Dispatch

How Land Reform Became Uganda’s Most Controversial Problem

The land debate is a tussle for power between an indigenous kingdom and an authoritarian state.

By , a freelance journalist based in Kampala, Uganda.
Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II of Buganda stands under a shelter during his enthronement ceremony in 1993.
Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II of Buganda stands under a shelter during his enthronement ceremony in 1993. Pascal Le Segretain/Sygma via Getty Images

KAMPALA, Uganda—When Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni revived a debate about land reform in June, he knew it would provoke a reaction. It’s uncontroversial to say, as Museveni did, that land evictions in the country are a serious problem that must be resolved. But then he specifically homed in on a form of tenure called mailo, found mostly in the Buganda kingdom. “This is an evil system,” he said, antagonizing the Buganda kingdom, which ruled over its lush hills and banana groves for centuries before Uganda even existed. The kabaka (king) of Buganda, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, countered that such talk was designed to “weaken the kingdom.” Few issues ignite such passion in Uganda today.

Mailo tenure is a complex system that gives landlords and tenants rights in the same piece of land. On one level, the debate is about how to disentangle those interests. The government is considering reforms, with the most radical option being to give tenants full land ownership; the Buganda kingdom, with large landholdings of its own, is skeptical.

But on a deeper level, the land debate is a tussle for power between an indigenous kingdom and an authoritarian state. Buganda was a military and economic superpower until it became a protectorate of the British Empire in 1894. In subsequent decades, the British yoked it together with dozens of other pre-colonial states to form modern Uganda. Like tectonic plates, the kingdom and the state have rubbed up against each other ever since. Now, as popular frustration with Museveni grows, the tremors are once again rippling to the surface. 

KAMPALA, Uganda—When Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni revived a debate about land reform in June, he knew it would provoke a reaction. It’s uncontroversial to say, as Museveni did, that land evictions in the country are a serious problem that must be resolved. But then he specifically homed in on a form of tenure called mailo, found mostly in the Buganda kingdom. “This is an evil system,” he said, antagonizing the Buganda kingdom, which ruled over its lush hills and banana groves for centuries before Uganda even existed. The kabaka (king) of Buganda, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, countered that such talk was designed to “weaken the kingdom.” Few issues ignite such passion in Uganda today.

Mailo tenure is a complex system that gives landlords and tenants rights in the same piece of land. On one level, the debate is about how to disentangle those interests. The government is considering reforms, with the most radical option being to give tenants full land ownership; the Buganda kingdom, with large landholdings of its own, is skeptical.

But on a deeper level, the land debate is a tussle for power between an indigenous kingdom and an authoritarian state. Buganda was a military and economic superpower until it became a protectorate of the British Empire in 1894. In subsequent decades, the British yoked it together with dozens of other pre-colonial states to form modern Uganda. Like tectonic plates, the kingdom and the state have rubbed up against each other ever since. Now, as popular frustration with Museveni grows, the tremors are once again rippling to the surface. 


Instead of abolishing the kingdoms they conquered, the British built a colonial state on top of them. They governed Uganda through a system of indirect rule, where kingdoms retained a limited degree of autonomy over internal affairs and administrators from Buganda helped subjugate other regions. When the country gained independence in 1962, this new state was inherited by the nationalist elite, who scorned kingdoms as a relic of the past. An unlikely alliance between Kabaka Edward Muteesa II, who became Uganda’s ceremonial president, and Milton Obote, the prime minister, soon broke down. In 1966, Obote sent troops to attack the palace. The next year, all five kingdoms were abolished.

The young Museveni approved of Obote’s actions. Kingdoms like Buganda were run by “feudal chiefs,” he wrote in his university dissertation, “who are extremely hostile to the revolution.” Yet in 1993, as president, Museveni restored Uganda’s historic kingdoms as “traditional institutions,” according to Ugandan law. It was a pragmatic, popular move: Although he comes from Nkore, in western Uganda, he had fought his way to power from a base in Buganda, drawing on local support.

