By David Makwerere
The dawn of political independence across all of the African countries was greeted with euphoria as this advent of a new governance dispensation was expected to provide the keys to total socio-economic empowerment. However, as events continue to unfold, the social, political and economic affairs within the African continent continue to be volatile. The post independent governments are still struggling with the mammoth task of transforming the structural and economic inequalities afflicting the African citizenry. Key issues that the African leadership is faced with include the issue of displacement from productive land, contested land boundaries as well as the need to redistribute land as a key economic resource.
The Land Question in Africa: A Historical Synopsis
African states have their present identities tied to developments in the post 1884-85 Berlin Colonial Conference eras. The process of colonization led to the arbitrary demarcation of African states. The indiscriminate delineation of African State Borders led to a reconfiguration of African states and identities. The issue of contested land boundaries is prevalent across the continent. Key examples include the Ogaden conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia, the Bakasi Peninsula between Cameroon and Nigeria to mention but a few. Crucially, colonization marked the gradual and yet systematic displacement of Africans from the prime productive lands as most were pushed into the semi-arid terrains, which were of inconsequential economic significance.
Colonialism led to the dislocation of indigenous African communities. Lumumba (2005) noted that “The manner in which individuals or groups in Kenya hold, use, occupy, possess or have access to land since colonial rule to the present is a history of how land lies at the heart of many potential and violent conflicts.” Moore (2010) provided an overview of land-related conflicts across the continent. The glancing overview noted that land conflicts in Sudan, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe have their roots in the colonial legacies that were inherited at independence. As a result, land became a key rallying element for all liberation movements across Africa.
The Dynamics of Post-Colonial Land Conflicts in Africa
Land has acted as a catalyst for direct, cultural and structural violence in many African countries. The land ownership models that were inherited at independence in most African countries were a convenient tool for the perpetuation of socio-economic inequalities. A critical look at countries like Zimbabwe, South Africa and Kenya etc., underlines the fact that post-colonial land disputes are threatening to undermine the gains made since independence.
In South Africa for example, the Economic Freedom Fighters are riding on the land card as a rallying point. They believe that the African National Congress led government have done very little to appease the long suffering South Africans. Moore (2010) summed up the state of affairs when she noted that; “at the 1994 transition to democracy, the government (of South Africa) planned to redistribute 30 percent of white-owned farms to blacks within 20 years. Transfers are behind schedule, and more than half have failed. After an outbreak of racial violence last year, observers fear the status quo – with expectations so high, progress so slow, and livelihoods at stake – is combustible.”
Elsewhere in the Great Lakes Region, land-related conflicts have continued to be a serious threat to sustainable peace and development. Land scarcity as well as colonial distortions in Rwanda is believed to have played a major role in the outbreak of the Rwandan genocide. The same can be said of the Burundian conflict.
However, whilst most of the challenges can be traced to colonial times, the new political leadership on the continent must also shoulder a fair share of the blame. The land reform initiatives on the continent have often been driven by political motives as opposed to genuine efforts to re-distribute the means of production to the ordinary citizens. Zimbabwe is one such example where the ZANU PF led government embarked on a land reform exercise that only saw most of the government and political elites from the ruling party gaining access to the prime commercial lands at the expense of the ordinary citizens.
Implications for the Continent and Regional Bodies
Africa’s development trajectory is primarily anchored on land utilization. The failure of a sustainable model to address the land question in many parts of the continent has led to conflicts. There is an urgent need for the African Union and its Regional Communities to reflect seriously on post-colonial land disputes. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) as well as the African Union Agenda 2063 (the continental blueprints providing direction to the work of the continental body) are silent on the issue of land disputes. The African Union Border Programme (AUBP) provides a framework for managing borders and borderlands and is currently running under the theme, ‘turning borders into bridges’ but it falls short when it comes to inland land-related conflicts. It is my submission that the African Union must prioritize the peaceful and sustainable transformation of post-colonial land conflicts by providing member states with a coordinated blueprint to manage the challenge.
 Odenda Lumumba (2004) Land-related conflicts in Kenya: policy and legal implications, http://www.pambazuka.net/en/category.php/comment/27620
 Jina Moore (2010) Land disputes at the root of African wars: A selection of the African continent’s fights over land that have turned into violent, conflict, or threaten African-wars
David Makwerere is a PhD in Peacebuilding Candidate at Durban University of Technology and a lecturer in the Department of Peace and Governance at Bindura University in Zimbabwe. His research interests are in Peace, conflict, development and procedural and distributive justice at micro-levels