The illegitimacy of the institutional infrastructure supporting African land grab: unexposed issues

Since the global economic downturn and food price spike of 2007, the Land Matrix project found that between 2000 and 2010 a total of 203 million hectares of African land were leased to foreign countries or investors.   A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon an article written by Liz Alden Wily about how African governments allow farmers to be pushed off their land. I read the article with great interest and agreed with most of what Liz wrote, but one thing struck me hard. I could not stop thinking about one remark she made about African ownership of their land: that Africans are not legal owners because they possess no title, as required by [inherited colonial] laws, to prove ownership. This remark is unsettling because it should not be a matter of debate that Africans own their lands.

The legacy of European colonization had a profound impact on government institutions of African countries. Today, their legal frameworks remain a combination of common or civil laws introduced during colonization, long standing customary and traditional practices, and, in some places, Sharia (Islamic) law. African countries have enacted new laws to focus on specific issues of trade and commerce. The body of colonial era laws and codes has evolved little, even after re-drafting new constitutions in the 1980s and 1990s. Historically, Africans have had customary rules and traditions about land ownership and land trades. These ownership rules predated colonization.

The end of colonization should have been the end of colonial laws. Sadly, the established system morphed into the system that exists today. If we assume that Africans’ customary rules on land ownership have no value, then the current assumption stands. However, the constant and undeniable fact is that Africans’ ownership of their land precedes the existence of current corrupt governments or dictatorships. Transfer of land in conformity with local traditional rules still prevails in most places.

Lack Of Awareness

Land ownership is one of the most personal issues, and many wars have erupted over land disputes.  Africans’ lack of action derives from the fact that they are mostly uninformed about  laws that have made them tenants on their own lands. Africans are simply not aware that their land was taken away a few decades ago by the stroke of a pen during colonization. Africans in large part are not awake to this injustice, even though it’s more personal and a matter of survival for almost all families and communities in Africa.  Those governments, who have failed to develop the continent and prevented the able and willing among their own people from taking over to make progress, are now completely ceding the land.

The Significance Of Registering The Land

The requirement to register land is not and should not be viewed as establishing or creating property or the right to the land, but as merely documenting proof of ownership. Those are two different issues in regards to ownership. African communities know what their ancestral lands are; no government should be able to take that away.  Furthermore, registering a piece of land is expensive and out of reach to most Africans; how could anyone place such a burden on people who have owned the land for millennia? The unfairness of the inherited colonial laws and systems should have been destroyed with the end of colonization. It’s unfortunate that these foreign laws, even under revised form, are now being enforced to cede African land, for the benefit of a few.

The Colossal Contracdictions Behing Land Grab

Africans are being forced to leave their land, and are tortured and sent to jail for refusing to give up their land to foreign investors (e.g. China, the Middle East, Europe, the  United states of America) or local political barons and privileged elite. There are many cases where communities and families have been displaced, including a Cameroonian man who was recently jailed for refusing to cede his ancestral land to Chinese investors. Those taking the land are using it to grow food mainly for exports and their own country’s consumption. How does anyone explain that at the time when people are dying from hunger in Sudan and Somalia, these countries’ lands are being given to foreign “investors” to grow food for Middle Eastern consumption? Government leaders take the money to fill their own pockets and leave their own people famished. 

Most of those African leaders making such decisions came to power and are staying there through illegitimate means. Governments are putting lands in the hands of the highest bidders under the guise of development programs to benefit Africans.  African leaders treat their countries’ resources like personal property; as a consequence, the primary beneficiaries of this “land grab” are everyone but African farmers or their communities. Africa should be part of international commerce, and of course all countries, including African countries want foreign investments, however, this should not be at the expense of the only thing Africans can hold on to: their ancestral lands.

For those investors coming for the gold rush, they need to ask themselves if these land deals provide them with the certainty and security that they seek for their investments.  They should think twice before dealing with African leaders who do not hold the interests of their own people at heart. If theses leaders do not protect their own people’s interests, why would they care much about what happens to other’s investments?  Investors should stop relying on corrupt leaders or they may end up seeing their investments vanish with the dictatorships that enabled them. 

The Need For Reform

African and European scholars are advocating for more fairness and equity, but their voices are eclipsed by the lack of action by Africans themselves. As if getting rid of dictators wasn’t enough, Africans now have to reassert their ownership over their ancestral lands in a way that denies anyone the ability to make them once more slaves in their own land.

This is why institutional reform is paramount for Africa’s development. If electoral cycles aiming to change presidents are the goal for most, then we are all missing the point. African countries need an institutional foundation that embraces African customs and addresses the needs of their own people. The current system is so inadequate that we urge the African Union and other international organizations to recognize African lands as owned by African people and local communities, and to accept African customary rules on land ownership so as to secure the stability of the continent and peace in the world.  Now is the time to prevent future conflicts over land in Africa.

The Responibilities Of The Sons And Daugthers Of Africa

Action needs to be taken before it’s too late and the world finds itself with major conflicts over land in Africa.  Sons and daughters of Africa should be making the work of African and Western scholars like Liz Alden easier by joining in the process and making sure that not only unjust laws are changed, but that loopholes are eliminated. They should also ensure that local communities have a say in how lands are ceded or leased to local or foreign investors. This is not about regime change, but about securing the only place on which Africans can stand to build a better future for themselves.  Irresponsible governments should lose their ability to jeopardize the future of Africans even further than the damage they have already caused. The land expropriation is happening with the blessings of so-called adopted colonial laws. Slavery and colonization needed local agents and traitors to make the impact it did make on Africa.

The idea that 90% of land is not “legally registered” and therefore does not belong to their rightful owners should not be allowed to stand. Africans are not tenants to governments (democratically elected or not) that behave like agents serving the interests of all but their own people. Dictatorships are universally recognized as destructive for their own country and people.

The African continent is evolving and changing rapidly. Land grab may be the true catalyst for the revolution to rid African countries of all dictatorships.  This issue may end up raising African consciousness and help them finally take control of their resources. For Africans still asleep, please do not wake up in the future and ask how slavery and colonization happened. It is your responsibility to stand up and act today. Just remember the wise words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

More Articles In This Series To Follow:

Land grabs are not only displacing people from the ancestral lands they have lived on for centuries, creating a property rights issue, but are also affecting people’s economic, environmental and cultural rights. Thus, land grabs present several distinct, but interconnected rights issues for many present-day Africans, especially rural Africans, women, and small-scale farmers.  Often none of these injustices stand alone and frequently one begets the other. The following article series Land Grabs in Africa will seek to describe the different parties leasing/buying land in Africa, what becomes of the land that is leased/bought, and the consequences of land grabs for the majority of Africans who are negatively affected.  More importantly, however, this series will also advocate for reformed land policy in Africa to safeguard people and communities rights.