In the last three weeks, Ugandans have seen three seemingly unconnected important events, two of them low key but one highly publicised. But until Ugandans learn to connect the dots of connected events, they will remain and even get poorer.
First event: Justice Catherine Bamugemereire hands over her commission of inquiry report into land matters to President Yoweri Museveni.
In her remarks, she makes an interesting statement thus: “The Uganda Land Commission has evolved a deep-seated culture as a private dealership in government land, with no effective control over it.”
Second event: An Anglican church in the western suburb of Kampala is demolished in the dead of the night under curfew.
Third event: The country’s Chief Mufti is sued over the sale of land belonging to the Muslim Community measuring two square miles for eight million dollars, without the involvement of some key relevant organs that oversee the Muslim properties.
The shocking statement of the learned judge who had spent four years examining the country’s issues, about the national land commission operating as a ‘private dealership’ understandably did not shock a public that has been conditioned to stop expecting much integrity from public officials.
What shocked the public was the destruction of the church that has sat on the land for over four decades, shocked probably mostly because it was done at a time when property evictions were expressly prohibited as long as the Covid-19 pandemic conditions obtain and was also done under curfew when all activity other than essential services is not allowed.
A public that cannot connect the private dealership called land commission to the rush by speculators and investors to grab all the land they can lay hands on is not likely to see the future crisis — if it is not already present. What was for about a century gazetted as public land is now systematically being changed into private holdings by the ‘private dealership’ which has the power to do so, to benefit private owners.
The country whose children are told is full of natural resources, the country which tourism promoters brand as “gifted by nature”, is all becoming private holding by the “quick” while the “poor” look on. No, they don’t just look on; they get evicted off the land of their parents by people wielding documents issued by the “private dealership”.
There is a strategic danger though. Uganda is endowed with a vast wealth of natural resources that would easily be used to drive the industrialisation of the country as advocated by the just-ended National Development Plan 2 (NDP2) and the just-started NDP3.
These natural resources include 260 metric tons of iron ore deposits, petroleum deposits, graphite, lithium and millions of tons of cobalt which is increasingly demanded for batteries that are the future -if not the present- of modern clean energy for communication, computing and transport. The list of minerals in Uganda’s soil is dizzyingly long.
These resources have belonged collectively to all Ugandans and even the departed colonial masters — yes, the colonial exploiters — preserved the collective ownership of resources, which they could have individualised before granting independence.
So how will the government push the industrialisation drive when it is ceding ownership of the land under which these minerals lie to the customers of the ‘private dealership’ called land commission?
Even if the government writes a hundred laws saying it owns those minerals, it would have to compensate the ‘owners’ of the land to access them. And the valuation would be done by other private dealers, following the tradition of the land commission.
The sword on which the country is poised to fall is double — sorry multiple- edged. For as more people lose occupancy on the land of their parents, the industrialisation that would have created employment for them is stunted as accessing the minerals under the soil becomes too expensive due to high compensation costs.
And because of Covid-19, the jobless thousands who were daily going abroad to work are now stuck at home. Yet they are being evicted off the land. And on and on the cycle rotates, in the same place. Over the next half a year, the politicians and the public will be preoccupied with electioneering and slogan chanting respectively. By the time we sober up, the private dealership could have dealt most of the remaining few square million hectares that would have helped us industrialise and fight poverty.