FARUK KIRUNDA: Let’s push to rescue Ugandans from land mafias

Article 237(1) of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda states that land belongs to the citizens of Uganda and Article 26(1) protects the right to own property either individually or in association with others for instance groups of people who hold land communally. This privilege of the right to own land privately is peculiar to only a few countries, with Uganda being among those whose democratic dispensation allows its citizens to enjoy extensive land rights.

However, amidst this right to freely own land, and with ever shrinking land resources on account of population increase and other pressures, land fraud and mismanagement threaten to destroy the terrestrial tranquility that we have traditionally enjoyed and which is the baseline of our harmonious existence on mother earth.

Land is inelastic, costly and highly sought after in the Ugandan context where rapid ground development is taking place every single day. Those who are lucky to have inherited ample spaces of land from their parents or those that foresaw the spike in land value when it was still obtainable and affordable are lords in every sense of the word. Someone with land is rich and able to navigate the highs and lows of the economy, either by selling off some of it or developing it in agriculture or real estate. Others mortgage their land and use proceeds to do business.

Rapid population growth, combined with either limited opportunities for non-agricultural employment opportunities or increasing demand for land for other kinds of use is a key factor that causes land values to appreciate, resulting in greater squeeze and competition for a decreasing amount of land available. This is a major catalyst of conflicts across generations.

Due to its “gold” status, unscrupulous players (bafere) have squeezed into the land market with rigorous fraudulent schemes that are catching land owners, managers, administrators, law enforcers- and even Government- by surprise. They claim to be connected but I think their connections are in the line of links with a mafia network taking advantage of the goodwill of Government and the ignorance of land owners, and the vulnerability of certain categories of Ugandans such as the elderly, the young, those living abroad but with estates on ground and with no next of kin to advise them or manage property for them.

The most alarming of the land mafia schemes is that involving forgery of land documentation, making it possible to execute illegal transactions on lands they have no legal claim on. How this works is that these criminals, who most probably have connections in the offices responsible for land management, identify “suitable” land in the system or which they have physically seen or whose history they are privy to. They then seek out original documentation and change the folio or volume, which in effect makes the title a different one but over the same land in question. Or where no title exists, they create counterfeits without a basis in how they acquired it (the land)-neither bequeathed to them nor purchased. This affects the land register at large and creates uncertainty in the market. The land mafia simply grab people’s land from right under their feet, and we must push to save our vulnerable citizens!

The disorganization and confusion in the existing registration system and procedures make prevention of fraudulent transactions all the more complicated, despite Government’s efforts and best intentions. The leadership may intervene to resolve issues like illegal evictions and compensating and resettling squatters but the compromised registry environment and damaged and outdated land records leave little room for the genuine owners and clients to protect themselves or get reliable information about their property. This affects their settlement and exploitation (development) of the land. In case of Government, development of public infrastructure projects such as roads is hampered where Government has to contend with illegal occupants purporting to have authentic documentation on its land.

This is where digitization of records will curb part of the problem. The mafia could still log in and compromise the network. Actually, it may be easier to manipulate that system more than the analogue, paper based one. What is required is having well trained lands managers with integrity to resist the fraudsters and save mother Uganda from being parceled out by the cabal which has no consideration for propriety or the interest of bonafide occupants or owners. It is due to such that incidents of multiple ownership of land that conflict and bloody evictions are happening.

Furthermore, when challenged legally or otherwise, they forge sale agreements, wills and court orders to bolster their bogus dealings. Such practices are more common in urban areas but catching on in rural areas, and it’s time that assertive measures are undertaken to prevent the land system from being captured and literally mortgaged to the detriment of communal and national development.

Stronger interventions should be made to streamline land ownership, management and transactions to prevent social breakdown, disharmony and “ground capture”.

It is also a fact that knowledge on law and rights is limited amongst communities. I bet that majority of Ugandans have little knowledge or land rights and the correct procedure to follow to acquire or safeguard their land. It’s everyone’s duty to know the law and the accompanying procedures on land ownership and management to get ahead of the “competition” and protect one’s Constitutionally conferred rights in that regard.

I have been notified of the activities of unqualified land surveyors who disregard professional standards, leading to mistakes being done during boundary openings, where you find boundaries crosscutting. What are such characters doing in this vital sector?