By Moses Nkesiga
In Uganda, the land tenure system acknowledges that there are people who have settled on either private or public land and deserve protection especially after a long period of time utilizing or living on the land. Such persons are protected under Article 237 of the Constitution of Uganda 1995 (henceforth referred to as ‘the Constitution’) and the provisions of the Land Act 1998 which grants them security of occupancy.
The protection accorded by the Constitution and the Land Act was a result of continuous conflicts between registered landlords and occupants of their lands which can be traced back to the early 1900’s after the signing of the Buganda Agreement (1900). However, the conflicts between the landlords and tenants are still characterized by widespread violent evictions across Uganda.
The Ugandan legal framework still does not provide comprehensive guidelines on how this conflict can be resolved and on how evictions should be executed. This has raised serious human rights concerns during evictions which are often characterized by violence, destruction of properties and sometimes death of innocent people. Reports indicate that these evictions are usually carried out by the rich landlords against poor occupiers.
Additionally, it does not comprehensively address the issue of the relationship between landlords and tenants in rental premises like homes and commercial spaces. The only piece of legislation available in this regard is the Distress for Rent (Bailiffs) Act 1933 which is an old piece of legislation and shallow in its scope. This therefore leaves the relationships between landlords and tenants to be governed by the laws of contracts and in most cases, there is no written contract between these parties resulting into constant conflict in the enforcement of obligations between the parties.
The Constitution enjoins the state to provide protection to all people in order to safeguard the fundamental rights under it. Forced evictions being associated with serious abuse of human rights like the right to life, right to dignity, right to a healthy environment, right to protection from deprivation of personal property among others puts an obligation on the Government to protect its citizens from such evictions and such an obligation is immediate and requires the state to prevent third parties from interfering with the enjoyment of human rights including rights jeopardized by forced evictions.
However, the state security forces like the Uganda Peoples Defense Forces (UPDF) and the Uganda Police Force (UPF) have constantly been cited at the forefront of evictions in Uganda. They have been accused of conniving with rich individuals and companies to forcefully evict people. For example, it was reported by the Daily Monitor, one of the leading newspapers in Uganda on the 10th of February 2020 that the District Police Commander of Mbale district forcefully evicted traders from commercial premises in Mbale town for failure to pay rent. Cases of beatings and destruction of property were reported. It was alleged that the Police did not serve the traders with an eviction notice. Rather the District Police Commander insisted that he served the area Local Council I chairperson with the eviction notice. Since there are no clear guidelines on the eviction process under the law, it becomes impracticable in such instances to apportion blame.
The ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic has not spared the tenants either as there have been reported incidents of evictions across the country despite a press statement issued by the Minister of Lands Honourable Beti Kamya halting all evictions against persons who enjoy security of occupancy under the existing legislation. The Minister in her statement directed all Resident District Commissioners, Police leaders and Local Council leaders to stop all processes regarding lawful and unlawful evictions until the Ugandan governments pandemic lockdown measures are removed. The President of Uganda also issued directives against demanding for rent and evictions from rental premises by landlords during this period.
That said, land grabbers and unscrupulous landowners have continued to take advantage of the lack of proper guidelines and directions for evictions and COVID-19 pandemic lockdown measures to carry out evictions. For example, on 30th April 2020, Witness Radio (witnessradio.org) an online site reported incidents of forceful evictions by the UPDF, UPF and several multinational companies (Agilis Partner, Joseph Initiativea, Asili Faims, Kiryandongo Sugar Company and Great sesons) against poor subsistence farmers in Kiryandongo District. There was destruction of farms, houses and assault of farmers by the state security forces. The District Police Commander of Kiryandongo district was accused of refusing to register complaints of criminal trespass against the multinational companies and instead sided with the companies to arrest locals for resisting the evictions. Actions such as these undermine the calls for humane treatments by International bodies, the Lands minister in Uganda and the Presidential Directive on evictions. It is apparent the land tenants remain at the mercy of the landowners.
On 13th May 2020, the Independent newspaper (Uganda) reported fresh evictions in Amuru district in northern Uganda which has been at the center of mass and violent forceful evictions for over a decade. National Forestry Authority (NFA) officials were said to have set ablaze seven houses in Opiru Village, Amuru district leaving over twenty alleged encroachers and their families homeless. This kind of eviction is dehumanizing in nature and it has caused great suffering to the affected persons, abusing their right to protection of personal property and right to a fair hearing among others. The families are now stranded with no place to go because of the current lockdown situation in Uganda that prohibits movements of persons. Carrying out the eviction after the lockdown period would have been the best humane treatment given by the NFA to the alleged encroachers.
Incidents of forceful evictions by landlords over failure to pay rent were also reported by Radio Mega, a local radio station in Gulu district during the same period. In the case of Sophie Nakitende Vs Mabu Commodities Ltd (2016), Honourable Justice Musa Ssekaana held that it was an established principle that unless the tenant agrees to give up possession, the landlord must first get a court order to obtain vacant possession. In practice, this meant that evictions could only be carried out after obtaining a court order. However, as a result of the pandemic lockdown, courts in Uganda are currently restricted to attending to matters of urgency and criminal cases. This therefore leaves one wondering whether it is legally possible to evict a tenant let alone effect the humane call and Presidential Directive banning rent demands by landlords during this difficult time.
Based on the above cases, it’s safe to say that the continued legal and unlawful evictions prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown period are due to the weak guidelines and legal framework on the procedures for effecting evictions. The directives in place such as the Practice Direction of 2007 are shallow in nature as they only provide guidelines for a fair and smooth operation of orders in respect of registered land which have an impact on tenants by occupancy.
The Lands minister’s press statement would have been the best safeguard against evictions in the lockdown period however it did not contain a clear statement on the landlord-tenant relationships in rental premises. The same can be said of the Presidential Directive which only contained directives on halting of rent collection during the lock down period. It does not address what happens in the post lockdown period which is likely going to be characterized by large scale evictions due to default in rent payments.
Perhaps it is important to note that the conflict between the landlord and tenants on rental properties would have been greatly reduced way back before the COVID-19 lockdown period had the President of Uganda assented to the Landlords-Tenants Bill 2019. It is comprehensive in nature and it offers relief to the conflicts between landlords and tenants once it is assented to by the president.
The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted on the economic lives of so many Ugandans with most employees being laid off and the business community being locked out of their businesses and hence the loss of their financial earnings. Just like those living as squatters on other people’s land, it is likely that most of them are currently in rent arrears and facing serious financial constraints with the inability to pay ground rent or rent other premises if evicted.
It is therefore necessary for the landlords to treat their tenants with a humane face during this period of the lockdown and the period immediately after by allowing payments in installments, extension of payment periods and if need be minimal rent exemptions in some situations.
The government of Uganda should adopt or develop comprehensive guidelines governing rent payments and evictions during and immediately after the COVID-19 lockdown, as well as the post COVID-19 period to govern land evictions before, during and after the fact. If not, the on-life support curse of eviction is likely to be escalated by this unfortunate pandemic.
I shall conclude by citing the text in the UN Habitat Fact Sheet No.21/Rev 1 which states that; “In general, International Human Rights Law requires governments to explore all feasible alternatives before carrying out any evictions, so as to avoid, at least minimize the need to use force. When evictions are carried out as a last resort, those affected must be afforded effective procedural guarantees, which may have a deterrent effect on planned evictions”.
The writer is the founder of Strategic Response International (SRI)