Today, Buganda is by far the most powerful of the restored kingdoms, running its own parliament, schools, businesses, and TV station, though it lacks administrative or revenue-raising powers. It commands deep loyalty from its estimated 6 million people, who make up a sixth of Uganda’s population. Like many Ugandans, they have grown disillusioned with Museveni, complaining that jobs, money, and power often go to people from the country’s Western Region, such as the president’s fellow ethnic Banyankole. The kingdom has become a rallying point for those frustrations: After 35 years of Museveni’s rule, it is the strongest power center he has been unable to co-opt.

Mailo land is entangled with this history. In 1900, after deposing the kabaka, Mwanga II, and installing his infant son Daudi Cwa II, British colonialists sat down with Buganda’s chiefs and parceled out Buganda’s land in square miles, or “mailo.” The top chiefs did well, turning land attached to their offices or clans into personal, hereditary estates. The peasants effectively became their tenants. This was, said its critics, “landlordism imported from England.”

Over time, the rights of tenants were strengthened, and the original mailo parcels were divided up and sold on. In 1975, then-President Idi Amin tried to abolish mailo and bring all land under state ownership. The decree was never fully implemented.

The result today is an unusual system of overlapping interests. Tenants cannot lawfully be evicted from a kibanja (plot) as long as they pay busuulu, a nominal rent set by law at 5,000 to 50,000 shillings (about $1.42 to $14) a year. The rate is so low that landlords, who are mostly private individuals, sometimes don’t bother to collect it: A 2017 survey in Buganda’s Mubende and Mityana districts, conducted by the World Bank, found that most tenants were not paying and only half even knew the identity of their landlord.

Museveni’s personalized, monarchical style of rule tolerates no rivals.

“Museveni has made the kibanja holders more important than the landlords,” said Peter Mulira, a lawyer and prominent landowner in Buganda.

On paper, perhaps. In practice, landlords have more power. They often cut informal deals with tenants to divide the land, forcing them into ever smaller plots. Non-collection of rent is sometimes even a deliberate strategy: Without busuulu receipts, tenants have no documented proof of their occupancy and are thus easier to evict. A project run by the German Agency for International Cooperation is trying to address the problem by mapping titles and plots, and residents in the Mityana District already say it has reduced conflict by clarifying their rights and obligations. Meanwhile, Buganda has registered more than 400,000 plots on its own land since 1994 and is encouraging tenants to apply for formal leases—a move that it says will improve tenure security, although some tenants have questioned the costs.

But legal protections can only go so far in a place where land is commodified, administration is corrupt, and evictions are rampant. Landlords who cannot evict tenants simply sell the land to new owners who can: a kleptocratic elite that exploits its connections in politics and the army to kick out occupiers with brute force. “There is a growing culture of impunity and untouchability—a certain class of people that maybe feels they can get around the law,” said Rose Nakayi, a lecturer at Makerere University in Kampala. She was on a team that recently conducted a three-year inquiry into land issues, commissioned by Museveni himself. Their report has never been publicly released, perhaps because its revelations would expose powerful individuals.

Museveni, who styles himself as a defender of tenants, recently appointed the lawyer Sam Mayanja, a long-standing critic of mailo, as junior land minister. “If you want to protect the kibanja holder, give him a title deed,” Mayanja told Foreign Policy. He proposes buying out the landlords and giving the land to those who cultivate it—and thus rectifying, he argued, the colonial injustice by which they became tenants in the first place. The Buganda kingdom, he added, opposes reform because of the money it makes from its own landholdings. “If it is not that selfish motive, how can one explain opposition to giving the majority of your people security of tenure?”

But the kingdom, which derives 89 percent of its income from land, thinks the real aim of reform is to curtail its power. Its official estates cover 536 square miles, or around 6 percent of the land in Buganda, including a swath of the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Hospitals, sewage plants, prisons, barracks, and even part of Museveni’s official residence sit on kingdom land. The government currently owes 216 billion shillings ($61 million) in rent arrears—which the kingdom suspects are withheld for political reasons. Mayanja has added fuel to those fears by alleging that the company managing the kingdom’s lands is doing so illegally (which it denies). David Mpanga, the minister for special duties in the kingdom’s own cabinet, said the government seems more interested in “demonization, name-calling, brinkmanship” than real dialogue.

