Understanding the Evolution of Property Rights to Land in Uganda:1900-2010

  • Olive Sabiiti

Student thesis: Phd


It is a nearly established fact in the literature on economic growth and development that institutions, particularly well - defined and enforced property rights are vital for economic growth. Accordingly, knowing the right institutions to establish and understanding how to secure them is important to any country seeking economic advancement. Yet even among institutionalists, there are wide ranging controversies regarding the definition of institutions, how to identify the right institutions and obtain them. Further, there exists much uncertainty regarding the interaction between formal and informal institutions in engendering the de facto institutional environment. Existing research and practice do not shed much light on the immense challenge of transforming bad institutions into good institutions.This study investigates the evolution of property rights to land in Uganda during the period 1900 to 2010 in order to understand why, when, in what direction, and how property rights emerged and changed in order to contribute to the discourse on the emergence and change in the institution of property and aid our understanding on how desirable institutions can be acquired.Using an institutional analytical framework based on the field of New Institutional Economics, we examine in a historically chronological manner, the changes in property rights to land in Buganda, a region in the central part of Uganda.The thesis then concludes that, firstly, property rights do not necessarily change in response to changes in relative prices. Neither does property rights change always happen when we expect it to. Other factors such as vested interests of political actors and interest groups within a society conceptualised as veto players can interfere and delay change or stop it altogether. Relative price changes only lead to institutional change when the price change coincides with the interests of the state and powerful groups in society. Secondly, even when property rights mutate in response to relative price changes as predicted, it may not be towards greater specification, efficiency and tenure security. Property rights change may follow multiple trajectories and culminate in common property, state property, other restrictive property arrangement or even a mix of individualised and communal tenure. Moreover, even where private property is witnessed, rights may not be clearly defined and enforced and there may be a prevalence of overlapping and conflicting rights on the same piece of land. In Buganda, path dependent political factors were particularly significant in determining the trajectory of property rights to land. Thus, the assumption that institutional change is linear and towards the direction of private property and increased efficiency is not necessarily valid. Thirdly, this thesis underscores the importance of distinguishing between formal and informal institutions when trying to understand and explain institutional change because each category emerges and changes for different reasons. While it is the deliberate decisions of political actors that may change formal property rights, informal property rights are more likely to be the consequence of the designer's cognitive limits and unintended consequences. This thesis has also distinguished between the various kinds of informal institutions and drawn attention to reactive informal institutions, a category that is often overlooked in analyses of institutional change. They emerge in response to overly constraining formal laws, have no relationship to culture and can change relatively quickly.
Date of Award1 Aug 2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorFrancis Stephen (Supervisor)


  • institutional change
  • institutional analytical framework
  • change in property rights to land in Buganda
  • evolution of property rights to land in Uganda
  • property rights to land
  • formal and informal institutions
  • institutions
  • veto players

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