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The Struggle for Land in Africa


By Professor Lionel Cliffe

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 64 (December 2001), pp. 9-44]


[LUCAS Annual African Studies Lecture 2001]

Professor Lionel Cliffe

A personal confession to start with! I want to come clean about a kind of ‘ménage-à-trois’ I have been living for these many years. My established relationship has been here with the University where I have worked for over 20 years – routine, domestic and cosy (at least until recent pressures to commoditise learning and against inter-disciplinary fields like African Studies). In addition, but far more than just a ‘bit on the side’, my heart has been caught up in a long and passionate affair, which I would periodically leave home to pursue – with Africa and all that goes on there. That connection is what has given my life meaning and made me what I am.

Although I first went to Africa to teach, in the heady days immediately after Tanzania’s Independence in 1961, I have been the one to receive instruction. In recent years I have sought to pass on some of what I have been able to learn from direct experience to younger generations of Africans – and Europeans, for there is a great need if Africa is not to remain simultaneously both exploited and neglected, for people here to have an informed view of Africa that is not couched in media clichés.

In thinking what in particular I might pass on in this my swan song at Leeds, I had thought of addressing some grand theme as appropriate for this annual series, something like ‘African Renaissance’, a topic of a recent address, or ‘The state of African Studies’, which my friend Chris Allen made the subject of his farewell this year, or ‘conflict in Africa’, my research focus in the last years. But on reflection, I thought that for this audience many of whom are not specialists, it might be better to focus not on the headline issues but something closer to people’s everyday reality. So I want to share my good fortune over these last 40 years of having opportunity to interact with Africans at the grass-roots as they grapple with the realities of everyday life. And what could be more basic to people’s livelihoods and survival than land? At the same time what is often seen as a common-place relationship of a peasant household to a small plot of land usually has a complexity that poses a great intellectual challenge for the outsider to comprehend. Moreover, that intimate relationship often has very broad political ramifications, which I also want to explore. Hence my title.

A Conducted Tour of East Africa’s Land Issues

To set the scene and to illustrate how political struggles of various sorts have visited transformations on the land system, on the rural people and the very landscape, I want to take you with me on a bus journey I took earlier this month. From the Kenya capital, Nairobi, west across Africa’s Great Rift Valley to Lake Victoria, around its eastern shores into Uganda to its capital, Kampala, I retraced steps I had first taken in 1962 just before either country got Independence. It was a misty morning as the road climbed from 5,000 feet in the city to the top of the escarpment at 8,000 feet before the descent into the Rift Valley. But one could still see how dense the population was along the road. The peri-urban areas stretched for many miles and the ‘rural areas’, when they came, were hardly distinguishable. Houses with many small shops and work-shops, facing the road, huddled together in this well-watered area with tiny holdings of clumps of banana and coffee trees, interspersed with tiny vegetable and maize plots, replaced by some wheat as we got higher. Nowhere was there as much as a garden-sized plot uncultivated. The first sector took us through areas of the Kiambu district where land pressures had made it one of the hot-beds of the so-called ‘Mau Mau’ revolt in the 1950s. The higher reaches before the escarpment had been areas of large farms owned by individual white farmers – the target of the land struggles of the 1950s, and now clearly in African hands.

Descending the massive eastern wall of the Rift Valley, the floor consists of much drier plains, far more sparsely populated, given over to livestock herding by African pastoralists, like the Maasai, with some light not very intensive cultivation here and there – and to game. But along the way, we passed the big, arched sign announcing the de la Mere Estate, over 100,000 acres owned by the Lords de la Mere, succeeding generations of whom were leaders of the white settler community since the early 1900s – still seemingly intact.

Climbing the western wall one reaches highland, which is again very green, well-watered, marked by densely concentrated small African homesteads with fields of maize and other crops. But the area was not always thus. Here and there my eye saw evocations of the past I had been amazed by in 1962 when this was the ‘white highlands’ proper – a bit of park land with grass and trees, some hill-side where the plots were being newly established, a grand house far off the road. To the casual observer the enormous change in land use and landscape that had occurred in 40 years would not be at all obvious. It looked for the most part like a region of smallholder African agriculture, different from others only in its fertility and density. The unseen social and political process behind that dramatic transformation and their consequences will have to be explored, however. Before descending a level to the environs of Lake Victoria, we passed through one of the few areas still in part reminiscent of colonial agriculture, the vast tea estates around Kericho, still owned with their processing factories by corporations like Brooke Bond, but surrounded by dependent smallholder growers delivering leaf to them for processing.

