Analysis - Socio-Cultural Interactions

Who owns what?

The land question in Africa

Writer : Sebastian Gatimo

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Who owns what?

Land remains a basic source of the livelihood for the majority of Africans, and is essential to the development of agriculture, tourism and housing. One of the major challenges facing many African countries today, however, is land ownership. Two regimes of land tenure exist in most African countries, one based on private property rights and another based on customary rights. The tension between these two systems produces some winners and many losers, who are often dispossessed of their land. Clearly, inequitable access to land in Africa is a critical constraint on poverty eradication because for rural households, land is a storehouse of nature for the reproduction of future generations. Apart from its value for agricultural production to realize subsistence food and exchange incomes, land also provides basic household needs such as wood fuel, organic fertilizer, medicines, housing materials and game meat[i].

The land question in most of African states reflects extreme imbalances of landownership on the basis of race and class, as well as of increased foreign control of land[ii]. Even in countries where the historical legacy of racially based settler control of land had not dominated colonial struggles such as  Sudan and South Sudan, increased foreign and elite control of prime agricultural and tourism lands has emerged[iii]. These land problems and the incidence of high population densities in marginal environments have increased poverty and conflict over access to marginal lands. Yet, land remains the major source of livelihood for most people  in Africa and will continue to be so until the industrial and service sectors provide alternative opportunities for survival.

Different forms of settler colonization in Africa, with regard to the degree of colonial expropriation of land, define the main differences in the continent's land questions today, particularly with regard to the nature of the unresolved national land questions. Where mild land expropriation and white settler occupation existed, for instance in Botswana, Zambia, and Malawi, less explosive land questions are found, although over time land concentration among blacks has become the issue.[iv] Extreme settler land expropriation in Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique and Angola has led to a more protracted liberation struggle and persistent land conflicts.[v]

The number of armed conflicts and civil violence on the African continent has continued to rise in the last few decades. Although the causes of conflict are difficult to disentangle from a myriad and complex set of events that include access to land, control of natural resources, and competition between different land users to explore the natural resource base are increasingly seen as a key factor.

The diverse aspects of the land problem in African countries

Ethiopia is one of several post-socialist countries undergoing an ambivalent transformation process towards some kind of capitalist economy. This applies in particular to land tenure regimes. Many expected that in this process of ‘post-socialist transition’, a move towards privatization and registration of land titles would follow, which was regarded as a means to increase productivity of Ethiopia’s smallholder agriculture. However, these expectations were soon disappointed. The Transitional Government of Ethiopia, despite being committed to the economy's liberalization , decided not to question state ownership.[vi]

The Land policy in the country has been controversial since the fall of the military socialist Derg regime in 1991.[vii] Insecurity of land tenure today restricts land rights, reduces incentives to productively invest in land, and limits transferability of land posing significant constraints to agricultural growth and natural resource management. This has nurtured an antagonistic debate between advocates of the privatization of land property rights to individual plot holders and those supporting the government’s position.[viii] This debate, however, fails to account for the diversity and continuities in Ethiopian land tenure systems. While the current Ethiopian government has implemented a land policy that is based on state ownership of land, many agricultural economists and international donor agencies have propagated some form of privatized land ownership. However, while the laws in Ethiopia are conceptual hybrids that accommodate both fairness and efficiency considerations, regional bureaucrats have selectively implemented those proclamation elements that are considered to strengthen the regime’s political support in the countryside.

The pace of land reform in South Africa, just like other African countries is undeniably slow.[ix] However, while there may be general acceptance that the South African Land Reform Programme is not occurring fast enough, there is no agreement on the reasons. There are those who argue that the fundamentals in terms of policy and legislation are in place and that the main problem lies with the implementation of these policies. Proponents of this view go on to blame lack of implementation on what they perceive to be lack of capacity on the part of policy makers. On the other hand, there are those who argue that there are fundamental structural and policy issues that impede the achievement of the objectives of land reform, limited as they are.

