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Conference on Land in Africa: Market Asset or Secure Livelihood?
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Mr. Chairman,
Honourable Ministers,
Distinguished participants, ladies and gentlemen,

Let me at the outset congratulate the organisers of this conference, namely the Royal African Society, the Natural Resources Institute and the IIED, for choosing such a critical topic and for bringing together people who want to help Africans to take their rightful place in the world. I thank you for inviting me to participate in this important conference and meet such distinguished company.

As you are aware, earlier this year in February, Prime Minister Tony Blair of the United Kingdom launched the Commission for Africa (CFA). I am honored to be among the 9 Africans appointed to serve among the 17 Commissioners, and also to be one of the 3 women among the commissioners.

Using Commission findings and recommendations, Mr. Blair has promised the United Kingdom will use its position as Chair of the G8 and of the European Union during 2005 to put Africa high on the international agenda. Mr. Blair calls Africa “a scar on the world’s conscience” and believes it is time for the international donor community to honour its commitments to support Africa to overcome its disadvantaged position in the global economy. At the CFA, we are taking Prime Minister Blair seriously, and working hard to come up with a radical agenda for action, to turn things around in Africa’s favour.

This will be the time to find solutions to the fundamental problems of Africa that include the debt burden, low levels of investment, unfair trading practices and the lack of sufficient aid, not to mention the HIV/AIDS crisis.

So what exactly will the Commission try to achieve, indeed what can it achieve? I am aware that these kinds of questions need to be asked. In fact, I believe that there might even be skepticism about this initiative.

My response is that Africa will find it hard to break out of the vicious circle it finds itself in without supplementing its efforts with international support. Balance and realism require that we exploit every opportunity that raises the profile of the continent and its plight, thereby enhancing the momentum for international action to fulfil past promises and to meet newer targets like the Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations.

The Commission provides a forum to hear and to learn what Africans want in these critical areas of concern. I am also entrusted with the task of working on cross cutting issues such areas as gender and youth. A consultation process has been launched to help the commissioners listen to African concerns. This process involves listening to people within and outside the continent and to representatives of the African diaspora around the world who contribute so much through remittances and provide constant support to the continent. In fact, you might say my presence here is part of this ongoing process of consultation, and I thank the organizers for the opportunity.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Land is of course a critical factor to the future success of Africa, and it needs to be a key item on the Commissions’ agenda. We must be very frank with ourselves that Africa is still dealing with the legacy of its past. More specifically with colonialism and its accompanying skewed land distribution. This legacy is still contributing to the crisis associated with land in many countries, from Zimbabwe, to South Africa, Namibia, and most recently in Kenya.

We are all familiar with the history of Africa. Large parts were denuded of their populations by the slave trade. The destruction of the empire in the area now known as Angola is a good example of the devastating effects of slavery.

The continent was also carved up by European powers, that was speeded up in the late nineteenth century during what is infamously known as the scramble for Africa. The approach of the colonial powers inevitably involved large scale land alienation from the indigenous population. The best land always came under the ownership of the settler population. Linked to this, the settlers introduced foreign approaches to land tenure using individual land titling systems.

It was a distinguishing feature around the world of all colonies that land registration systems and the cadastre were used to legitimize taking the land away from the indigenous population. The laws that were introduced to do this were often based on what is known as ‘terra nullius’, that is ‘empty earth’. The settlers did not recognize the existing land rights of the indigenous population, but instead created new land rights over the best land to facilitate their own requirements. There are numerous examples throughout Africa of settlers claiming land as their own and registering it in their names despite the fact that there were already indigenous people in occupation on the same piece of land.

It is important to remember that most colonial wars of independence were fought by indigenous populations to reclaim their land. A classic well known example was the Mau Mau movement in Kenya. Less well known was the earlier “Maji Maji” uprising in Tanzania (1901-1905) where colonial settlements were successfully resisted in the Southern highlands of Tanzania, forcing the German colonial government to abandon the alienation of land for white settlements way back in 1905. As a result, despite having some of the best farming high lands in Africa, Tanzania was spared land problems in its vast highland regions especially in the South.

By and large, at independence, one of the legacies with which emerging African governments had to deal with was both the effects of the large scale land alienation and skewed land distribution on the one hand, and the introduction of Eurocentric land tenure systems based on individual titling.