The kingdom has long been dissatisfied with how it was reinstated in 1993, which some called “byoya bya nswa” (a “white ant’s wings,” or, figuratively, a raw deal). Royalists want a federal system of government in which Buganda would have genuine political powers and the return of thousands more square miles of land from the state. The mailo debate is just one aspect of this struggle about where authority lies. Museveni’s instinct, meanwhile, is to accumulate power, rather than disperse it. His personalized, monarchical style of rule tolerates no rivals.


It is no coincidence that Museveni reignited the mailo issue a few months after Uganda’s general election in January, when the government violently crushed opposition. His main challenger was Bobi Wine, a youthful pop star-turned-politician who himself hails from Buganda. Even according to official results, which are disputed, the singer won two-thirds of the vote there. In the aftermath of the election, Museveni tried to paint Wine’s movement, unfairly, as a narrowly Buganda affair.

In this context, many Baganda people, including peasant occupiers, see mailo reform as a ruse to punish them and steal their land. There seems to be little enthusiasm for the idea among residents of the Mityana and Mukono districts interviewed by Foreign Policy. Dick Mawanda, a former teacher and local councilor in Mukono, acknowledged that land disputes have become commonplace. But to change the land system, he said, would be “lowering the king.” A portrait of the kabaka hangs above his doorway, and his house stands on land titled to a prince.

Those sentiments are widespread, said Margaret Rugadya, the Africa region director at the land rights group Landesa and sometime advisor to the Ugandan government. “The government is saying: ‘I want to protect you, the occupier.’ And the occupier is saying: ‘But you don’t protect me at the cost of displacing my king.’”

Museveni’s government has a big parliamentary majority. But it faces legal, financial, and political hurdles to any reform. Muwanga Kivumbi, a member of Wine’s National Unity Platform and chair of the Buganda parliamentary caucus, pointed out that many lawmakers own mailo land themselves and so are reluctant to “legislate themselves into landlessness.” And open confrontation with the kingdom is inflammatory: In 2009, riots erupted after police blocked representatives of the kabaka from visiting a disputed part of his kingdom.

The talk of reform may be no more than an empty threat, deployed by Museveni to pull the kingdom into line. Behind the scenes, proposals are already being watered down. Yet the idea will always be there, like a joker in Museveni’s hand, whenever the kingdom demands payment of arrears or pushes for federalism or attempts to intervene on the national stage. Although there are serious discussions to be had about land reform, these will always be subordinate to politics. It is perhaps telling that the loudest voices on both sides are wealthy lawyers, rather than the poor farmers who have the most to gain from a genuine solution.

Still, the debate itself revives unresolved questions about what a genuinely postcolonial politics would look like. Critics of mailo never tire of pointing out its colonial origins. But traditionalists defend it because of its association with the kabaka, whom they see as a more authentic bearer of legitimacy than the Ugandan state. “I’m always wary of people who say that they’re coming to address colonial injustices, but they’re dressed in colonial clothes. They’re living and working in colonial institutions,” said Mpanga, the Buganda minister. “Uganda is a colonial construct.”

Liam Taylor is a freelance journalist based in Kampala, Uganda. He has reported widely from Africa for the Economist and has also written for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Christian Science Monitor, and African Business magazine, among other publications.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Pentagon is seen from the air over Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 2013.

The Pentagon’s Office Culture Is Stuck in 1968

The U.S. national security bureaucracy needs a severe upgrade.

The Azerbaijani army patrols the streets of Shusha on Sept. 25 under a sign that reads: "Dear Shusha, you are free. Dear Shusha, we are back. Dear Shusha, we will resurrect you. Shusha is ours."

From the Ruins of War, a Tourist Resort Emerges

Shusha was the key to the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Now Baku wants to turn the fabled fortress town into a resort.

Frances Pugh in 2019's Midsommar.

Scandinavia’s Horror Renaissance and the Global Appeal of ‘Fakelore’

“Midsommar” and “The Ritual” are steeped in Scandinavian folklore. Or are they?