Current research in the Lake Victoria Basin

by Dr Andrew Ainslie, Lecturer in International Rural Development

I am part of a team led by the Walker Institute conducting research in the Lake Victoria Basin, as part of the Future Climate for Africa programme. I recently returned from two and a half weeks in Uganda, where I studied the governance of land in the districts bordering Lake Victoria. Some uncertainty surrounds just what impacts shifts in the climate will have in this region, but what is far more certain is that millions more people are destined to migrate into the Basin over the coming decades, augmenting the natural increase in population, and placing the natural and social resources in the region under increasing strain.

I was fortunate to link up with a former student, Javiane Agenonga, now an assistant lecturer at Gulu University, Hoima campus. We found that there are two issues that are most exercising Ugandans at the moment which are closely connected: first, a national debate is hotting up around the move by the ruling NRM (National Resistance Movement) which is led by former general, President Yoweri Museveni, to change the constitution to extend the age at which a person is eligible to stand for and indeed occupy the highest office in the land.  Specifically, they want to remove the 75 year age limit, something that will allow the encumbent – who has been in power for 31 years – to stand for re-election in the next election in 2021. The unstated aim is to perpetuate the relations of power and patronage that currently hold sway in Uganda. A growing number of Ugandans are expressing their unhappiness with this turn of events, alarmed by recent statements from NRM MPs that ‘the army is behind us’ in their push to effect this change.

The second issue is the tension countrywide that surrounds access to, ownership of and use of land in Uganda. At the present time, a national Commission of Inquiry into land matters, headed by the highly respected Judge, Justice Catherine Bamugemereire, is taking evidence on illegal land evictions, fraudulent land deals and bitter, long-standing disputes over land ownership across the country. Land issues in some districts are more contentious than others – in Mubende district, Central Region, land disputes have long been the cause of significant political disaffection, while in Hoima district in Western Uganda, the recent discovery of oil at Lake Albert has seen the value of land skyrocket, with politicians and senior government officials and their networks seeking to cash in on the boom times this promises. Districts like Mpigi and Masaka which lie close to Kampala are also witnessing a spike in property prices and this poses a threat to peace and stability in these areas, as poorer people leasing pieces of land are pushed off land deemed ripe for development.

The two issues are connected in this way: President Museveni has never flinched from using state-sanctioned violence –specifically the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) – to force people into line. The rule of law often follows later. However, as Ugandans contemplate a time beyond his rule, the lid is beginning to come off disputes between people, disputes that often find expression in the idiom of ethnic and class difference that could be rather more difficult to contain in future.