Work package 2: Civil society, customary leaders, religious organisations and NGOs

This work package addresses Objective 2: to examine the governance roles of civil society actors and the ways they evoke trust and mistrust. It includes research that yields Outputs 4 (studies on the roles of customary leaders and religious organizations in conflict resolution) and 5 (customary rights and human rights).

Civil society organisations are involved in Northern Ugandan land conflicts in several ways. They do research and documentation, law and rights education, advocacy for vulnerable people in land conflicts, and mediation. Many are heavily subsidized by international donors. Research under this theme will examine the land conflict involvement of non-government organizations based on three different principles: religious faith, cultural tradition, and human rights. As newer governance theory posits, civil society organizations play important roles in defining and implementing rules for steering interaction. Although they do not generate legislation as do national bodies, their guidelines, manuals, educational materials, and advocacy activities constitute a kind of ‘soft law’ that also affects the steering of social life. The questions are: how rules involving principles of religious faith, cultural tradition, and human rights interplay with other rules and procedures, and how the principles evoke trust and mistrust in connection with land conflicts.

Whereas families and clan leaders invoke customary tenure rules, traditional cultural organizations operate at a higher level. They are civil society organizations, which have offices and officers, and, in some cases, receive donor money. Traditional Leaders (sometimes called Cultural Leaders) exercise an important – and also contested – kind of governance in relation to land management and conflict, which claims legitimacy based on discourses of ‘tradition’. They pronounce on customary rules that are supposed to guide the resolution of conflicts within families and neighbourhoods; they are actors in conflicts between clans. They may also be drawn into conflicts over large-scale land acquisitions, as was Ker Kwaro Acholi, the Acholi Cultural Leaders Association, in the conflict over land for sugar cane plantations in Amuru District. A study (Gade + Lenhart + 1 GU PhD student) will explore the turn to tradition in the governance of land issues in northern Uganda by focusing on the roles of traditional leaders in resolving land conflicts and the invocation of ‘tradition’ in relation to land administration and adjudication. We will examine similarities and differences in the ways traditional cultural organizations deal with land issues across northern Uganda. Traditional chiefs are being represented as if they are ‘the community’ or locality and therefore seek good and fair solutions to land conflicts. Yet, they obviously have specific and positioned interests as other leaders do. Claims to leadership are at times debated; progressive voices object to the construction of the ‘past in the present’. The use of descent for legitimising institutions and social hierarchies, claims to power, and action in the public sphere is exclusive and may promote as well as mitigate conflict.

Religious organizations, particularly the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, that were active in negotiating peace and providing support for the afflicted population during the conflict, have now turned attention from the LRA War to the ‘land wars’ ( With donor support, they have produced a guide to community-based resolution of land wrangles. At the same time, some churches are themselves involved in land conflicts as disputants. They acquired large areas of land, upon which members and church workers settled; they also gave refuge to people fleeing from violence. Now these ‘previously welcomed people’ and their descendants make claims at odds with churches’ wishes to ‘develop’ their land. In some cases, families are demanding the return of land claimed for civic projects like churches, and also schools and health units built under church auspices. Thus in relation to land questions, churches may be considered with some ambivalence and mistrust by local communities, because the churches themselves are prominent landowners. Through case studies of land conflicts where a church or religious organization is involved – in one way or the other – research (Shroff) will investigate how these organisations generate legitimacy, trust and mistrust by engaging in governance of land and resolution of conflicts. In particular, we are interested in the ways that religion is invoked to support legitimacy and trust, and how it may also contribute to suspicion and doubt.

A wide range of international NGOs have been involved in recovery work in post-conflict Northern Uganda, and many of these have recently turned to focus on land issues (including World Vision, Norwegian Refugee Council, CORPUS, Human Rights Focus, ARLPI, and International Alert). The Land Equity Movement of Uganda ( has conducted important research and documentation in northern Uganda. These organisations vary in their legal approach, but have a tendency to found their legitimacy on discourses of universal human rights and values of respect, dignity, reliability, and fairness. They promote equal rights to land among Ugandan citizens, regardless of ethnicity, gender or age, and have been especially active in their defense of women and youth rights. Research (Acio + 1 GU PhD) will explore the relation between the universalistic human rights approach and customary law that is based on differential rights depending on identity (clan membership, patrilineal descent, marital status). In some instances, principles of human rights, national law and customary law may corroborate each other. The statement of the Acholi Cultural Leaders Association on the land rights of women and people with disabilities is an example. In other cases, the human rights rules of the game (or at the very least the co-existence of these two contrasting systems) engender confusion, suspicion of corruption, and general mistrust in rules and organizations seeming to come from the outside. NGOs are not regarded as neutral actors in land issues in Northern Uganda. Even though they may promote equal rights, they are also known to receive donor resources and provide job opportunities for local educated elites serving middle-class political interests. While some regard them as progressive and enlightened, others see them as interfering unnecessarily in local affairs. We will explore these ambivalent roles of NGOs from both local and NGO perspectives by following specific land cases.