In East Africa, land has been a major cause of insecurity. Kenya provides a good example where land has for years been a source of conflict. Recent violence in Kenya’s Lamu County in 2014 that left more than 100 people dead and resulted in thousands of people fleeing from their homes only raised some questions over land ownership.[x] In the past 10 years or so, Kenya has witnessed violence in many parts of the country, including the Coast province, Rift Valley, Western and Northern provinces. Land and continued marginalisation have been at the centre of their grievances. However, there has been lack of political will to solve the land question, coupled with weak civil society organisations. A recent report by the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) in Kenya concludes that there is a close link between land injustices and ethnic violence in the country. Land-related injustices can take many forms, including the illegal takeover of individual and community land by public and private institutions; members of specific ethnic groups benefitting from settlement schemes at the expense of others; forceful eviction; and land grabbing by government officials.

From the country’s colonial past to the present day, land has always been a very emotive issue and a source of conflict in Kenya. Today, 50% of arable land in Kenya is in the hands of 20% of the population. Some 13% of Kenyans are landless, while 67% own less than an acre per person.[xi]

Land in Uganda is regarded not merely as a factor of production, but first, and foremost, as the medium that defines and binds social and spiritual relations within and across generations.[xii] In Uganda, as it is in East Africa and other African countries, there is an ethnic attachment to land ownership, whether communal or private tenure. This, to some extent, brings about ethnic tensions and conflict as the land question has for years remained unresolved.  The recent discovery of oil deposits in the Albertine Graben region has generated excitement in Uganda regarding the promise the resource may yield and the probable economic windfall in the energy sub-sector, its contribution to national economy and social well-being. This has complicated the land question further as community expectations over the value of land have skyrocketed.

As an agrarian economy, the value of land for Uganda is naturally high as a strategic socioeconomic asset. According to the Uganda National Land Policy, 2009, the land sector dominance in the economy is evidenced by the fact that more than 43% of the Gross Domestic Product, 85% of export earnings and 80% of employment, are generated from land-based economic enterprises. Agriculture remains the largest single employer engaging the country’s workforce, with 73% of the population engaged in subsistence agricultural production, the professionals and administrators collectively constitute a paltry 7% of the total working population. Some 2.5 million smallholders in Uganda work less than 2 hectares of land to produce the bulk of the output, food crops having replaced traditional export crops as the principal cash earners for rural families. The basic unit of production in the agricultural areas is the small-scale family holdings. The average size of such holdings is between 1.6 to 2.8 hectares in the south and 3.2 hectares in the north.[xiii]

Consequently, the security of livelihoods and well-being for most Ugandans continues to depend on the sustainable management and development of the land. This makes land a highly volatile and political issue, and its control continues to be a critical factor in Uganda’s development agenda. A number of scattered policies do indeed exist on various aspects of the land question, but these are diverse, sectoral and inconclusive in many respects. Solution to the land question in Uganda must therefore defy legislative norm and offer politically palatable and technically conclusive answers to support reforms.

A well thought out land policy is an urgently felt need in South Sudan but its realization is no easy task in a region with diverse forms of communal (or customary) tenure, ecological conditions and land use practices. Moreover, the region has been devastated by wars and famines for many years. The factors that contribute to the urgency include the growing need for land to resettle returning refugees and internally displaced persons, the pressures from potential investors and donors to make land available for private commercial use especially in the extractive industry, the need to identify and set aside lands for public purposes and infrastructural and urban development, and the need to deal with resource conflicts and competing claims to land. The government is still in the early stages of establishing the administrative structures in the ten states under its authority. This process is however moving slowly and unevenly across the states due to lack of human capital, experience, and financial resources.[xiv]

The consequences of the current land ownership pattern in Africa  

The land question was the main catalyst of ethnic violence in Kenya over the years, especially in 2007/08, when more than 1,000 people were killed and thousands fled their homes. Today some of these are internally displaced people (IDPs) after the post-election violence are waiting religiously for justice through the on-going International Criminal Court cases. They have nowhere to go; and nowhere to call home.[xv]

In Uganda, tension is high over land issues. To some extent, the land question will shape political future and stability of most of these countries in Africa. Political elites must shun their tradition of looking at their plight and think of their citizens and nationally to ensure proper all-inclusive process that will bring to an end the 'land question' in the continent. Institutions must be empowered to offer oversight and policy recommendations with an independent eye.

