Why the president’s defence of squatters is humane but economically retrogressive
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | During his New Year speech, President Yoweri Museveni reiterated his commitment to defend squatters being evicted by “land grabbers”. Yet he also promised to protect the ownership rights of title holders. In trying to please both, Museveni may be doing good politics but it is bad economics. Here is why.
At the heart of capitalist development (all “advanced” countries in the world today are capitalist) is the transition of most people’s livelihoods from depending on agriculture to depending on industry and moving from rural to urban areas. The persistence of peasant agriculture in Uganda as the main source of livelihood for the vast majority of our people is only a re-statement of our continued backwardness and poverty.
In most of Europe, the transition from agriculture to industry was brutal. It involved the forceful expropriation of land from peasants to commercial interests. This paved way for commercial relations to penetrate and transform agrarian structures. The expropriated peasants were reunited to the land through the agency and initiative of capital – as an agricultural proletariat. The other expropriated peasants went into cities where, destitute, they were willing to accept substandard wages in factories. This made growth of manufacturing possible, thereby paving way for the industrialisation of Western Europe.
Contrary to a historical but popular beliefs common most especially among African elites and their cheer leaders in the West, the rise of the West from poverty to affluence was not initiated by kind and benign leaders seeking to improve the welfare of the vast majority of their citizens. Rather it was championed by a very small, selfish and greedy group of industrialists, merchants and commercial farmers who allied with the state to expropriate ordinary peasants of their land and exploit workers via substandard wages. Due to the inhumanity of this process, Karl Marx said capitalism came to the world “dripping with the blood of labour”.
Pre-capitalist Europe was feudal; a mode of production characterised by land. Land was owned by landlords, tilled by peasants. The peasant decided what to produce e.g. rare chicken or goats, plant beans or peas. He would pay the landlord rent in kind or in money. Thus those who owned land did not control the production process i.e. did not decide what to produce, using which technology, in what quantities, and for which market. Those who tilled the land did not own it. This made feudalism retrogressive because the owner of the asset did not control the production process. Capitalism is dynamic because it fuses user and ownership rights.
In Uganda, the 1998 Land Act recreated feudal relations in agriculture. It left the holders of title as legal owners and gave security of tenure to squatters by issuing them “certificates of occupancy.” This made both sides losers. While the tenant has security of tenure via his certificate of occupancy, the land is encumbered by a title held by the landlord. The landlord has title but it is also encumbered by the certificate of occupancy of the squatter.
Under these circumstances, a bank would find it difficult to lend anyone of them because of these competing user and ownership claims. Equally someone trying to buy such land has to negotiate with the user and the owner thereby increasing transaction costs and creating uncertainty. This undermines land as a commodity that can be easily traded.
Capitalism is dynamic because it commoditises land and labour. In medieval times, land and labour did not exist as freely and easily traded commodities. Labour existed only as human beings and land as soil to be tilled. But the idea of abstract land and abstract labour i.e. as agents of production – impersonal, dehumanised economic entities, did not exist.
There were lands of course – estates, manors, and principalities. But they were not “real estate” as we know it today available for buying and selling as the occasion warranted. Land could be sold under some circumstances (with many strings attached) but was not generally for sale. Nobles owned land but no self-respecting nobleman would sell his estates – exactly the same way Museveni cannot sell Karamoja to Kenya today.
The same situation pertained to labour. The medieval world had serfs, peasants, cobblers, journeymen, apprentices who laboured. But these did not constitute today’s vast network of job-seeking individuals selling their services to the highest bidder. The peasant tilled the master’s land and paid rent in money or in kind. The apprentice entered the service of his master and his hours of work, pay or length of his apprenticeship were regulated by the guild. There was no bargaining between master and servant.
The situation pertaining to land and labour in Uganda today that Museveni is trying to protect is similar to this medieval economically retrogressive feudal system. The peasants Museveni is protecting do not hold land as real estate i.e. a commodity to be bought and sold as circumstances warrant. Rather they hold it for its subsistence and customary value. They use the land to meet their subsistence needs, a factor that makes the market secondary to their lives.
The customary value of land is embedded in the fact that for many (if not most) peasants, it is inconceivable to sell it. This is because some have their graves on it and selling it would offend the dead, anger their ancestral spirits or raise the ire of the gods.
Museveni may not realise that his humane actions actually stifle progress to commoditisation of both land and labour. The persistence of the subsistence economy makes it difficult to release human beings in agriculture to be available for industry as labour. The peasant will not accept to migrate to cities to earn substandard wages in industry if he can live by his garden.
Thus, in the short term, Museveni is protecting the peasant’s current subsistence. But this is at the price of crippling the mechanism, brutal and dehumanising though it is, that transforms the peasant into an industrial proletariat. And this process will, in the long term, make the peasant better off. Secondly, it is very difficult to create a large market when peasants are self-sufficient i.e. produce most of what they consume. Without land, peasants meet their needs purely from the market.
Rampant land grabbing is suggestive that commercial agriculture is becoming attractive business. In blocking land grabbers, Museveni is being humane but not developmental. There may be humane ways to eliminate the peas-antry but they are a very slow process. Historically, this transformation has not involved kissing and hugging. Museveni’s saving grace is that Uganda’s politics may not allow short term costs that make possible transformation in the long term.