Lake Victoria provides usually abundant rainfall to both the Kenya and Uganda sides, which were also characterised by heavily populated smallholder farming for 200 miles to Kampala. The Kenya lakeside and Uganda as a whole were never given over to white-owned farms, so there histories differ from central Kenya, but occasional corporate-owned sugar estates are to be seen interspersed with the peasant plots.

This sketch hopefully gives some feel for several of the issues and historical struggles that I will deal with. The first issue that was all too evident through most of the journey was the obvious shortage of land. Virtually every place one could see was occupied and intensively farmed in small plots, in an area where population is still growing rapidly despite rapid urbanisation and the ravages of AIDS. But what are the effects of this seeming land pressure – on people’s survival and livelihoods, and on the systems of accessing land – will need more than casual observation? But there was a reminder too of political struggle, that of Kenya’s Land and Freedom Army, as it called itself, in an earlier era: prompting questions about what happened as a result and whether those kinds of social forces still exist. A third theme emerges from the still remaining glimpses of a quite different system of land use and land tenure, of white settler enterprise (individual and corporate), prompting questions about its fate over the last decades, and in particular the land transfers that occurred in Kenya – and elsewhere in former settler colonies. How did this change occur, and how should it be evaluated. The typical, instinctive reaction in the western world has been, ever since the Kenya process began, to assume that such transfers of land are inevitably retrogressive, and detrimental to production, export earnings and livelihoods. Part of the horror at was being done last year in Zimbabwe stemmed from a belief that Africans taking over land from commercial holdings was a retrograde step – however it was done. I shall argue below that this is one of the common misconceptions about land issues in Africa, and, on the basis of Kenya and Zimbabwe experience, put forward the plausibility of an alternative thesis.

The Different Struggles over Land

In trying to explain the kinds of patterns and dynamics seen in this glimpse of one cross-section of African reality, I will in fact use ‘struggles over land’ in four senses:

  1. The ceaseless daily and seasonal struggle for livelihoods, in which access to and use of land is crucial: how people survive and why they barely survive.
  2. Struggles by households and communities to obtain access to land and to define systems and procedures for so doing – issues of property rights.
  3. ‘Struggle’ in the sense of the Swahili word for it (siasa), which is also their word for ‘politics’. The ‘politics of land’ has covered two different kinds of contestation over land: those between and within communities, and those that have been part of a liberation struggle.
  4. The policy-making process – in particular land reform (especially appropriate in relation to redistribution of colonially seized holdings) and land tenure reform in ‘customary’ agriculture

Along the way, I shall make passing reference to a fifth area of conflict – that between contending perceptions and models about land. Often the major obstacles to dealing with land issues are false conceptualisations, like the assumption, that transfer of land from commercial, large-scale to African smallholder production is always a retrograde step. We shall try to bring out and demythologise others.

The main thrust of the lecture is on the third set of struggles: the political mobilisation of people in the fight for land – sometimes on a grand scale against settlerdom; other times on a low key, on-going tension between communities; and on the often related, fourth area of struggle – that to define policies over land, and specifically attempts at ‘land reform’ (whether of indigenous systems of land tenure or of unequal racial patterns of ownership). But to understand the political conflicts and the policy battles, the context that shapes them has to be set out: the general background of the struggles for survival, and the specific institutional framework represented by the second dimension of struggle, the changing patterns whereby people interact to obtain land in indigenous systems of land tenure, and the insecurity these changes often generate.

