Land issues dog East Africa


Questions surrounding land remain divisive in spite of the integration advances made by Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda in forming the East African Community (EAC), the Institute for Security Studies says.

At the heart of these land debates are conflicting cultural perceptions of land that trump regional fears of land scarcity or incompatible land regimes, writes ISS Nairobi Office African Conflict Prevention Programme researcher Nyambura Githaiga,
“As the public versus private land systems debate rages on, and while the unsustainable usage of land coupled with the negative impact of climate change aggravates land conflicts, untenable cultural perceptions of land will continue to pose an existential threat,” he says in an analysis. “As the EAC integration steadily progresses, member states need to urgently consider promoting alternative cultural perceptions of land ownership at a local level, which will in turn have a positive domino effect on national and regional perceptions of land. Ultimately these new perceptions will enhance land conservation, maximising the productivity of land to the benefit of all within the framework of sustainable development,” Githaiga says.
“This July marks a year since the ratification of the EAC Common Market Protocol. Despite the apparent integration synergies, there was resistance to concede to the aspect of right of establishment, as contained in the draft protocol for the Common Market, due to its implications for land use, access and ownership. The final concession acknowledged the national policies and laws of member states as the governing frameworks for land use and access. Land has long been a source of conflict among the EAC member states and in that context it is hardly surprising that integration would add a regional dimension to existing land conflicts.
“On a regional level, while the majority of the EAC countries, namely Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, uphold a more private land ownership system, Tanzania has a more public land tenure system. So, while some member states would be open to foreign ownership of land within the EAC, other states would prefer to restrict land ownership to citizens with respect to existing land regimes.
“Nationally, EAC countries have had their share of land conflicts. The nexus between land and heritage has been the basis for conflicts that have manifested as inter-ethnic. Tracing ethnic origins to particular land areas may have its merits in addressing historically unjust land displacements, but this works contrary to reconciliation and the sharing of land by all citizens. Colonial and civil war displacements from ‘ancestral land’ have also created challenges for post-conflict reconstruction attempts to peacefully reintegrate populations who may feel they have more of a right to the land based on heritage than residents who settled there subsequently, however legitimately,” Githaiga adds.
“A question often asked is how far back does one go to determine rightful land claims. All EAC countries struggle with resettling high numbers of internally displaced persons and refugees in areas where they are now considered ‘outsiders’. Rwanda undertook extensive land reform to address this situation. The fact that these developing nations have heavily land-dependant populations only exacerbates these land conflicts, as the need for land triggers a survival instinct. In most EAC countries, the majority of the population derive their livelihood directly from the land through farming, mining and livestock rearing.
“Amidst the various reasons for land conflict, the crux of the matter is the cultural perceptions of land ownership in the East African region. Regardless of one’s occupation, owning a piece of land is a goal to strive towards. Apart from the obvious economic value of land ownership, there are cultural reasons for owning land. Land is seen as a sign of wealth from a cultural economic perspective. Whatever your actual finances, you are not poor as long as you have land. Therefore landlessness is equated with poverty. With a significant proportion of people owning land through inheritance, landlessness becomes a generational poverty issue. The link between land and heritage is illustrated by owning land in one’s ancestral home to propagate heritage ties. In Kenya, for instance, it is not uncommon to live in an urban area and own land in one’s ancestral area. Closely tied to this is the culture of being buried on ancestral land where one’s parents and grandparents are also buried. This solidifies the concept of that land as family land, regardless of where one resides for the most part.
“There is certainly a clear case for land ownership from a cultural perspective, but with population growth and the finite nature of land it is no longer exclusively viable in practice. If land is a pie, we can only have so many pieces before the pie runs out and recent land conflicts indicate that this pie is running out. We need the land to live on and live off, but we must find a way to share this land in a manner that is mutually beneficial. This would mean confronting our core values towards land with the hope of establishing new cultural perceptions of land ownership that are in tandem with land availability and integration within the EAC. A paradigm shift from seeing land as ‘mine’ to seeing land as ‘ours’ will distinguish between land as a resource for survival and as a cultural symbol.
“Owning land in a way that does not benefit the greater good is counter indicative to sustainable socio-economic development. Optimally, land should ensure food security for all citizens and not become a preserve of the few for cultural reasons. Land use also comes with the responsibility of conservation to enable renewability of land resources for sustainable development. New generations in East Africa must begin to question cultural values towards land ownership that preclude mutual gain. To forestall future land conflicts, East Africa’s new generations must begin to see land as a communal resource to be used for the benefit of all, while practicing conservation that renews the land for future generations,” Githaiga says.