Schools in Uganda Are Getting Bulldozed So Foreign Developers Can Build Stores

With dozens of campuses destroyed, the government has launched an investigation into shady-seeming land grabs by real estate investors.

(Photo: Flickr)

Aug 19, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Imagine taking your kid to school only to find out that the building has been razed and sold to foreign real estate developers—all without students or parents being notified. As deplorable as that might sound, that’s what’s been happening in dozens of schools in Uganda—mostly in the capital, Kampala—over the past year.

Public outrage has triggered a government investigation to get to the bottom of the country’s school-land-grab trend. The inquiry will focus on 30 campuses that were destroyed after the property they stood on was sold to developers, including the demolition in January of what was once the oldest school in East Africa, 85-year-old Nabagereka Primary School in Kampala.

“We are still investigating this matter, and we shall tell the public what we have found,” Jessica Alupo, Uganda’s minister of education, science, technology and sports, told Al Jazeera.

More than 1,000 students attended Nabagereka, which was extensively renovated in 2014. The boys and girls who went there and to other schools that have been torn down aren’t always given other reasonable education options; sending their children to a campus on the other side of a city isn’t always feasible for families.

“When the school was demolished, we had no option but to tell parents to take their children to other schools,” Nabagereka’s former head teacher, Josephine Nokibuuka, told Al Jazeera. The businessman who owned Nabagereka was arrested for allowing the school to be torn down without proper permits, but the charges didn’t stick.

At the same time, Uganda’s literacy rate lags behind the rest of the developed world. Only 71.5 percent of women and 83.5 percent of men over the age of 15 are literate, according to the CIA’s World Factbook. While a new shopping center or restaurant complex in a neighborhood might be nice, if there’s no school in a community, people living in the area are likely doomed to a lifetime of working dead-end, low-wage jobs. Kids who don’t learn to read might not be able to earn enough to shop at a new store.

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So what’s enabling these land grabs to happen? The property some schools were built on is sometimes owned by private businesses or faith-based entities. Advani Mbabazi, a professor at Makerere University in Kampala, told Al Jazeera that the Ugandan government is also smoothing the way for foreign investors. If that sort of backdoor dealing is going on, education officials seem to be comfortable exposing it.

Our audit exercise is not to target individuals but is aiming at [the] ultimate protection of land belonging to education institutions. However, if there are individuals taking the schools’ land, they will be identified and questioned accordingly, said Alupo.