Struggles for Survival

In this lecture, the first struggle provides the backdrop against which all the other struggles have to be seen, and will be constantly referred back to as we proceed. Only one aspect of this theme will be specifically highlighted by way of introduction: the very marked, but also unremarked, tendency for many rural dwellers to pursue strategies in the struggle for survival that combine farming with a range of other activities, both rural and urban. The tendency is for ‘multiple-source livelihoods’ to be the norm (Bryceson, 1999 offers a good summary of the evidence). In short, the image of the ‘subsistence peasant family’ as typical of Africa is no longer accurate or appropriate – if it ever was – an example of another widespread misperception, but one that is still the model underpinning the thinking of policy makers. In practice, many peasants don’t just produce food; special crops have been grown for sale for a century and livestock has been exchanged for grain for much longer. But increasingly farmers don’t always grow enough for their own subsistence: the better-off because they specialise; the poor because they don’t have enough land, enough oxen or tools to cultivate what they have, or enough labour to make full use of it. This latter constraint is especially felt by those increasing numbers of households headed by women, who find they have to juggle a whole set of competing demands – child care, domestic chores, work to get the cash to pay school fees or meet other essentials that can only be purchased. As a result of these and other changes, rural households, perhaps the majority, no longer rely on farming or other direct production for all of their income. For some it is an aspect of diversification, for others it is a matter of survival as the returns from farming, given the low prices of Africa’s exported crops and the level of wages in all sectors, do not allow families to survive on just one source of income. It is becoming common-place for households to generate livelihoods from a mix of farming, petty trade selling water, firewood, building poles, handicrafts, brewing beer or liquor, working as casual or with luck permanent labourers. Typically, too, these possibilities often involve migration but, hopefully, the retention of family and kinship links between town and country, so as to guarantee the flow of remittances back home. There is a process of ‘de-agrarianisation’ (Bryceson, 1999). The process of obtaining livelihoods may be more diversified but is for most people more not less precarious. Moreover, vulnerability is not evenly spread between or even within communities. It partly depends on the asset base: those with no land or insecure access to it, but also those with few livestock of plough oxen or tools are especially at risk. But studies from across the continent confirm that shortage of labour within the family unit to undertake the range of tasks, which might ensure adequate livelihood is also a great constraint for many families. Of course, this latter problem is relative to the size of the family, or to be more exact, the ratio of mouths-to-feed to hands-to-work. Among the most disadvantaged in this respect are some families of households headed by women.

Of course, it was commonplace to recognise that these trends toward income diversification, ‘sub-subsistence agriculture’, labour migration (mainly by males), and women-headed households were characteristic of the apartheid-type economies based on migration and land segregation, found in southern Africa. But the evidence that has accumulated over the last decade indicates the same patterns of considerable outward but circular migration, a quarter or more of households women-headed, and farming and herding just one of a welter of livelihoods practiced. In one study in a remote community in Eritrea soon after a war of liberation that had isolated some areas for two decades, we still found over 20 livelihood sources over and above agricultural and livestock husbandry.

These realities of de-agrarianisation and multiple-source incomes have seldom been the basis for policy-makers’ considerations in planning land reform or broader rural development. And yet they have enormous implications. For instance, signing away for good the rights of access to land of those temporarily absent from a local community, as legislation like that proposed in Eritrea, may undermine this multiple livelihood strategy. Agricultural projects whose sole aim is defined in terms of generating income or food production from farming miss this broader context. When up to a third of all households are headed by women, it is crucial to ensure women’s access to land is guaranteed in their own right, but is this best done through joint spouse titles, by rights for all individuals or by continuing and re-specifying rights of households? These and other issues have to be addressed in a different manner than that based on the traditional model of the ‘subsistence peasant household’. It should also be stressed that although these trends imply that the use of land for direct production of livelihoods contributes less of a proportion than in the past, the importance of land is not proportionately reduced. It still provides a portion of livelihoods that may be the difference between survival or not; indirectly it offers a basis, maybe the only basis, for social security throughout life (Cousins in NLC, 1999 makes this argument even for South Africa).

Land Tenure Systems & their Dynamics

In this section some generalised picture of these patterns and their significant dimensions will be attempted: in what sense were they ‘communal?  What complex sets of rights were enjoyed and by whom? What was the position of women? What patterns related to areas used for grazing and other community purposes? The sources and consequences of changes will also be explored – the disappearance of spare land with closing up of land frontiers, the social and economic changes associated with involvement of communities in market economies, administrative and legal interventions by colonial and post-colonial governments. But here a brief general point about conceptions and misconceptions surrounding African arrangements for accessing and using land: African concepts of property relations are radically different to the conventional ones in modern western society. Moreover, contestations over those conceptions amount to more than just an intellectual wrangle. They represent one of the basic struggles over conceptualisation affecting policy, and one that has often been at the root of actual struggles. Spear (1996: 236) captures how ideas about land and not just competing claims to the land itself, were at the heart of one renowned episode in Tanzania’s progress to Independence, the Meru Land Case. The politics of that case will be revisited below.

