The Life is in the Land: Fighting for Property Rights in Northern Uganda
By Jessica Krentz, 2L, writing from Lira, Uganda–
The first thing I noticed about the room was that there was a life-size Santa Claus playing a saxophone in the corner of the room. The second was the people therein, who were even more intriguing.
The people were representatives and leaders of NGOs that compromise the Northern Uganda Land Platform. All of the key players were there—Oxfam, IJM, UN Human Rights, Uganda Land Alliance, my employers at the Land and Equity Movement Uganda—and they all listened attentively as the Platform’s research team presented months’ worth of hard work and fascinating data on whether ADR is effectively resolving land disputes, particularly in the presence of bad faith.
I had the pleasure of jumping in on the tail end of this research and assisting the team as they compiled and analyzed their data. The team itself is composed of remarkable people who did some of the hardest work imaginable. They spent 14 weeks in the bush, collecting data and risking their lives, health, and safety—and all of them would tell you that the ultimate purpose was to glorify God.
A Legal System in Crisis
Uganda’s property law system is in incomprehensible crisis right now. Land is being stolen from the weak by the powerful, who act with impunity and no respect for human life or property. Brothers steal from sisters, neighbors from neighbors, friends from friends. What’s more, the weak have nothing other than their land—and when that is taken away, cyclical, desperate poverty is conceived.
The legal system is a mash-up between individual property rights and customary tenure—a mash that results in uncertainty over who has rights to what land. This confusion is a prime tool for manipulation in the hands of the rich and powerful. In fact, the Platform’s research found that almost 50% of people in Northern Uganda are involved in land conflicts.
The Platform’s research takes a good step towards encouraging legal empowerment where it needs to begin: developing the rule of law. There is little respect for law enforcement in Uganda, and even less respect for the judicial system. Courts are mockeries, and perpetrators freely disregard court judgments, laughing as they do it. But the hope is that NGOs can come alongside victims and accompany them through the justice system, to improve both the lives of the victims and the system itself. Being involved with this research, even if in a minor role, has been one of the most satisfying—and one of the scariest—things I have done in my life.
There’s More to Land Conflict than Meets the Eye
Beyond the complex property law issues at play, there are even deeper spiritual issues and a darkness that envelops everyone involved in these issues. Deep bitterness lies dormant for years and underlies conflicts, and many people live in the constant grip of fear—fear of being weak, free of being vulnerable. Witchcraft plays a key role in making people feel fear; one of the researchers I worked with was cursed by a witch doctor and became sick for two weeks afterwards; only when area missionaries prayed over him did he finally recover.
Fear permeates everything about land conflict—fear of violence, fear of theft, fear of being left with nothing. Being a victim of theft in Uganda, I can honestly say: it is absolutely terrifying when you do not believe you are safe and when you know that all you have could easily be taken away by someone more powerful than you. Since land conflicts endure for long periods of time, some victims live in the shadow of this fear for their entire lives.
Psalm 91:5-6 says, “You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.” Why? Verse 9 tells us: “Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—the Most High, who is my refuge.” Our true comfort, security, and safety does not come from men—it comes from God. Sometimes, we don’t realize just how significant of a blessing property rights are.
We may curse future interests and leasehold estates as we learn them in law school. But with property rights come one of the most essential human needs: a feeling of safety. Where there is no respect for property, there is no respect for law—or for humanity. It is a basic human right, a basic gift from our Creator, to be secure in one’s own person and belongings.
Perhaps Uganda will get there someday, to a point where people feel safe in their own homes and their property rights. But, in the meantime, God is on the move here, and there is no safer place to be than in His hands.
Grace and Peace,