By Betty Okot, PhD student in Sociology
Where I come from, land means more than real estate, a slice of earth, which can be farmed, inherited, built on, sold or bought. In most of Uganda, including Acholiland, land equates to history, heritage, identity, belonging, rights, and relationships and so on. It creates social security and contains worlds of social, cultural and religious beliefs systems. However, when these collide with the idea of creating a market in land, the people who live on and work the land suffer. In Uganda, land tenure relations are changing fast, but no one is asking how these wrenching, drastic changes will transform the lives of people who depend on land for their identity and social status as well as their livelihoods.
What is happening now 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. And in that regard, suffice to say, they lost the heritage constructed around land, but their landlessness then 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?
My study examines the rapidly changing land tenure relations in Uganda. It also focuses on post-conflict Acholiland (Northern Uganda) where the introduction of new but chaotically-administered land 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. As Acholiland emerged from almost a quarter of a century of violent insurgency, the region has become wracked by land conflicts. In their 2010 report entitled ‘Land or Else’, Gareth McKibben and James Bean captured the essence of land conflicts in post-conflict Acholiland. 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 Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) or possibly by the Uganda army. Now they have returned, but a pall of grim memories of death and displacement hangs over the whole society. The people find themselves lost between vague memories of the way things were done – almost an entire generation of elders has died while they were in the camps – and new laws and government structures that they have no access to and do not understand.
Through interviews and other means of gathering information and ideas, I have reached the conclusion that for the Acholi region, this transition period is not just about 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 key four 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 and so on.
Theirs was a strong system supported by hierarchies of ownership and kinship links that 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. Acholi is a decentralised society of about 54 major clans and several sub-clans; each clan is headed by a Rwot (Chief). 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 so on. 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). 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. And meanwhile new state laws and practices on land tenure had been decreed that were not understood or even known about by the vast majority of Acholi people. All this 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, my study argues 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. My study draws on wider sociological arguments for non-monetary values of land embodied in customary laws elsewhere. Moreover, what has happened to land ownership and use in Acholi transcends the boundaries of what I term in the study as ‘land activism’. It resonates wherever socio-economic and political transformations involve the fundamental relationship between land and the people. Similar issues have arisen in Latin America, Asia and the rest of Africa, and 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 a PhD student, supervised by Dr Jane Parish and Professor Pnina Werbner