Arusha and Meru (the two peoples in the area) sustained more subtle and complex ideas about land than either the (colonial) administration or the settlers. Land did, of course, have singular economic significance for people who relied on it to produce virtually all of their economic needs, alimentary as well as social. Land was the source not only of food, but also of wealth in disposable land surpluses, beer and the cattle that grazed on it: and wealth was the source of social influence and political power. Given the centrality of land in Meru and Arusha economic, social and political life, it could not help but have had great moral significance as well.

Similar themes emerge from Kenya’s more dramatic experience: good land alienated by white settlers, land pressures leading to political struggle for ‘land and freedom’ and reflecting different values about land, post-colonial land reform. A path-breaking study, which was conducted 40 years ago (Kershaw, 1972), bringing out the land issue that underlay the so-called ‘Mau Mau’ rebellion in Kenya, used the key phrase, “The land is the people”, as its title in order to stress the central significance of land, but more specifically the differing conceptions of whites and Africans about the relationship between land and people. A more recent study of the post-colonial transformation of these relationships, and particularly women’s changing rights to land, also called attention to the way that land is embedded in the social fabric and is perceived in quite different ways to those in western culture. Mackenzie (1996) quotes a woman informant: “land is like a child that cannot be left unguarded”, and elsewhere she (Mackenzie, 1993) cites a Kikuyu proverb, which brings out indigenous views in another evocative phrase: “a piece of land never shrinks”.

To illustrate the differing conceptions of land-people relationships, some outline of indigenous land tenure is necessary. How did Africans get access to the land that was so crucial to them in so many ways? What were the social systems and belief systems in which land tenure was embodied? In so doing it will be useful to contrast the reality with the common misconceptions that colonial officials and settlers, academics and development advisers have typically had about such systems. It will be important, too, to have a dynamic perspective and ask: how have these patterns changed under pressures from colonialism in its several forms and from the forces of an increasingly globalised capitalism. And change they have, hence my preference for the labels ‘indigenous’ (as opposed to the systems brought by colonists or imposed by enacted law), or ‘customary’, rather than ‘traditional’ with its implications of unchanging and timeless routine.

We have also to be aware that any such generalised discussion is fraught with the dangers of over-simplification and of giving the false impression of a single African pattern. With that stricture in mind, some frequently present elements can be isolated.

African ‘communal’ tenure

The commonly held myth is that Africans hold land in common – although it is seldom clear what this means: does it imply corporate ownership, collective use?

This assertion has a frequent corollary: that communal tenure precludes an individual having a direct incentive in proper land use and in developing the land’s potential – hence the system is inimical to development.

This received wisdom is an inaccurate and misconceived view of past realities; the implications drawn from them are challengeable (Migot-Adholla et al., 1991 even represents a World Bank challenge to that received wisdom); and to the extent that those realities may have corresponded to this model in the past they have undergone profound change – and not inevitably in the direction of individual, capitalist-type property rights (Platteau, 1996).

It is largely true that very few African systems had anything resembling private ownership of land that permanently gave that individual exclusive use of the land, and the right to dispose of it. But the further implication that farm land was cultivated on any kind of ‘communal’ basis is far from the mark. By and large individual households, sometimes-individual members of a household, cultivated fields on their won, and thus developed a direct and on-going relationship with that plot. That relationship would be temporary, for a few seasons, where shifting cultivation was practiced, and in some areas, in highlands of Eritrea for instance, there were periodic redistributions of land to allow for the needs of new families and even immigrants (Nadel, 1946; Tonnevoll, 1998). In recent times, demands on the available good land have precluded land being left fallow, and thus households’ access to fields has become in practice permanent, and any re-distributive mechanisms or other direct involvement of those who claim to deal with land on behalf of the community have become less intrusive.

This latter type of tendency in densely populated areas, like those seen on the bus journey through central and western Kenya and southern and eastern Uganda, has also had a dynamic with respect to another aspect of access to land – the making of land available to succeeding generations. Customary practices usually provided procedures whereby land was made available to households – often when a new one was formed after (the various stages of) marriage, or when they were ready to leave the parental household. On the land frontier, land may be there for the taking, or the clearing; elsewhere access might be more regulated and fields and homestead plots would be allocated from unutilised areas set aside, or through periodic reallocation. Those involved in such allocation might be chiefs, their headmen or others with political authority, or religious actors such as ‘spirit mediums’, as in parts of Zimbabwe (Ranger, 1993), or clan or extended family elders, even the community as a whole (or at least male heads of household). Land might revert to the community for reallocation in certain circumstances, such as migration, neglect of it, death without heirs, etc.

