Using globalization and modernization arguments to take Uganda’s land


In my message of September 12, 2008 to the Prime Minister of Uganda I referred to a preference for prevention, because it is less costly in all areas of human activity, than cure.

Land has become the nation’s single most controversial issue in Uganda’s political economy and history. This is the second time the country has been confronted with the land dilemma. The British administration was faced with this challenge at the start of its administration. However, after careful and informed discussions between London and Entebbe, it was definitively decided that Uganda’s land belongs to Ugandans. The British recognized that Ugandans and their future generations have an inalienable right to ownership and utilization of that land. Besides it is the only asset that the peasants, 90 percent of Uganda’s total population, possess. Ugandans should therefore be very careful, especially the executive and legislative branches of government, in applying theoretical advice floating around about how best to utilize Uganda’s land to integrate the country into the global economy and modernize its society. Four proposals to dispossess Ugandans of their land have been made that need sober examination.

  1. There are those including Cabinet Ministers who believe that small scale farmers are inefficient producers and should be replaced by large scale farmers including foreign developers who have the means to increase productivity, feed the nation and generate surplus for sale in international markets. This way, it is argued, agriculture would be transformed quickly from subsistence to a modern and commercial-based enterprise. First of all, empirical evidence rejects this assumption. Second, after experimentation with large scale farming under the Green Revolution, the pendulum has swung in support of small scale farmers. This recognition was confirmed during the United Nations organized meeting on Africa’s agriculture which was held in New York on September 22, 2008 to discuss ways and means of improving agriculture and food security. A representative of African Peasants’ Association was invited as one of the speakers and made a very convincing case for supporting small holder farmers. What peasants need, it was emphasized, is support in accessing inputs, extension services, information and markets as well as earning a market price.
  2. Specifically, Uganda’s peasants are enterprising and hard working. In fact, the British administration decided against white settlers because Uganda peasants produced the exports of cotton and later of coffee in the quantity and quality demanded by metropolitan textile industries and coffee drinkers besides producing adequate food for domestic consumption. Therefore there was no need to invite white settler farmers. Similarly there is no need to invite foreign farmers now – African and non-African. With the international mood changing in favor of small scale farmers, Uganda government needs to create an enabling environment for them to increase productivity and produce for domestic and external markets thereby commercializing agriculture and making subsistence farming history. The executive and legislative branches of government should work together to make sure that the right environment is created for small holder farmers instead of focusing on inviting foreign developers.
  3. The second school of thought is encouraging massive rural-urban migration to effect modernization and development. This school argues that without urbanization, Uganda will not industrialize and transform the country into a middle income economy and society, pointing to the changes that took place in Europe in the 18th century. In Europe, however, it was the development of economic activities in mining, manufacturing and associated services that created the momentum for urbanization which was made easier by the enclosure system. By and large, industrialization preceded urbanization.
  4. Uganda is unable to cater for the ten percent of its population now residing in towns. We all know the appalling conditions in Uganda’s urban slums characterized by lack of jobs and contributing to crime and alcoholism, inadequate housing, water supply and sanitation facilities as well as a shortage of education and health care services. We also know that ultimately more people will live in urban areas than in the countryside. But this transition needs to be planned. We should remind ourselves of the adverse social consequences that arose from imperfections of free enterprise (laissez faire) and free market especially during the early stages of the industrial revolution in Europe. To avoid a repeat of that situation, the government needs to step in and plan the growth of towns. To discourage massive human concentration in a few towns, small and medium sized centers should be planned throughout the country. The government should do this by providing infrastructure such as roads, energy, schools and health care services to attract people to the designated centers. This arrangement will have the added advantage of spreading the benefits of economic growth equitably than has been the case thus far and narrow regional economic and social gaps.
  5. The third proposal to dispossess people of their land is the unjustifiable expansion of municipal boundaries. There are cases of municipal authorities arguing that some areas need to be incorporated into the municipality to be able to generate development resources by selling land to developers who will create jobs and pay taxes with which to provide services. Ignorant people are being enticed privately to apply for incorporation of their land into municipal governance. Another proposed development with similar effect that needs investigation is the desire to meet political demands of powerful individuals by expanding municipal boundaries to create new constituencies. Once land has been incorporated into a municipality whether it is developed or not no longer belongs to the individual or household that owned it before. People affected are automatically dispossessed. The argument that those affected will be compensated is not convincing. Land as opposed to cash provides security and no sensible peasant would voluntarily rush into such a transaction. The criteria for municipal expansion need to be defined and distributed for transparent, participatory and detailed discussion by all affected citizens. The Greater Lakes Region offers examples of what would happen when land is taken under dubious circumstances.  
  6. The fourth proposal has arisen from the international food crisis created in part by increasing demand for stock feed and bio-fuels. This has caused many wealthy countries and individuals to approach governments of impoverished countries to sell them land to grow food for their own populations. The story of Egypt trying to buy and own land in Uganda is a case in point. Warnings against such transactions have been sounded including by the Director-General of Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).  
  7. To sum up, all Ugandans especially those who have been elected to represent and protect the interests of present and future generations of Ugandans and Uganda’s development partners, governments and NGOs alike, are called upon not to treat Uganda’s land as a commodity for sale under market forces of demand and supply. To avoid this, legal measures must be introduced and enforced at national and local levels to prevent ownership or occupation of land by non-Ugandans. Should exceptional cases arise for foreign occupation, they should be discussed in a transparent and participatory manner. Under no circumstances should Uganda’s land be owned on a free hold basis by a non-Ugandan.
  8. Here is a warning to all Ugandans and their friends that must be taken seriously. The easiest way to cripple or destroy a community or a nation is to take away its land, deny it functional education and adequate food and nutrition security as well as good health care. With over 33 percent of Uganda’s population suffering from mental illness, 40 percent of children under the age of five undernourished, 12 percent of infants born underweight because their mothers are undernourished and up to 80 percent of children dropping out of primary education largely because they are hungry, Uganda poses a formidable challenge to the international community. Assessment of Uganda’s progress should not only be based on rapid economic growth, low inflation and foreign direct investments but more importantly on how these three elements are impacting on social and environmental conditions.