KAMPALA – The Commission of Inquiry into Land Matters is set to officially conclude its work on November 9 after close to three years of work.
Led by Justice Catherine Bamugemereire, the seven-member Commission was set up in 2016 to look into the effectiveness of the law and processes of land acquisition, administration, management and registration in Uganda following increasing land conflicts.
However, as the Commission winds up, there are concerns that it has done much to resolve the land wrangles that continue to cause loss of lives in the country.
Since it was formed, the Commission has registered 7,799 land complaints, referred 3,400 of these for mediation and handled 110 cases through public hearings.
“When the Commission commenced this task, we did not envisage that we would be required to address people’s disputes. We were, however, compelled to run clinics and encourage mediation which has registered outstanding outcomes,” Justice Bamugemereire said on Tuesday while interfacing with judicial officials in Entebbe.
She said the Commission also resolved many cases, including a dispute between traders in Jinja and proprietor of Movit Products Simpson Birungi, who agreed to compensate the affected people for the businesses they lost following an eviction and demolition of a commercial building they had occupied for decades.
Despite these achievements, critics say the commission has not done much despite spending huge sums of shillings in investigations.
For instance, the commissioners are paid about $200 (about Shs720,000) per sitting and $690 (about Shs2.5m) per day whenever they travel abroad. The team has already been to Ghana, United Kingdom, and South Africa. In each country, they spent about seven days, which translates into about Shs470m for the seven commissioners.
In April 2018, Opposition leader Dr Kizza Besigye poured scorn on the work of the Commission of Inquiry into land matters, saying it is a public relations exercise not meant to resolve land conflicts in the country.
Appearing on the NBS TV breakfast show, Dr Besigye said the land problems such as grabbing and forgery of land titles will never end as long as power remains in the hands of a few.
“Land grabbing is going to remain a major problem and we as a country need to push back and fight for it, it’s not going to be solved by the Bamugemereire committee because that is largely a public relations exercise,” Dr Besigye said.
“As long as control of our power remains in a few hands, then they’ll continue disregarding the right of other including the land rights. Most of the land grabbing is happening within the customary land tenure,” he added.
Dr Besigye’s remarks came a day after the Katikkiro of Buganda Kingdom, Mr Charles Peter Mayiga, blamed the rampant land conflicts in the country on weaknesses of the responsible government agencies and not the kingdom’s mailo land tenure system.
Appearing before the Commission of Inquiry into land matters in Kampala on Wednesday, the Katikkiro said the problem of congestion, poor planning, slums, poor sanitation and haphazard developments can only be blamed on the lack of effective laws and poor implementation of planning laws and policies.
In its interim report to the President, the Commission recommended the abolition of mailo land tenure system, arguing that it is responsible for lack of proper planning and zoning of developments in peri-urban and urban centres. It instead recommended for the reduction of current tenures from four to three; freehold, customary and leasehold.
While the commission has been praised for unearthing many cases of injustice, it has also accused of being biased in its activities.
In September 2018, the UPDF Force Reserve Force commander, Gen Charles Otema Awany, accused the Commission of Inquiry into Land Matters of being emotional and biased in its work. In an interview on Tuesday, Gen Otema said by ordering for his arrest, the intention of the Commission was to humiliate him. On August 3, 2018 Justice Bamugemereire ordered the arrest of Gen Otema after he failed to reappear before the Commission to explain accusations of land grabbing and violent eviction of more than 6,000 families in Purongo and Got Apwoyo sub-counties in Nwoya District.
However, Gen Otema said Justice Bamugemereire acted on emotion and rumours to summon him over the land wrangle, adding that he is not to blame. It is alleged that between March and April 2018, Gen Otema deployed armed soldiers and forcefully evicted hundreds of families from their ancestral grounds.
However, Gen Otema explained that the land he was accused of grabbing or evicting people from is public land and decisions over it entirely rest on the district authorities.
The General’s remarks come after the Acholi cultural institution accused the Commission of Inquiry into Land Matters of attempting to resurrect old tribal clashes between the Acholi and Alur-Jonam people through prosecution of Gen Otema over land grabbing.
In February 2019, deputy attorney general Mwesigwa Rukutana was sent out of the Commission of Inquiry for undermining the commission’s chairperson, lead counsel and commissioners during cross-examination.
Rukutana was being investigated among other allegations for wrongly advising and misinforming President Museveni on the ownership of Mutungo hill. His legal advice subsequently led to some letters originating from the President’s Office.
But while appearing before the Commission, Rukutana kept on interrupting and interfering with the process of cross-examination.
All along during the hearing that was interrupted with premature adjournments, Rukutana kept on answering questions arrogantly and disrespectfully – prompting Bamugemereire to prematurely adjourn the hearing. But even when the hearing resumed, Rukutana was not remorseful for his earlier behaviour despite pleas from Bamugemereire to be respectful and mindful of his words.
The Commission has also not been at par with the Judiciary.
On March 4, 2019, three Justices of the Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the lower court that ordered the Commission of Inquiry into land matters off cases that have been ruled on or are before any court.
The justices led by Justice Kenneth Kakuru dismissed with costs, an application by the Attorney General that had sought to stay execution of orders that were made by the High Court judge Andrew Bashija saying that the government will suffer loss of over UGX. 9 billion in questionable claims of payments to the respondent — Mr. Daniel Walugembe, a land dealer.
Mr. Walugembe had challenged a decision by the Commission, which in an August 2, 2018 letter to the Uganda Land Commission directed that he is not paid compensation for his land but rather the landlords.
In June 2019, four Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) soldiers were awarded Heroes medals for blocking Justice Bamugemereire from visiting a disputed piece of land occupied by the External Security Organization on February 6, 2019.
Government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo paraded the soldiers before the media, saying the President was pleased by the professional code of conduct exhibited by the officers while handling the situation.
“Because of the meticulous way these officers conducted themselves, the President decided to confer on them meritorious awards, they prevented unauthorized persons from accessing a restricted national security facility. They also refused to be disarmed by people who were not their commanders,” said Opondo.
With the Commission set to hand over its final report to the President, it remains to be seen whether he will implement their recommendations.