Land in post-conflict situations: War, decentralization, land governance and state formation In Northern Uganda

Doreen Nancy Kobusingye

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


After more than two decades of a civil war between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government, which resulted in the displacement of over two million people, life in Northern Uganda is returning to normalcy. Following the inconclusive 2006 Juba peace talks between the LRA rebels and the NRM government, former refugees and internally displaced people started returning home and re-accessing their land in northern Uganda. However, people in the Acholi region are confronted with contestations and competition over ownership and access to land: among relatives, between those who returned first and those that returned later, between clans, between the Acholi and other tribes like the Madi, and between local communities and institutions like the Uganda Wildlife Authority and foreign companies. In the difficult transition from war to peace, land disputes are considered a serious threat to the stability of Northern Uganda. To deal with tenure insecurity and land disputes, the NRM government initiated a series of policy reforms, in which decentralization features prominently. This justifies an exploration of how decentralized land governance actually works out in Uganda.

The situation in northern Uganda is rather similar to other conflict-affected settings, where tenure insecurity is a common phenomenon. Huge numbers of people re-accessing land within a short period of time, a large number of contested land claims, involving IDPs who find their land occupied by others or have settled on land belonging to others (Meinzen-Dick et al. 2008; Van Leeuwen, 2008) make post-conflict land governance significantly challenging.  Violent conflicts might undermine the functioning of formal property rights institutions and when war ends people might question the capability and legitimacy of such institutions to enforce rights to property or natural resources (See Daudelin, 2003; Unruh, 2003). Nowadays, land governance reforms are seen as a necessary measure after conflict to alleviate land disputes, which might also deal with other general tensions in societies (See Cotula et al, 2004; Wiley, 2006; Anseeuw and Alden, 2010). Yet, land governance and its reform are very sensitive affairs in post-conflict setting, as they touch not only on the possibilities for people to rebuild their livelihoods after conflict, but also on the issues that the peace process is all about.  

The starting point of this thesis was to analyze how post-conflict land governance and its reform take shape in post-conflict northern Uganda. It explored how the LRA war transformed land governance; how post-conflict land reform and notably decentralization works out, how it impacts the legitimacy and authority of local institutions, and contributes to the resolution of land disputes. In particular, the research investigated the question of how such reforms contribute to the process of state formation.[1]

The findings of the study demonstrate how the LRA war not only reshuffled land ownership but also distorted and transformed prevailing land governance practices. In particular, the analysis brings out how war transformed the roles of youths and women in land governance. Decentralization turned out to have mixed results, as it contributed to institutional proliferation, and competition between state and customary institutions. Despite decentralization, state actors continue to determine decision-making on land at the local level. All case studies illustrate how local changes in land governing authority do not necessarily result in more tenure security, yet, are often understood as efforts by outsiders to acquire local land. An overarching finding is that land governance reform in northern Uganda in fact amounts to a contested political programme of re-establishing the state.

The study paid particular attention to gender issues in post-conflict land governance. Women are often affected differently in war-time situations, and fieldwork explored how the war impacted women’s ownership and access to land, and their vulnerabilities in post-conflict settings. A specific chapter on gender issues in land governance in North Uganda is in preparation, but forms no part of this thesis.  Some of the findings appear in a documentary entitled ‘Governance off the Ground’ which was a product of the Grounding Land Governance programme in general and my research project in particular.

Fieldwork for this thesis was conducted in Acholi sub-region, Northern Uganda. Fieldwork was of an ethnographic nature and diverse qualitative methods were utilized, including participant observation, a review of secondary literature, 25 focus group discussions, and 133 interviews with local people, men and women, youth (female and male), local council members, elders, representatives of area land committees and district land boards, civil servants at sub-county and district level, policemen and game rangers, , NGO staff, cultural leaders, lawyers, officials from the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development, and politicians.

Chapter three shows that violent conflict and war prominently impact on land governance and significantly contribute to land conflicts in post-conflict settings. The case of Apaa evictions in Amuru district discusses the intricate causal connection between the 20 year civil war in northern Uganda and current land disputes in Acholi region. While literature tends to explain land conflicts in terms of either environmental security or political ecology, the analysis illustrates that political ecology approaches may be further strengthened by acknowledging that land governance is not only a cause of conflict, but that violent conflict in turn also has an important influence on land governance. Political, historical and social dynamics interconnect and contribute to the conflictiveness of land or natural resources. Violent conflicts are fueled by tensions between local groups about social issues such as ethnicity, grievances about those in power, limited or unequal access to land and the institutions that govern natural resources. This chapter highlights that how those issues are dealt with by policy makers is critical for successful post-conflict recovery and stability.

