The poor get poorer, while the rich get richer; The impacts of unfair land systems in Uganda

When Uganda’s richest 10 percent earned 2.3 times more than its poorest 40 percent in 2009, any concerned person would be curious to understand what drives such a discrepancy and how best to bridge the gap between the poor and the rich. The contributors to such a big gap are mainly land, education, health, assets holding and many others. Among these factors, land stands out as the lead driver of inequality in Uganda. Oxfam in Uganda’s report on Land inequality dubbed; ‘Locked out: How unjust land systems are driving inequality in Uganda’ confirms the strong link between land and inequality in Uganda. Inequality in land use, management, and governance affects the majority and vulnerable groups of people such as women, pastoralists, youth, and smallholder farmers. While these groups feed the country, we continue to ignore their plight and probably assume that the gap between the haves and the have-nots will naturally end.

The demand for land for mega infrastructural developments and large-scale land based investments in agriculture in Uganda continues to exacerbate existing inequalities in the country. Long-term investments reinforce strong ownership structures, as well as long-term ownership and formalization of interests through registration. This reinforces inequality between those with registered land interests and those with unregistered land interests.

The quest to reform land laws and policies in Uganda has resulted into deepened inequality contrary to the object of any reform process. Reform processes remain deeply rooted in colonial history and the need for the powerful to preserve control over land and fail to recognize the need for deliberate efforts to address land distribution. Majority of communities manage their land customarily, thus the legal provision for recognition and registration of customary lands was a sigh of relief, and a sure bet to secure their customary rights to land.

Sadly, while there is a legal provision for registering customary land, most of these lands remain unregistered and at the disposal of community elites, customary leaders and government, who have found themselves in the way of communities as they slash pieces of their lands and trade it for a few coins. This unfair distribution of land through direct transfers of public or customary land to individuals and companies increases inequality as wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few who further use such lands to generate more wealth. .

Oxfam’s report further shows that various public policies and strategies in Uganda have not translated into a better life for the poorest. The deterioration in key indicators of inequality, poverty and vulnerability in recent times in the country has a a strong relationship with ownership and access to land.

Government’s long-term strategy for Uganda, Vision 2040, includes a commitment to “facilitate faster acquisition of land for planned urbanization, infrastructure development, and agricultural commercialization.” Similar aims are set out in the five-year National Development Plan. This has seen blind pursuit of economic growth through ‘big projects’, with the assumption that their benefits will trickle down to the poor and reduce inequality. To make matters worse, retrogressive cultures and customs perpetuate gender-based inequality and undermine the ability of women and youth to use land as a source of income and wealth creation. Like an onion, both women and youth find themselves in layered discrimination that only pushes them in spaces of zero dignity and inequality.

What is the way out for Uganda in addressing persistent inequality?

the level of clarity that land drives inequality, and has the power and ability to shift that around, our focus should be on equitable and conscious land management and governance to address existing inequality. Government must focus on reforming land laws and policies that steal the gains made in the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, which remains the supreme law of the land. Additionally, the quest to develop the country should prioritize communities (women and men who call Uganda home) over investors.

Relevant institutions such as the Judiciary must be adequately trained on gender, social norms and inequality to ensure delivery of justice from a free and fair lens. In matters of compulsory acquisition of land, fair, prompt and just compensation should be released to the affected communities devoid of corruption. Additionally, compensation for all should holistically take into account the social capital and cultural values and the impact of relocation on the lives and livelihoods of the affected communities. Addressing the unfair land systems that keep the poor poorer and the rich ever richer will place Uganda back on track in tackling the glaring inequalities.