided between the colonial power, Britain, the Buganda kingdom and local chiefs.

"In most cases people got land which was already occupied by other people. By the stroke of a pen, the person who was on the land became a tenant."

Last straw

The existing Land Act, passed in 1998, provided security of occupancy for lawful and bonafide tenants, but the minister says it is being abused.

Dr Kyamanywa says the provisions of the 1998 law are weak and that the new amendment provides penalties against irregular land transactions.

The government needs to come and rescue, protect us because we are all Ugandans but now we are suffering like we are not in our own country
Moses Segwanda

He dismisses critics of the new law.

"Many of them, if not all, are the grand-children of the beneficiaries of the land allocation. They have something to protect, they are just trying to protect their interests," Mr Kyamanywa says.

He says the land issue is a human rights issue and not a political one.

"Here in Africa, land is part of our life. If you take away my land, you've gone against my human rights. People just want to politicise it but the government is committed to solving the problem," the minister says.

He denies that the government has also been guilty of illegal land evictions, saying it only evicts people from forest reserves and other government land.

President Museveni has left no-one in doubt about his commitment to implement the law - last month he promised to "make any sacrifice" to have the bill passed.

While the politicians and civil society trade words about the proposed amendment, Mr Kinyenya is still living under the shadow of eviction and knows little about the amendment.

His son, Moses Segwanda, has heard about it, and although he hasn't read it and doesn't know what measures it is proposing, he still sees it as his family's last hope.

"If the law is enacted, I have hope that kibanja holders who are not landlords can be protected," he says.

"The government needs to come and rescue, protect us because we are all Ugandans but now we are suffering like we are not in our own country."

The family is now facing a second eviction and Mr Kinyenya says that would be the last straw.

"Maybe I will just die. I have nowhere to go, and nothing to do. It will be the end of me."


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