Unfolding Land Conflicts in Northern Uganda: Introduction

Guest editors:

Michael Whyte

Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Quentin Gausset

Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Peter Henriques

Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

After two decades of war and seven years of peace, the Acholi region in the north of Uganda is still struggling to regain levels of prosperity and security that existed in 1986. Family and community capital, in the form of cattle and livestock, tools, seed varieties, personal possessions and rural infrastructure, was looted or destroyed during the years of conflict and much has yet to be replenished. The land conflicts that we explore in this issue have many roots, but certainly one major cause is continuing impoverishment. 

Land politics have long been a fraught issue in Uganda. At the very beginning of the colonial era, British authorities introduced in the Buganda Kingdom the land grants that became the tenure form known as mailo (the grants were initially in square miles). This was land politics pure and simple, a plan to restrain the power of the king of politically crucial Buganda by establishing an independent landed aristocracy indebted, or at least more responsive, to British rule. Politics, land policy and governance, born in 1900 in one part of Uganda, have persisted – and the links are certainly no less contested today, a century on. 

Over the past seven years of relative peace, some 1.8 million Acholi have returned to their land, but the scars of conflict and the social and psychological effects of enforced displacement remain. Today land rights and land conflicts – actual and potential – form a pervasive discourse north of the Nile. Brothers quarrel over portions; widows and orphans seek land access and recognition; neighbours suspect each other, bearing silent grudges for current and past encroachments; clans make competing claims to territory. And it often seems everyone suspects the wealthy and the politically powerful of grabbing land – or enabling “investors” to do so. But the conflicts that typically find expression through claims to land, our contributors argue, are not simply about plots and boundaries. They are multi-level conflicts, embedded in history, social identity, economy and politics. Land cases conflicts must be unfolded and explored in order to be understood.

This first number of the Journal of Peace and Security presents six studies drawn from current research in land and governance in post-war northern Uganda, focusing on studies from Amuru and Gulu Districts. A core group of authors are from Gulu University, Uganda, and from the University of Copenhagen and Århus University, in Denmark, who have worked together as part of an Enhancement of Research Capacity (ENRECA) Project on Human Security (2008-13) based at Gulu University and supported by Danida. Four of the articles in this first issue were presented in the panel ‘Unfolding Land Conflicts in Northern Uganda’ at the biannual Nordic Africa Days conference in Reykjavik in October 2012; they appear here in revised form. The special number has been supplement with contributions by Atkinson, Owor and Göttsches, who have been working independently on land issues in Acholiland.

Land and Relationships

The studies in this collection cover a range of social situations where conflict is expressed through claims to land. At one end of the scale are cases involving families and neighbours. Often people tell us that such disputes – or at least the frequency of such disputes – are a sign of post-conflict times, a legacy of war and internment. We learn that these cases are not simply about boundaries but also and often about rights, and thus about the social identities of the parties involved. Is the “brother” who is claiming a share of clan land, really a clansman, or simply the son of a clansman’s wife whose true father came from outside? Is the woman claiming access to farmland in fact a widow? Or, perhaps equally realistically, who will speak for her if her claim is denied? Cases that appear to be about individual property rights transform into disputes about gender, affinity and appropriate descent and kinship identity. They also turn on feelings, the legacy of twenty years of violence and unforgiven injury.

Obika and Mogensen (Speaking Forgiveness in Northern Uganda: From Armed Conflicts to Land Conflicts) take up the legacy of post-war conflict through the optic of forgiveness – and the unwillingness to forgive. Their cases deal with close relationships, with kin and neighbours, and they focus on conflicts between people who are bound to a common place. Any conflict within such a small social space becomes, at least in part, a conflict over rights to land. Forgiveness accounts, they argue, are less about past injury and far more about future possibilities.

After 2006, when peace negotiations started, the process of “decongesting” camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) began. Over 1.5 million people were sent back to their land – but not to life as it was before 1986. A generation of armed conflict and decades in the IDP camps has meant that the practice of traditional social life had not been possible. Today most Acholi are home, but the legacy of the experience of war and camp remains. Elders, who once might have been adjudicators, have died, with no opportunity to transmit their knowledge about genealogical connections and land boundaries.

Drawing on data collected in one Acholi sub-county from 2009-12, Whyte and her colleagues (From Encampment to ‘Emplotment’: Land Matters in Former IDP Camps) explore an attempt to transform the site of a former IDP camp into a Town Board. They give particular attention to what they call the ‘remainders,’ women and children “overstaying” in the remains of the camp without recognised access to land, and the dead, buried on camp land away from their homes and thus also stranded in what should now be town.

The transformation from camp to town is a government initiative and it introduces a new, and individualised, form of landholding (plots). Town plots are generally accepted as commodity land, to be bought and sold, but community members see attempts to extend this tenure concept to other land relationships in the countryside as more problematic, a practice that appears to challenge ideas about clan and family rights to land. 

Whyte et al. present the stories of “remainders”; Megan Smith Göttsches focuses on widows who have managed to make the return from an IDP camp to their country homes (Access to Land, Securing a Livelihood and Gender Role Renegotiation: a Case Study of Widows in Northern Uganda). These women, defined as vulnerable by camp authorities because of their status as widows, are now thrust into a social world in which this status is no longer an entitlement. In contrast to many of the “overstayers” in Whyte et. al.’s study, Göttsches’ women at one time were recognised wives, with a home and access to land in their husbands’ clan communities. Their widowhood is recognised by their deceased husband’s kinsmen and this provides some security of tenure. In contrast, many “marriages,” during the IDP period were not traditionally formalised; such “wives” were not “known” by their husband’s kin and usually have neither the customary right nor the social links needed to access land.