The case study of Amuru Sugar Project in chapter four reflects on decentralized land governance and its role in large scale land allocation. Most analyses attribute the unsuccessfulness of decentralization to unclearness in state legislation and resource inadequacies. This study instead points out that decisions about land attribution at lower levels of government reflect the interests of those at higher levels of governance, and are the outcome of manipulation and intermingling in local affairs by politicians from higher levels. The chapter concludes that without devolution of real power to decentralized structures, decentralization will continue to be ineffective as a channel of incorporating popular participation in decision making.

Chapter five, which is based on a land dispute case in Pader district, reflects on the notion of institutional pluralism and how it impacts on land dispute resolution. The analysis highlights how decentralization further contributes to institutional multiplicity by creating new institutions that add on to the already existing authorities and regulations about land, rather than devolving power to existing local institutions. This results in confusion among people having land disputes about which institutions to approach, and fuels into institutional competition at local level, thereby contributing to a situation where land dispute resolution never reaches a final solution. This intensifies land disputes and thus deviates from the essence of improved service delivery propelled by decentralization.

Chapter six elucidates the pivotal role of the youth in post-conflict land governance. It demonstrates that although intergenerational conflicts are part and parcel of society, war significantly accelerates social and political change which results in placing land governance in the custody of the male youths in post-conflict settings. The shift in power relations fuels into struggles for authority over land governance between the youth and the elders. Yet, while some youth gain power and prominence in land governance, other youths especially the female and orphaned youth become powerless in land governance. The chapter shows how the dynamics of staying in IDP camps, participation in the war, assuming positions in decentralized structures and inability to find jobs outside agriculture significantly influence the role of youth in land governance in post-conflict settings. It concludes by asserting that the new roles attained by the youth in land governance may have irreversible effects on customary tenure where authority to govern land is embedded in elders.

On the basis of these different case studies, the thesis arrives at the overall conclusion that land governance reform in Uganda in fact amounts to the contested re-establishing of the state. States use post-conflict land governance as a tool for regaining control over and asserting authority in post-conflict areas that were previously under some other form of control. This argument is elaborated in chapter 7, which also brings together the main findings on the initial research questions.

The 20 year civil war in northern Uganda did not just reshuffle access and occupation of land, but transformed practices of land governance in Acholi region. Land and its governance are a critical element in dealing with the LRA legacy: not so much in that contestation around land and its governance generated the LRA conflict, but rather that any current intervention/court judgement/government action on land is assessed in light of earlier episodes of exclusion that contributed to the LRA war. Land turns out to be a very critical issue around which the struggle between the North and South plays out, or seen to take place.
Decentralization was a key strategy of the government to deal with land disputes and tenure insecurity. However, decentralization has turned out to be largely ineffective because no real devolution of power took place. The actual involvement of state actors in local decision taking around land suggests that the central government tries to maintain or strengthen its control over local governments, especially in the areas of Uganda where authority is weak.
At a local level, reform programmes effectively disqualify customary institutions and contribute to institutional multiplicity and competition. This puts customary authorities on a side track at the benefit of the state, and fails to protect tenure security of small scale farmers, who mostly access land through customary arrangements.
These practices in Uganda show that land governance reform may serve as an avenue for state formation, and a means to increase its grip over territory and to show or reinstate power over post-conflict areas. By interfering in land governance in northern Uganda, the state is trying to establish itself as the highest political authority within the territory with the capacity to effectively enforce its rule.
Moreover, land reform is often considered as a smooth, technical procedure to better organize the ways in which land is governed. However, this thesis demonstrates that actually land reform is a very contested and violent process. In Uganda, violence, both by the state and by local people, has become an important means through which land governance is reformed, and through which access and ownership of land are reordered.

Implications for policy-makers

Post-conflict land governance plays an important role in the peace process in post-conflict settings. Considering its contested nature, any land reforms like decentralized land governance ought to be implemented cautiously. To be effective, there should be clear division of power and responsibilities among statutory and customary land institutions. This can help reduce the number of land disputes that crisscross among institutions. In a post-conflict situation land policies should prioritize local people’s needs in terms of tenure insecurity and land disputes. Only in such a way, the state may gain more legitimacy in the North.


[1] Research for this thesis was conducted as part of the programme ‘Grounding Land Governance’ which was funded by NWO-WOTRO Science for Global Development grant number W 01.65.332.00. This programme was a collaboration between African Studies Centre at Leiden University, Wageningen University, the Centre for International Conflict Analysis & Management at Radboud University, Nijmegen and Mbarara University of Science and Technology in Ugandan. The programme investigated how land governance evolves in conflict-affected Uganda, Burundi and South Sudan, as the outcome of interaction between multiple stakeholders.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • van Dijk, Han, Promotor
  • van Leeuwen, M., Co-promotor, External person
Award date30 Apr 2018
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463437721
Publication statusPublished - 30 Apr 2018


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