This was one of the biggest challenges that faced Africa’s leaders. In some countries it was dealt with through large scale nationalisation of the land, such as in Mozambique. In other countries, such as South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya a solution to the colonial and settler legacy was postponed and has still not been dealt with comprehensively. This legacy continues to create a land crisis.

Dealing with the legacy of land restitution, skewed land distribution and both so-called modern and customary systems which over lap and undermine security of tenure, cannot be delayed any longer in Africa. It is the responsibility of both the international community as well as African leaders themselves to address this issue. The political will for this is needed now.

All too often, African leaders who came to power did not address the land reform issue head on nor did they deal with it comprehensively. Too often African leaders have not had the political will to confront their new elites who acquired the land from the settlers and who used the colonial land registration system to protect their new land rights. Too often, African leaders were seduced away from their original agendas and chose to forget about the poor and landless.

Unfortunately, this meant passing on the problem to be dealt with by future generations. The problem is even more critical as the populations in sub-Saharan Africa are expanding fast and there is more and more pressure on the land. With more and more landless people coming to the cities, resulting in the urbanisation of poverty, a solution has to be found soon. We cannot delay anymore.

However, to implement large scale land reform, African leaders will need the support and trust of the international community. In the past we have seen international organisations pull back from agreements because the first step did not go according to plan. And here I am referring to Zimbabwe. Experience in Zimbabwe with land has had reverberations around the continent.

The problems associated with the supply of funding for land reform, where the land was not redistributed to ordinary people but instead to elites, such as early on in Zimbabwe, has also affected the options for settling the land question in Uganda, in regard to, for instance, the Bunyoro. At the same time, fast track land reform, as the Zimbabwe approach is now known, has caused excitement among the poor in many countries like South Africa and Namibia. Clearly concerted action is needed to avoid the Zimbabwe tragedy, especially as across Africa, landless peasants and herdsmen, are agitating for the same.

It is now a general principle among donors, that money should not be made available for land compensation because of these past experiences. Today, we have to find ways of restoring the confidence of international organisations in providing funds for land reform, so that land restitution and land redistribution can be undertaken and the land crisis comprehensively addressed. This is one of the most critical steps towards dealing with the land problem in many countries in Africa and towards giving the poor hope, peace and stability.

The other issue that has to be urgently addressed relates to the simultaneous existence of both customary and ‘so-called modern’ or statutory systems of land tenure in most Sub-Saharan countries. The so-called modern emphasis on individual land titling, denies the reality of Africa, where families and groups dominate land tenure, also in informal urban settlements.

To deal with the colonial legacy of the land tenure system we need to alter the laws and regulatory frameworks of countries so that, where and as appropriate, families and groups, rather than just individuals, can also acquire formal land and property rights and secure tenure. Given that African land administration systems have tended to be focused on individual land titles for the middle and commercial classes, new innovative and affordable approaches have to be developed. I understand that a number of African countries have embarked on this exercise. In this regard I would like to just list critical areas of concern to be observed if more appropriate and functional land administration systems are to emerge:

  1. Understand and Modernize Customary Laws: Customary land laws on which peasant populations and pastoral societies depend are quickly becoming obsolete from a combination of population pressure, environmental and soil deterioration, mining and commercial farming, civil conflicts, migration and urbanization, among others. In many places customary land laws are no longer functioning properly, and land is increasingly being sold by those who have jurisdiction over it, such as local chiefs originally entrusted to safeguard the interest of the community. This being the case, the first step in new land administration systems is to get informed of what is happening to land instead of making assumptions about the existence of customary tenures, or even naively idealizing the traditional systems and advocating for their preservation. There are places where individual land registration is the only way to safeguard the interest of the weaker members of the community and areas where this is not the case. However, one size fits all prescriptions cannot and will not work well.
  2. Declare and Enforce Women land rights: In practically all of Africa, customary land laws discriminate against women, and generally the political will to protect women land and property rights and interests is not there. In some countries progressive land policies and even laws might have been enacted but are not effectively enforced. It means discriminatory practices and traditions continue to deny women direct access to land. Governments have tended to pay lip service to women land and property rights, but in practice, most women have to fend for themselves. In areas where land pressure is high, the only guaranteed way for a woman to acquire land is to purchase it. For example, since colonial times, Haya women in the Kagera region of Tanzania have been known to engage in prostitution and brewing local beer as a way to raise funds to acquire land and become decent and respected farmers. In this community, which is typical of many other societies across the continent, women cannot inherit land and landed property in their matrimonial homes upon divorce or widowhood without (male) children. The government of Tanzania adopted a progressive land policy in 1999 which covered considerable ground in addressing land tenure problems at local level, including empowering women by denying husbands the right to sell farm plots without written consent by their wives. However, the Tanzanian government, like many others is yet to address the key issue influencing women’s access to land and property, namely, succession and inheritance laws. It remains a fact that the only way for women to access land is to purchase it while their make counterparts have a chance to inherit the same.
  3. Pay special attention to pastoral communities: Pastoral communities require special attention not only to protect their rights to secure tenure but also to help them adopt better livestock husbandry methods, if they are to survive. For example, in East Africa, the Maasai way of life is under strain from rising populations and competition for land from rapidly growing cities and towns, cultivators and the need to conserve national parks and wildlife. A programme that balances the competing ends of the Maasai and similar communities is important in the sustainable development of Africa. Alternative livelihoods for the Maasai might have to be found and the idealization of traditional lifestyles could be counter productive as it becomes a mechanism of poverty and exclusion in the long term.
  4. Adopt land allocation and taxation systems that discourage corruption, land grabbing, speculation and absentee landlordism: In most of Africa, administrative rather than market mechanisms are used to allocate public land. The radical title is vested in the President or Head of state, and land can be expropriated from anyone, including a title holder in public interest. Once such an expropriation takes place land becomes public. Such land is then often allocated administratively, for example, as new residential or industrial plots. Often the powers for the allocation of such land is vested in the Minister responsible for lands, almost on discretionary basis creating room for rent seeking behavior by land administrators. In many parts, those granted land are supposed to develop it during a specified period, but more often than not the mechanisms to enforce this requirement are ineffective. Individuals therefore hold land speculatively, denying it from those who need it immediately. A combination of market mechanisms to allocate land and punitive taxation systems to discourage absentee landholding must be explored and put in place as appropriate.
  5. Review the relationship between agricultural and mining land rights: In many countries mining rights override agricultural rights. Even with secure tenure, once mineral resources are discovered in a region, there does not seem to be adequate protection by those with agricultural and other secondary rights such as forestry and water rights. This is recipe for disaster. For example, in Tanzania Geita district conflicts between peasant communities and mining companies are growing because of the gold mining industry. In such cases, compensation cannot be for land alone but must also allow for lost income, even in generations to come, and strategies to ensure communities are fully integrated elsewhere.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Africa is urbanising faster than any other continent. What is worse is that an estimated 72% of the urban population in Africa live in slums without any form of security of tenure. Improving the property rights for millions of the urban poor is a massive challenge especially as tenure issues are extremely complex in urban areas. No single tenure option can solve all these problems. Policy on land tenure and property rights can best reconcile social and economic needs by encouraging a diverse range of options rather than putting emphasis on one option, such as individual titling. This will involve adapting and expanding existing tenure and rights systems where possible and introducing new ones selectively.

UN-HABITAT is assisting Member States wherever we can to develop new approaches to facilitate security of tenure to the urban poor. For example, currently we are working with the Ministry of Water, Lands and Environment, in Uganda, in partnership with the World Bank, to assess innovations, such as the systematic demarcation that has been introduced in that country. As development partners we are calculating the cost to the state and to the citizen of the innovative designs for tenure security, their impact on poverty and on women’s land rights, and we are finding out how the new land law can also be applied to the urban areas. We intend to follow up this partnership with the World Bank to upscale innovations in other countries.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to conclude with a plea. It is clear that we need to address the problem of land no matter what the risk. This means commitment from all as partners, international and local. But what I wish to emphasize is that this is not just a call for the political necessity of land reform rather it is a call for land reform as an economic necessity.

Evidence from all over the world shows that those countries that have undertaken comprehensive land reform have attained significant economic growth and development in the medium to long-term, while those that have failed to implement land reform have tended to stagnate.

If we wish to see Africa develop, then ladies and gentlemen, I submit that we must prioritise resources for land reform all over the continent.

Once again I wish you successful deliberations at this conference, and promise that in my capacity as a member of the Blair Commission, I will take your recommendations seriously and will try to ensure that they are included in our report.

Also, as head of the UN agency mandated to assist developing countries to improve their land and property administration systems, I am well placed and pledge my resolve to assist in the implementation of the recommendations that will arise from this workshop across Africa.

I thank you for your attention.

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