This week I travelled to Mbale to observe a training for District Land Board (DLB) members, Recorders, and Area Land Committee (ALC) members. I learned a lot about land laws, land institutions, and issues related to land administration and management. It turns out that land administration is amazingly complex in Uganda. Almost all land ownership (80%) is customary, in which the land is managed according to the norms and customs of the area. Under this system, a person’s clan or community owns the land communally. That is, even if you occupy a particular piece of land, and your parents occupied it before you, everyone in your community has an interest in that piece of land. Before making any decisions regarding land transactions, you must consult with your clan and get community approval. In most cases, the community will agree to any reasonable request.
Most people who own land under customary tenure have no certificate of title. However, the demand for proof of ownership has grown, especially with the increase in land grabbing. Possessing a certificate of title allows a landowner to prove that the property is lawfully and rightfully his or hers. Along with this trend, the Land Act of 1998 provided for institutions that would allow customary landowners to register a title for their land.
This is where it gets complicated.
Landowners submit applications to register for certificate of title in customary ownership, they pay the Area Land Committees to inspect their property, and they submit their application to the District Land Boards. The District Land Boards approve or reject their application, and they send it to the Office of the Recorder to issue a certificate of title and record the transaction. However, since 1998, landowners who have gone through this process have not been receiving titles! It seems that neither the DLBs, the ALCs, nor the Recorders are sure why people are not getting titles, but all the same, people keep applying, and the applications sit in the offices of these institutions.
Going into the training of the DLBs, ALCs, and Recorders, I did not know that 80% of land ownership is customary, and that applicants are not receiving titles. I quickly learned that the three institutions struggle to cooperate with one another, and that the process for acquiring title under any land system (customary, leasehold, freehold, and “mailo”) is complex and slow. The discussion with the ALC members was detailed and engaging. Not only had these participants not received a training like this before, many of them were relatively new to their positions and had never received ANY training on land administration! The trainers really had their work cut out for them.
We began with the historical background. Before colonization, land in Uganda was held according to the customs of each kingdom. In 1900, the colonists signed an agreement with the Buganda Kingdom, rewarding them for their help with conquering the other kingdoms by giving them pieces of land demarcated in miles, referred to as “mailo” (pronounced mile-o) land. Land that was not rewarded to the Buganda Kingdom was reserved as crown land. People who occupied crown land were tenants at sufferance, meaning that they were only tenants of the crown, and the colonists could remove them from the land any time. In the post-colonial period, crown land became public land, but mailo land was protected. Then, after the Land Reform Decree of 1975, both crown land and mailo land became public. Under this system, there was no private ownership, and occupiers of land had to apply for leases. The Constitution of 1995 declared that land belonged to the people, so private land ownership became possible. Finally, with the Land Act of 1998, land tenure systems were divided into the four current categories: customary, freehold, and leasehold and mailo.
Next, we discussed the procedures for acquiring title. This session made up the meat of the training, especially because many of the ALC members had never been trained. When a person goes to the ALC to apply for a certificate of title, the ALC must post a notice in the community where the land is located at least 14 days prior to an inspection. The notice must be posted in the community because all of the neighboring landowners must be present for the inspection to give their concurrence about the boundaries and rightful ownership of the land. At the inspection, the ALC demarcates the boundaries of the land with all neighbors and interested persons as witnesses. The group of people walk the boundaries, and if the ALC member is walking along the wrong place, the neighbors will correct him or her so that the boundary is properly demarcated. Everyone must agree that the line is correct, and then the ALC will draw a sketch of the land. The sketch includes the shape of the property and the location of any landmarks like houses or trees. If there is a path or road that has been used by the public, the ALC will mark it on the map as well. The names of the neighbors and the boundaries of their plots are shown on the edges of the sketch.
Once the ALC has a proper and complete sketch of the land, they can prepare their inspection report to submit to the DLB with the application. In their inspection report, they will include details of the inspection, the persons present, their findings, recommendations, and signatures of all witnesses. The recommendations include whether or not the applicant may lawfully acquire a certificate of title and whether there are any paths or roads on the land. If there are public paths or roads, they must not be included in the title, because they are considered public land. The witness signatures are important, because if the title is disputed, the owner can refer to the witnesses to prove that the inspection and title are legitimate and accepted within the community.