Work package 3: Government institutions and governance

This work package addresses Project Objective 3: The roles of government institutions (elected and administrative bodies) and legislation in the intensification or mitigation of conflicts over common resources and land. Studies will examine the use of government institutions to adjudicate land disputes between relatives and neighbours, as well as their roles in conflicts between local residents and outsiders. We conceptualize differences in scale as a continuum from conflicts where the disputants have personal relationships, such as those between family members, neighbours, and ‘previously welcomed people’, to those where one party is an ‘outside-insider’, such as an emigrant, to conflicts between locals and relatively anonymous outsiders such as government agencies, large corporations, or unknown, powerful individuals. Project Output 2 (Studies on perceptions of, and responses to, prospects for oil production and prospects for commercial agriculture) falls in this work package, insofar as government institutions play an important part in these high profile conflicts, although they are not the only governance institutions involved.

The relevant institutions include government bodies at all levels—central, regional and local—that administer (Area Land Committee, District Land Board, Uganda Land Commission) and adjudicate (LC2, Sub-county Court Committee, Chief Magistrate Court, High Court) land issues. They also include land laws, the rules for steering that government bodies generate. Studies under this theme are not simply about the intended functions of government agencies. Rather, we will follow the actual workings of these institutions and the ways that power and economic resources are involved in governance.

One study (Kjær) will examine legislation around land and land allocation, specifically the controversies around the Land Amendment Act from 2010 and its reception in Northern Uganda. The case will explore the dynamics around the drafting and enforcement of the act. On paper, the formal legislation appears neutral and seems to make sense, because of its basic argument: that titling the land is necessary in order for people to get a loan. The land amendment act was, at least formally, intended to promote economic development by giving people easier access to credit. However, northern Ugandans feared that this new piece of legislation would enable investors (perceived broadly to refer to people from outside the region) to take over their land. The case will provide an in-depth exploration of national formal legislation and the way laws are perceived in the light of on the ground experiences with land acquisition or loss of land.

A research project (SR Whyte + one GU PhD) will follow cases between local people reaching the government institutions (sometimes after attempts to resolve them in the customary sector). We will attend to the kinds of evidence and arguments that are invoked, the rules that are made explicit, as well as those that seem implicit. It will be incumbent to study the actual outcome of a judgment: Is it enforced? Does it lead to a peaceful and acceptable resolution or an escalation of bitterness? While ‘good governance’ implies fair, reliably implemented, and equitable rules, reports suggest that the existing government procedures discriminate against poor and uneducated people. The fees for bringing a case and for transport of litigants, witnesses, and judges to the place of litigation or the site of the land dispute are beyond the reach of most people. Moreover, the elite has the advantage of familiarity with state bureaucracy. Widespread corruption in many spheres of public life gives fruitful grounds for mistrust of the formal legal system. The understaffing and under resourcing of the government system means that there is an enormous backlog of cases. Litigants with resources may delay the process even more, asking for continuous adjournments. Delay and tenacity are essential aspects of steering, and the consequence is that people with few resources give up. In some cases, intimidation and fear are added to the process, so that poor people say it is better to lose land than one’s life. Mistrust of the institutions may be well-founded, and mistrust of one’s opponents is fuelled by rumours, suspicions, and stories of what happened in other land cases.

Another research project will examine large-scale land acquisitions in which government institutions are players among others. Government administrative and judicial bodies take decisions about ownership, eminent domain, land reserves, and boundaries. But the cases are played out in an arena filled with non-state institutions whose own claims to legitimacy are linked to managing the rules of different political games. In these cases, attempts to exercise governance after specific game rules seem to be creating the kinds of conditions that change games.

Rumours of land grabs, by wealthy ‘investors,’ well-connected political and military figures, and by government actors themselves, have flourished in Northern Uganda since the late 1980s. Allocations of large land areas are justified in the name of economic development, but feed into a local paradigm of mistrust based on perceived oppression and exploitation by outsiders. The massive population clearances of the 1990s and decades of incarceration in IDP camps are still seen by many as part of an attempted land grab. And the resettlement phase seems to have done little to dispel suspicion. Indeed, ‘land grabs’ – large-scale acquisitions of land by those seen as ‘outsiders’ with possible connivance of ‘insiders’ – are becoming an idiom of mistrust and, in some situations, a discourse of resistance. Politicians and the media contribute to the ‘phobia’ in matters pertaining to land. A general research question for this area is how trust and mistrust interplay in governance of conflicts over large land acquisitions.

Studies (Lenhart + one Danish PhD) will follow several highprofile cases. One involves the Uganda Land Commission’s decision to grant a title for a large area in Amuru District to the Madhvani Companies for a sugar cane plantation. This led to a conflict that mobilized the Acholi Parliamentary Group, the District Council, the association of traditional leaders (Ker Kwaro Acholi), and recently the NGO International Alert and Gulu University’s Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies, which jointly held a one day dialogue meeting on the conflict. A second and on-going conflict flared up in the recent eviction of residents from Apaa Parish by Uganda Wildlife Authority, which plans to develop wildlife tourism. The conflict concerns government demarcation of district boundaries; ethnic differences between Madi and Acholi are being brought into play, after decades of harmonious relations. A third case concerns oil in Amuru District. Exploration in Amuru is still in its early stages, unlike in Buliisa and Hoima Districts to the south where actual production is closer. In Amuru, we will ask if and how information and rumour about oil plays into land disputes. How are the oil companies, the national and district government bodies, and NGOs like Uganda Land Alliance handling the prospect of oil production and its concomitant allocation of rights to land? In some cases attempts to pre-empt mistrust may evoke an intensification of suspicion. Reaching agreements in this public realm involves adapting, managing and even inventing new games and rules. In this arena, we hypothesize that ‘bad governance’ and mistrust can be constitutive, and can generate rules and practices that may improve the management of public realms.