Are We Legalizing Land Grabbing?

Land grabs

Mangdelena Nakamya, 64, now lives on church land after she was evicted from her land in Kalangala, to make way for a palm oil investor.

As I was flipping through the Monitor Newspaper of Friday May 8th, I came across a story with the headline “Investment Saboteurs Face Five Years in Jail”. Apparently, our Government, through the Investment Bill of 2015, seeks to make it a criminal offense to “frustrate” an investor, and such crime would attract a fine of 20 million shillings (about $8,000), and/or a prison sentence of five years.

I wonder what our Government has in mind, and what exactly they deem “frustrating” an investor to be. Recently when we did a hike in the Mabira Forest, as the guide talked us through all the food, medicinal, spiritual, cultural and other value the forest has, I wondered how our Government could have wanted to give away part of  the forest to an investor for purposes of growing sugarcane. The sale was stopped due in large part to Ugandans who, catching wind of the imminent sale of part of the forest, decided to demonstrate against the planned give away. Under this law, the protestors would be jailed or fined or both – for seeking to protect our largest natural forest.

I also remember how Kampala City Traders protested against small time, mostly Chinese ‘investors’, who were competing alongside Ugandan traders in selling small commodities such as phones and handbags. The main bone of contention was whether such small time foreign traders also qualified to be called investors, thus enabling them get tax breaks from Government, while Ugandan traders suffered under the weight of taxes. Under the proposed law, the Kampala City Traders would be deemed saboteurs for protesting the unfair advantage that small time foreign traders get over local traders doing the same business.

Since 2005, there has been a tug of war between the people of Amuru and the Government, over sale of land to an investor who wants to grow cotton. The locals have protested the potential loss of their land and livelihood for several years now. This protest came to a head about three weeks ago, when elderly women stripped naked before two government officials who had gone to settle the land boundary dispute that is part of the wider dispute against the investor taking their land. If this law was passed, the people in Amuru who have protested the sale of land, would be imprisoned.

While we all understand the rationale for development, and the increased employment opportunities and incomes to individuals and families, Government should be the last and least entity to protect the investor against the citizen. Investors come and go, but citizens are here for perpetuity, and so it is their rights and livelihood issues that should be a first concern to the Government. The unfortunate fact though, is that citizens believe that Government behaves to the contrary. Government would rather bend over backwards, render its citizens homeless, deplete environmental and cultural resources, all in the name of protecting the interests of the investors. And in a pre-election year, this irony is not lost to us. Government wants, nay, needs our votes for its legitimacy, but once those votes are given, it tramples on citizens through acquiescing land grabs.

The better way is to have a citizen led development paradigm, rather than one that is overly favorable to the investor in complete disregard of how such investment impacts the citizen. Citizens must feel that they matter to their Government, and that Government will listen instead of preferring to throw them into jail when they raise legitimate concerns about land, life, justice and livelihood vis-a-vis investors. The choice cannot and should not be citizen or investor, because we know that there is a power imbalance between the two, especially when money/capital is thrown into the mix. Rather, Government must do all it can to ensure that citizen and investor coexist in a context of mutual respect. The proposed punishment under the Investment Bill is therefore the wrong way to get to the coexistence and mutual benefit between citizen and investor.

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