Increasingly, where there was any pressure on land, fields for new households would be on marginal land or made available from common grazing areas (see below), thus creating another kind of pressure – and competing claims. But there was also a tendency for new homesteads to be carved out of existing ones by sub-division or inheritance. Thus young families became more dependent on parents, with complicated trends occurring in matrilineal societies, rather than allocations from the ‘community’. These same pressures are also leading to young households, especially if their parents cannot provide for them, entering leasing or share-cropping arrangements for the temporary use of land, often from better-off kin but also through commercial deals with neighbours or community members. The leasing out arrangement in some parts of southern Africa where there has been much out-migration leaving grass widows or grandmothers on their own in the rural areas (Lesotho marks an extreme case) follows an unusual pattern. Land is leased mainly from such women or other poor households that are also short of labour to better-off farmers seeking to expand, rather than what is regarded as the normal pattern of large landowners entering sharecropping arrangements with the land poor. Arguably this allows them to retain some benefit from their land rights, which would disappear if there were complete privatisation. These patterns towards leasing, and share-cropping in the direction of better-off but land-short peasants fly in the teeth of predictions that have been made over the decades about the inevitability of “transforming the systems of tenure … (toward) land being commercialised and … individualised” in the words of one colonial official (Meek, 1946 quoted in Bassett & Crummey, 1993; see also Platteau, 1996).

Another aspect of recent transformations is the eroding of the customary principle that all members of the community had a right to expect access to some land. This was one of the basic safety nets ensuring survival and a form of social security to fall back on, especially in later life – and one that continued to provide that security even after decades of labour migration from an area. Some proportions of landless families can now be observed in some rural communities. The rights to have land available are often no longer available to migrants who return, apart from a small house plot perhaps. But more disguised forms of virtual landlessness also appear. In many areas marriage and especially the launching out of a family into a new homestead may be postponed for years. In places like highland Eritrea, where periodic reallocation, usually every seven years, took care of the needs of new households, decades have gone by since any such redistribution. At a meeting with land reform officials in a village there in 1995, young men with families but still waiting for land, demanded, “What do you want us to do? Kill these old men to get land?” Those excluded from access in customary ways, come to rely on those new arrangements of leasing and share-cropping we have noticed already. In these kinds of ways the old system of land rights for all in the community, even absent members, has been eroded, and with it the social security it once provided.

Another evolution in the land tenure systems was occurring during the colonial period in such circumstances, and has assumed chronic proportions in some areas, especially where chiefs or headmen retain a degree of control over land rights. They and others involved in the process found it profitable to make some of what little land was available for some monetary consideration or favour. In some instances, they allocated land from the commons, or even for land to which others laid claim. In some instances this trend toward a minor form of landlordism compounds the insecurity as the customary courts and dispute settlement mechanisms prove incapable of resolving the resulting disputes. The Kingdom of Swaziland represented a chronic example where rival chiefs would allocate claims to the same land, but the royal courts might take years to resolve this dispute about land, which was also a dispute about the respective powers of chiefs (McAuslan & Cliffe, 1997). Meanwhile, in that country as elsewhere, losing claimants would seek out alternative avenues, including the formal judicial courts to seek redress. This dualism in the legal instruments will always lead to a morass of unresolved conflicts. In Zimbabwe, for instance, the authority of chiefs and headmen to allocate land (itself a system invented and imposed by the former white settler governments as a measure for social control) was challenged and eroded during the guerrilla struggle in the 1970s. With Independence control of land was lodged in new local authorities at district level. But this was a level too remote from the every day dealings at grass roots, and the headmen would sometimes gradually move back in to fill the vacuum (Ranger, 1993; Cliffe, 1986). There, as in some other countries, there was thus not one system of land tenure, but in practice two or more overlapping and providing competing channels – and thus an additional source of insecurity.

Gender dimensions of land tenure

Special mention must be made of the differential modes of access to land by women, who are, in most societies where studies have been made, the providers of most of the labour in farming. By and large their prospects for obtaining land for cultivation for the benefit of themselves and their children was through their membership of a household. They may have had fields allocated for their use, but these could usually be reassigned or revert to their husband, who might well have the final say as to what should be grown on them. Their rights of access were far from secure and could be challenged in the event of divorce or widowhood, or even when the husband was away.

