Rule of Law Collaborative Associate Dr. Ron Atkinson on Rule of Law and Customary Land Rights in Uganda






This week, ROLC Associate and Emeritus Faculty in the Department of History Dr. Ron Atkinson spoke at the World Bank’s Land and Poverty Conference 2017: Responsible Land Governance—Towards an Evidence-Based Approach. Dr. Atkinson, an African history expert whose research focuses on the Acholi region and people in northern Uganda, spoke about a project currently underway that seeks to address rule of law issues surrounding Acholi land tenure in post-conflict northern Uganda. The project has two primary aims: (1) to understand and document how Acholi customary communal land is organized and managed, and (2) to recommend legal mechanisms for securing land rights in this context, drawing on examples of customary communal land practices from other countries. The project was designed beginning in 2012, under the leadership of the Joint Acholi Sub-region Leaders’ Forum (JASLF), comprising parliamentarians, district government officials, and cultural, religious and other community leaders. Project implementation began in 2015 in partnership between JASLF and Irish NGO Trócaire, with funding from the Democratic Governance Facility.


Beginning in 2008, Acholi people began to resettle land that they had occupied prior to being displaced as a result of Uganda’s twenty-year conflict, primarily with the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the Ugandan government’s policy of forced displacement. Especially in the early stages of this post-conflict context, as the Acholi have tried to re-establish customary land ownership practices on communal land, land disputes have proliferated. At the same time, ignorance about Acholi customary land ownership practices continues to impede efforts to secure protection for their land rights under Ugandan law.

Uganda’s 1995 constitution and 1998 Land Act grant legal status to customary land (among other forms of land ownership) but a variety of obstacles, including lack of funding for Uganda’s Ministry of Lands, Housing & Urban Development, has hindered implementation of Uganda’s customary land rights regime, and certificates for customary land ownership have been issued in only two out of more than 100 districts in Uganda. In addition, officials struggle to understand customary land that is communal, rather than individuated, and devising methods of demarcation for Acholi communal land has proven difficult. It has also proven a challenge to devise a land tenure system that supports, rather than disrupts, Acholi ways of life.

Research and Recommendations

Field research for the project was conducted between December 2015 and April 2016 in a sample of nearly 50 land-holding clans, using focus group discussions and individual interviews with key stakeholders, such as clan and community elders, opinion leaders, and government officials. Researchers also conducted focused discussions with vulnerable or disadvantaged groups, such as widows, divorced women, the disabled, and “guests”—people tangentially associated with clans, such as in-laws or friends.

Based on key findings from this field research, Dr. Atkinson and his collaborators have generated a set of recommendations for policymakers aimed at securing communal customary land rights in a way that is sensitive to local cultural practices. Dr. Atkinson notes that, if follow-up research can be conducted on a larger scale, the project could produce a model of communal customary land rights that could be applied in other contexts, outside the Acholi sub-region of Uganda.