Combining qualitative interviews and survey data, Göttsches explores the ways in which her sample make use of their positions as accepted widows, and how their livelihood strategies aim to promote integration in the patrilineal space of their husbands’ kin.

Land Grabs, Ethnicity and Tenure Reform

At the other end of a scale of land conflict are struggles, perceived locally (and perhaps nationally) as land grabs, involving powerful outsiders, including government.

One example is the much-discussed Lakang case, where the High Court, in 2012, awarded 40,000 ha in Amuru District to the Amuru Sugar Works Limited, owned by the Madhvani Group of companies, one of Uganda’s oldest and largest agro-industrial enterprises. At this end of the scale the involved parties include national government actors, as well as local administrations and councils, traditional authorities and NGOs promoting human rights agendas. There is national media attention; and violence, threatened or actual, is not uncommon. Conflict here can easily take a form that resembles classic segmentary opposition. When land is seen or claimed to be ‘grabbed’ by an ‘external’ party, the case has the potential to escalate rapidly and become a call for communities to unite to defend a political category identified by the structural position of the enemy. Should the land grabbers be outsiders, non-Acholi for example, confrontation risks calling forth a very broad opposition defined by clan and by ethnicity. Ethnic politics can come to dominate, over-determining legal issues.

Atkinson and Owor (‘Land Grabbing’: The Ugandan Government, Madhvani, and Others versus the Community of Lakang, Amuru District) provide us with a close historical and social reading of the recent HighCourt judgement in the Lakang case. They are particularly concerned with the very incomplete evidence for long-term customary tenure, which was gathered and presented to the court. Drawing on archival research and oral history studies carried out in the early 1970’s, supplemented by recent oral history investigation, they identify different sources of evidence both for traditional land use in the portions of Lakang in dispute and for official recognition of customary tenure claims in the area. Atkinson and Owor demonstrate that a better and more effective collaboration between social and historical researchers and lawyers can mobilise evidence for customary tenure both here and in other parts of Acholiland.

Lenhart (Alleged Land Grabs and Governance: Exploring Mistrust and Trust in Northern Uganda) contributes a detailed examination of the other great Acholi land case to emerge after 2006: the Apaa land conflict. The issues at stake here are, if anything, more complex than in Amuru, and certainly more opaque. Ostensibly the conflict is over a large portion of land that the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) claims as a wildlife reserve; local Acholi claim that this land has always been theirs; after 2006 they attempted to resettle on their land and some settlements have been violently cleared. But, as Lenhart shows, this is only the beginning of the unpacking process that is necessary in order to understand – and address – the issues involved. The legal status of the Apaa block of land is one such issue: is it part of Adjumani District with its predominantly Madi population or Amuru District, which is predominantly Acholi? What began as a localised conflict, pitting communities of resettlers (Acholi and Madi) against the UWA, has escalated – perhaps “been escalated” is the better phrase. By pitting Adjumani District against Amuru District a state of ethnic structural opposition – Acholi vs. Madi – threatens to sow further discord between groups who have lived peacefully together in ethnically integrated communities for many generations. 

Lenhart concludes her review of the case by drawing attention to a disturbing development in Ugandan ethnic politics: the growing tendency towards “culturalisation” of conflicts that have roots in political and economic issues distinct from culture and ethnicity. Culturalisation clearly also plays a role in the Madhvani-Amuru Sugar Works case, where ethnic mobilisation has arguably served to disguise underlying political and financial manipulation. And the phenomenon is also readily identified in land conflicts south of the Nile.

This brings us to a final point: in order to understand events in the north it is necessary both to accept that the Acholi region has been transformed socially, economically, politically and culturally, by a generation of conflict and internment and to recognise that, on many dimensions, the region’s problems are also Uganda’s problems. Rural poverty, land insecurity, the transformation of marriage and its effects on women’s access to land, increasing conflicts over individual rights to land – all these issues are also found south of the Nile. 

However, compelling regional differences, rooted both in history and tradition, do exist. Ravnborg and her colleagues (Land and Property Rights and Economic Behaviour in Uganda) explore this variation using a population-based questionnaire study. Their material shows an association linking tenure insecurity with the coexistence of multiple forms of land tenure in a region. They compare Masaka, in central Uganda, with Pallisa in the east and Amuru in the north. Masaka reports both the greatest diversity of tenure forms and the highest degree of reported tenure insecurity. Amuru respondents, who report over 93 per cent customary tenure, also report the greatest degree of tenure security. At first sight this finding seems to contradict ethnographic accounts of tenure insecurity in the north. However, it is important to note that Ravnborg et al. are asking a sample of householders about the land they hold; our other studies draw on case methodology to unfold positioned narrative accounts of conflict. The difference is crucial when it comes to interpreting findings.  A final site of land conflict issues seems rooted in institutions and practices of governance, broadly speaking. The complex and highly pluralistic legal situation that has evolved since independence to deal with land issues now seems to challenge even judicial experts. In this complex field, transactions often appear opaque and competences are unclear. From their comparative perspective Ravnborg et al. suggest that the very existence of co-existing tenure forms in a region may contribute to a sense of tenure insecurity. For this reason, policy that promotes “partial interventions” by government in the existing land tenure systems in Uganda may actually increase felt insecurity.