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February 06, 2012

Interrogating Africa’s traditional communal land tenure systems

by Chido Makunike

In having a relatively small land mass and high population density, Rwanda is unlike most other African countries. This makes its land use and management challenges much more urgent and of a different nature than those of countries that have more ‘spare’ land.

Until the coming of European colonization, land tenure systems in Africa were almost exclusively based on some form of communal ownership and use. Individual title deeds are now the norm in urban areas but in most countries, rural land is still under some form of communal ownership, with traditional community leaders being in charge of allocating land, often even where government has legal title to the land.

Title to rural farmland is common in countries that have significant European ‘settler’ communities, such as Kenya, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Land that was grabbed from the Africans was then defined as ‘European land’ on which title deeds were then issued out to the settler beneficiaries. These colonial land grabs have in Zimbabwe been used as the political basis for the controversial recent land ‘re grabs’ from white farmers.

In all countries, rapidly increasing populations, climate and environmental pressures on the land mean that traditional land ownership system are not sustainable in the long term. To give just one example, in most societies traditionally the sons would inherit the father’s land. Large land masses, low populations and high mortality rates were some of the factors that helped make the system work. But today’s conditions mean many more pressures on the land, requiring different solutions.

None of the required new solutions are obvious or easy. Most African societies are still agrarian, but under conditions that mean the land can no longer sufficiently support all the people on it for population, soil fertility, climate and many other reasons. Many people are drifting to towns, but not because of any significant industrialization or other opportunities offered there. The urban areas are seen as offering more, easier opportunities to scrape together a living than do the rural areas. Those who remain on the land may work as hard as they ever did, or harder, but for declining returns.

All these problems are concentrated in a small, population-dense country like Rwanda.

“Get Peasants Off Land for Their Own Survival” is an interesting November 2011 article ( by Edward Ojulu looking at Rwanda’s options to address these issues.

Ojulu says a law passed in 2005 ‘‘gives the government of Rwanda authority to manage and regulate the use of all land in the country.’’

Among the points he makes:

* ‘Land in most parts of Africa has been in the hands of subsistence (peasant) farmers who apply crude tools and methods of cultivation to produce food barely enough for their own domestic consumption. With high population growth rates, peasants have further eroded land productivity by fragmenting the land into tiny plots that can hardly produce enough food for a family of five. ‘

* ‘In the case of Rwanda, one of the most densely populated countries on planet earth, official statistics show that there is one hectare of land for every nine Rwandans. And this is diminishing due to high birth rates, with the country's population is expected to hit 16 million by 2020.

His bold conclusion is that, ‘The time is therefore now to institute bold land reforms to remove a peasant farmer off the land to allow proper and sustainable management by the State, whose role in ensuring food security has now become more critical.’

One might question whether a key direct role for government in ensuring food security is the best solution to the problems he outlines, but he anticipates this, stating, ‘It is suicidal for any government in Africa today to shy away from this role. When people don't have food, they accuse the government of negligence. There are already signs of unrest and political instability cause by food scarcity in the region.’

Ojulu goes even further in arguing for tough measures by the State to take charge of land use and food production.

He writes, ‘The time is now for the state in Africa to take full control of land by expropriating it for commercial food production. This will require not half-hearted measures but a very elaborate agricultural revolution that will see peasants relocate to planned settlements from where they will commute to work in farms and the agro-processing industries that will emerge as a result of commercial products.’

‘With the new law that gives nationals only leasing rights on the land they occupy, this country can indeed put an end to land fragmentation. This is possible because a father of 10 sons who is currently living on a hectare, no longer has the right to sub-divide it into plots and distribute to his sons. He needs the permission of the landlord (the state) to transfer his lease rights,’ says Ojulu.

While the issues he raises are important, none of the answers may be as easy and straightforward as Ojulu suggests. Several countries have tried the mass relocation of peasants to ‘planned settlements’ under various guises, but rarely with successful results. One example that comes to mind is the Ujamaa experiment of the late president, Julius Nyerere, in Tanzania, which caused more problems than it solved.

In colonial Rhodesia, Africans were moved from their ancestral lands to ‘tribal trust lands’ where they were to be provided centralized services, while the grabbed land from which they had been moved was titled to white settlers who then became farmers. This was obviously a strong reason for African disgruntlement, eventually leading up to a long, bitter independence war, and accounting for the recent controversial but also popular Zimbabwean land ‘re-grabs’ of recent years.

Ethiopia in particular has been in the news a lot recently for allegedly ‘grabbing’ a lot of communally held land from peasant farmers to cede to foreign agro-investors. But this type of modern day land ‘grabbing’ by African governments under pressure to provide food and economic solutions is hardly unique to Ethiopia. Whether the results of this grabbing will be the net positives Ojulu seems to assume will only become clear in coming years.

In Zimbabwe, the thriving commercial farms that were built up on colonially grabbed African land led to many other problems which did not become fully obvious for many decades. So even if Ojulu’s idea of expropriating low-productivity land to make higher productivity use were basically sound, how this difficult process is carried out makes a big difference to the political acceptability, and the ultimate success of the change.

While Ojulu is right to say that in times of food scarcity people expect the government to make aggressive moves to avert hunger, this is not necessarily at all the same as advancing a direct role for the State in farming. There are almost no examples in Africa of government successfully being directly involved in agricultural production to any significant extent. Almost everywhere there has been farming success, it has been by government providing the conditions for small or large scale private farmers to then thrive.

In today’s developed countries, the migration from rural peasantry to urban wage labor was an ‘organic’ outcome of the process of industrialization. That process has not significantly happened in Africa. In Africa the migration is from poor and declining prospects in the rural areas to urban prospects that are not much better. Even if Ethiopia or Rhodesia-style mass relocations of rural communities to make way for agri-business improved food production, there is no reason to think that the millions of people displaced would find productive accommodation in the towns or downstream agro-industries.

Agro-industries imply mechanization, so any jobs produced would not match the numbers of people displaced from rural areas. In any case, rural peasants would hardly be the choice of employee for any industry. And even in the case of new mega farm holdings, their workers will be measured in thousands of people, not hundreds of thousands or millions. A significant, difficult question that all African countries face, therefore, is if you expropriate land from rural peasants for reasons similar to those given by Ojulu, what do all the displaced people do?

Whatever one thinks of Ojulu’s conclusions, he does do a good job of presenting some of the pressing issues to do with land tenure systems needing revision all over Africa.

African Agriculture

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