The land question in most African countries has been riddled with corruption. This must stop if land issues are to stop and the continent wants to achieve stability, peace and agenda 2063, as land still remains a key economic and social resource for Africa. With natural resources being discovered in various parts of the continent, especially minerals, oil and gas, elites are on the verge of hijacking the benefits from trickling to communities and instead enriching themselves. This has caused conflict in various African countries including Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Angola among others. In some instance, the elites have grabbed land for speculation and selling it at exaggerated prices to the government.

It is important to note that, there is a break up of land ownership from traditional norms due to colonialism and subsequent adoption of settler policies. Colonialists introduced individualized ownership of property rights in land previously held either communally or the basis of sovereign trustees. In the process an intricate system of political relationships was legitimized, a new system of property ownership intended to supersede existing indigenous norms and traditions over land. Individualized private land rights systems was therefore super-imposed over the existing traditional systems of land management bringing forth a duality and confusion in systems of property rights management through a multiplicity of land tenure systems.

The future of the land issue and possible solutions

The land question in Africa remains unresolved partly because of its own gradualistic neoliberal approach to land reform, but largely because the peasant question has been denied by the official land reform policy and intellectual debates. This reflects teleological tendencies of debates, which envision greater industrial and non-agricultural employment growth that is expected to diminish peasant demand for land, as well as ideologies that decry the “inefficiency” of peasant production systems and livelihoods per se. The growing urban and peri-urban demand for land, required for housing and petty commodity production, which is contingent upon growing semi-proletarianization and unemployment, has however also been neglected by some of Africa’s market-based land reform and neoliberal social security policies.

To address this recurring problem that seems to drive the affected nations towards failed states, the best strategy will be to begin addressing the land question comprehensively. This will help bury the ethnic animosity that has caused havoc in these countries. The process could be painful, especially to the landed aristocrats, but worth the national unity, peace and reconciliation that are major ingredients to investment and sustainable development. Citizen consultation is critical. The government must embark on policy resolutions that are informed by citizens’ voice. Inclusive process to land issues will contribute greatly to reducing tension and conflict over land

The time is now, for Africa to decide whether, a break from its colonial past is necessary to ensure peace and stability in the continent. A prudent decision has to be arrived at, whether to continue with multiple systems of land ownership or to aspire for one sustainable system and reliable tenure regime. The duality of management systems also has to be harmonized, int


[i] Moyo, S. 2005, The Land Question and the Peasantry in Southern Africa: CLACSO, Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales.

[ii] Moyo, S. 2003, The Land Question in Africa: Research Perspectives and Questions: Codesria, Dakar.

[iii] N. Shanmugaratnam, Post-War Development and the Land Question in South Sudan, Department of International Environment & Development Studies, Noragric Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB)

[iv] Moyo, S. 2003, The Land Question in Africa: Research Perspectives and Questions: Codesria, Dakar.

[v] Ibid

[vi] Wibke Crewett et al, 2008, Land Tenure in Ethiopia: Continuity and Change, Shifting Rulers, and the Quest for State Control, CAPRi Working Paper No. 91

[vii] Ibid

[viii] ARD, Inc., 2004, Ethiopia Land Policy and Administration Assessment, USAID.

[ix] Lungisile Ntsebeza, 2007, The Land Question: Exploring obstacles to land redistribution in South Africa: University of Cape Town, South Africa

[x] Sebastian Gatimu, 2014, ISS Today, The role of land issues in Kenya's rising insecurity.

[xi] Ibid

[xii] Elliott D. Green, 2005, Ethnicity and the Politics of Land Tenure Reforms in Central Uganda, London School of Economics

[xiii] Republic of Uganda, 2009, The National land Policy, Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development, Kampala.

[xiv] N. Shanmugaratnam, Post-War Development and the Land Question in South Sudan, Department of International Environment & Development Studies, Noragric Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB)

[xv] Sebastian Gatimu, 2014, ISS Today, The role of land issues in Kenya's rising insecurity.



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