Uganda: Breaking the links between the land and the people

Where I come from, land means more than real estate. It isn’t just a slice of earth, which can be farmed, inherited, built on, sold or bought. In most of Uganda, land equates to history, heritage, identity, belonging, rights and relationships. It creates social security and helps define social, cultural, religious values and beliefs systems. However, when these collide with the idea of commoditising land, the people who live on and work the land suffer.

Betty Okot's picture
Insight by 
Betty Okot
11 March 2013
Sheep wander past a former IDP camp in northern Uganda.

A former camp for internally displaced people in northern Uganda. The Acholi were forcibly removed from their customary lands into such camps at the height of the conflict in northern Uganda. Photo: Copyright, Betty Okot

As Acholiland emerged from almost a quarter of a century of violent insurgency, created by incursions by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony and counter-attacks by the Ugandan army, the region has become wracked by land conflicts. Meanwhile, the introduction of new but chaotically-administered land tenure policies that encourage land  sales and massive commercialised farming, are leading to land grabs and disputes, which are creating a profound and ubiquitous social crisis. The film, ‘Shoot Us All Down’, conveys the nature of the social crisis in Acholiland and how the changing tenure relations is contributing to it.

Through research, I have reached the conclusion that for the Acholi region, this transition period is not just about their return to the land. It also embodies the Acholi struggle for the legitimacy of their own ways and the attempt to define or redefine, express and uphold their communal land rights. This is not mere sentimentality – a return to the past. It also correlates with their desire to rebuild and recover from the ravages of war and grow wealth again but all within a culture and social system that remains anchored in the land.

In my study of the significance of land in Acholi sociology, I am investigating how the long insurgency in Northern Uganda has transformed land relations among the Acholi and how customary notions of tenure have changed. Professor J. P. Ocitti’s (1973) work, ‘African Indigenous Education as Practiced by the Acholi of Uganda’ explains that traditionally the Acholi had four main types of tenure relating to the uses of land: farmland, settlement, grazing and hunting. Each was governed by traditional laws within customary tenure. To me, these are the four key tenets that framed Acholi social practices and their philosophy of identity. They also defined their sense of spirituality, belonging, family and community relationships and their wider social relations; livelihood security, generational continuity through entrustment in land.

The Acholi is a decentralised society of about 54 major clans and several sub-clans; each clan is headed by a Rwot (Chief). Hierarchies of ownership and kinship links originate from the head of a family right through to the Rwot (Chief) at the top of the hierarchy. His position as chief makes him the custodian of the people’s collective land rights. Collectively, the 54 clans make up the Acholi Chiefdom, now headed by Rwot Achana II, (Paramount Chief). Each major clan and its sub-clans, occupy a particular geographical place in Acholiland from which they derive identity, kinship, belonging and communal land rights. Nevertheless, this social organisation is only important and real because it is inextricably linked to the land. Thus you hear of the Rwot of Patiko or son of Patiko, Rwot of Atiak or people of Atiak. Patiko and Atiak are places in Acholiland but they are also the clan names and clansmen’s identity.

However, this structure was destabilised by the forced removal of the Acholi from their customary lands at the peak of the Kony rebellion and their encampment as internally displaced peoples (IDPs). From about 1996 to 2007 nearly 90% of the Acholi population were forced off their land and dumped in displacement camps where they were fed and watered but left to rot in idleness. This removal from the land into displacement camps followed brutal attacks by the LRA and possibly by the Uganda army.

Removed from the land, the new generations could not learn the traditional cultural knowledge, practices and skills, especially awareness of the land, how it was divided, used and cared for. Not only was that relationship between people and land distorted but the knowledge about it could no longer be accurately handed down. With this, the scene was already set for a chaotic return to the land at the end of the war.

Now they have returned, but a pall of grim memories of death and displacement hangs over the whole society. Almost an entire generation of elders perished from the camps — and their traditional knowledge and practices with them. Consequently, the people find themselves lost between vague memories of the way things were done — and new laws and government structures that they have no access to and do not understand.

Easy opportunities for land grabbers

All this confusion created easy opportunities for land grabbers and illegal sales that threaten the land rights of tens of thousands of Acholi people. Unsurprisingly this phenomenon also created a new conflict that ostensibly set the Acholi against the state and proponents of a free market in land. In that light, I argue that the impact of a sudden and chaotic replacing of customary tenure by free market ideas in Acholi will be landlessness and a new class of impoverished or even unskilled landless labourers. Such a change would also destroy the system of social security which was provided by collective land rights or ownership.

Nevertheless, this is not just about land laws and land rights. What is happening now in Uganda is similar to what happened in England between the 14th and 18th centuries when enclosures, a massive land grab by the ruling class, drove small farmers off land they had tilled for centuries and turned them into low-waged labourers on what was once their land. Not only did they lose their heritage and culture constructed around land, but their landlessness meant they were disposed to supply the cheap labour needed at the nascent stages of the industrial revolution. Do modern Ugandans want or need to go through the same process?

Similar issues have arisen in Latin America, Asia and the rest of Africa that mirror the Acholi situation. They are likely to become more frequent wherever the commoditisation of land has set the state, the people and business against each other.

Betty Okot is currently undertaking a PhD in sociology at Keele University. She has an MSc in Education for Sustainability  from London South Bank University (LSBU) and is a sessional lecturer on the Education for Sustainability postgraduate Programme at LSBU. She was also a research assistant on the African Diaspora Policy Networking Project in London.