By Liam Taylor
BUGABO, Uganda June 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - "This land is peaceful," said Abdul Seryazi, standing in his family fields in Bugabo, a village in central Uganda.
But a charred bulldozer alongside tells a different story.
In April, three bus loads of men carrying sticks and machetes arrived in the village with the bulldozer.
Angry residents fought back, fearing the land would be cleared, and the machine was set alight.
While violent evictions are not unusual in Uganda, the case is notable because the landlord is Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II – the king, or 'kabaka', of Buganda, the largest of the traditional kingdoms in present-day Uganda.
Mutebi himself is revered as a cultural figurehead for more than 6 million Baganda, the country's largest ethnic group.
However growing competition for land is fuelling bitter disputes in the region, which includes Kampala, the capital.
The latest flashpoint is a new land titling scheme which is bringing the kingdom into conflict with both the national government and local tenants, who fear they will lose the fields they have farmed for generations.
The kingdom began urging people to apply for leasehold titles on its land in April, saying it will protect tenants, offer security and encourage investment.
According to Abdul Nadduli, a minister without portfolio in the national government, the campaign fanned local anxiety that the kabaka wants to "confiscate the people's land".
But Dennis Bugaya, legal officer at the Buganda Land Board, which manages the kingdom's estates, dismissed the fears, saying tenants had been misled by "a pack of political opportunists".
The debate over tenure revives old tensions between the government and the Buganda kingdom, which has long pushed for greater autonomy.
President Yoweri Museveni restored the historic kingdom in 1993, but has long quarrelled with the kabaka over land reform, political autonomy and the return of Buganda's assets.
In 2009, more than 40 people were killed when police blocked the kabaka from visiting a disputed part of his territory and security forces acted to quell unrest.
Although the kingdom still holds great symbolic appeal, it is unable to raise taxes and has limited powers, relying on its own businesses and patriotic fundraising drives for revenue.
The move to leaseholds with titles would allow it to charge more, earn more from its property and so boost its coffers.
"With financial independence comes some element of political independence," said Bugaya. "There are some powers which do not want the kingdom to have a financial base."
The kabaka owns 350 square miles of 'official' estates as part of his title, as well as smaller parcels of land as a private individual.
Hundreds of thousands of people live and work on the kabaka's land, on small plots known as 'bibanja'.
Buganda Land Board officials say formal titles will help tenants get planning permissions and provide them with the security to apply for bank loans. The scheme is voluntary and the new, 49-year leaseholds are renewable, they say.
"People should title their property," said Bugaya. "It's only then that they can interact with market forces and the economy can grow."
But while those who do not apply for leases have been assured they will retain their bibanja, many are not convinced.
"I can die without leaving any penny to prolong that lease – what next?" said Nadduli. "My family to be displaced, and another family, a tycoon, may come to occupy it."
While the most recent evictions may not be directly linked to the titling scheme, residents say the problems have added to their fears.
Back in Bugabo, the men with machetes were accused of damaging crops, stealing tomatoes and blocking a water well.
Seryazi, 21, said the loss of his family's land would end his education: "Where are we going to get what to eat? Where are we going to get school fees?" he said.
John Kitenda, the Buganda royal treasurer, said the men who came with the bulldozer were sent by a private investor who had leased land from the kabaka.
"Those villagers are falsely claiming land," he said, and had only recently begun to cultivate it.
Bugabo residents insist they have never met the investor and were paying rent to the kabaka.
"I like my king, because that's what the culture says," explained Seryazi.
But he said the mood is shifting with many becoming suspicious of the kabaka's motives.
Betty Amongi, the national minister of lands, has herself called on a new land inquiry to investigate the titling scheme.
Meanwhile the kingdom has been forced to defend several court cases challenging its ownership and land holdings.
"I want a court declaration that the kabaka does not own [his official estates]," said Male Mabirizi, a lawyer in one high-profile case.
"He's holding it in trust for the people of Buganda."
(Reporting by Liam Taylor, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)
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