The ‘Commons’

As in many other pre-capitalist societies around the world, there was common land in many African communities. This was by no means empty land beyond the frontier of cultivation; it was as a source for fuel wood, for natural foods (fruits, honey, roots that were a fall-back in famine), for materials for buildings, furniture and utensils, and most crucially, as grazing. This last function remains important in agricultural societies where oxen are used to plough, a long ‘tradition’ in parts of the Horn of Africa, and widespread throughout southern Africa here it was introduced in the late 19th century. But in pastoralist or agro-pastoralist societies, heavily dependent on livestock as source of food and other products, of transport and of livelihood, access to pasture and to water points define prospects for survival. There are often elaborate practices and procedures defining who can graze the land and on what terms. Access is in fact usually limited, casual “intruders are invariably resisted”, notes one authority, although different users may share access and there may be a hierarchy of different rights about kind of use (e.g. to gather but not graze), and as to priority use. These ‘multi-resource users’ regimes (Cousins, 1996) are thus not areas where there is unregulated ‘open access’, but mechanisms can be employed to manage the use of the common resource in some ways: areas may be restricted to dry season or emergency famine reserve use; specific dates set for their use; spread of different herders to prevent localised over-grazing, etc. Mechanisms can often be found to manage the shared use of land between pastoralists and their cultivating neighbours: farmed land may be opened up for cattle to graze on crop residues at some date; corridors may be put in place for herders to move through cultivated lands on their way between dry and wet season pasture.

Both common land and cultivated land, if they were to be managed at all, required some procedures for dispute settlement, for these were not, even in the ‘traditional’ past, havens of unbroken rural peace, devoid of conflicts. But what did characterise these societies was the existence of mechanisms for handling disputes. These varied: in some cases an important role was played by recognised third party mediators. In others, representatives of the two groups in dispute would meet head-to-head in efforts to reconcile the conflict peaceably compensation, even blood money might be paid –such were the patterns among Somali clans and sub-clans. Elsewhere the mode of preventing violent conflict from getting out of hand was the knowledge that otherwise a remorseless pursuit of revenge would be unleashed between communities or clans. This was the pattern among the Afar people, found in Djibouti, Eritrea and Ethiopia near the Red Sea, and seems to have established some preference for negotiating peaceful resolution of land, water and other disputes. But one dimension of the present crisis of indigenous systems is that a combination of population pressures, encroachments of neighbours, especially of agriculturalists onto pastoralists’ grazing, erosion of customary authorities have thrown up more and more serious conflicts, fuelled by modern automatic weapons, on a scale that has outpaced the ability of the customary mechanisms to handle them. This erosion of traditional conflict resolution (see Abbink, 2000 for a useful case study) is yet another contributory factor generating insecurity about access to land.

On the other hand, these views that stress those aspects of ‘common resource management’ (UNDP, 1996; Wade, 1987; IDSB, 1997) that could be found in indigenous systems have formed the basis for challenges to a perception that has held sway among many development specialists over the last generation – the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Harden (1973) in setting out this latter model, argued that where all had access to commons no individual had an incentive for limiting their use of the resource, and thus degradation was inevitable. The policy implication is to opt for enclosure of the common land and it’s individualisation. The last decade or so has seen the emergence of an approach, which sees the logic in common pasture and in pastoralist systems generally (see Ellis & Swift, 1988; Scones, 1994), and which argues empirically that access was not completely open, as Harden assumed, and that mechanisms for managed use of land did in fact exist. It also challenges empirically (Scones, 1996) the common ‘conservationist’ view of the widespread existence of apocalyptic degrees of environmental degradation. A typical example of this alarmist conservationist view caught my eye in a Kenya magazine just last month:

Kenya is gradually but surely being turned into the Sahara Desert. The on-going destruction of forests, the ridding of the country of trees, encroachment onto water catchment areas, the over-use of the land will all have the consequence of grinding the economic mainstay of Kenya, agriculture, to a halt. The economy will be shattered and 28 million people will be endangered.

People my age remember that the same doom-laden scenarios about an imminent crisis of erosion were offered in the 1960s, and the history books reproduce the same predictions of environmental collapse by colonial officials in the 1920s, as a result of too many people and their ‘misuse’ of the land. Obviously these doomsdays of terminal impoverishment of land and people have not come about (although many ‘greens’ still hold to what can be traced back to a racist form of conservationism (Beinart, 1996; Cliffe, 1988). On the contrary, as one summary piece put it: ‘Overgrazing is overstated’ (Mace, 1991). Or as one instructive and influential study of a semi-arid area of Kenya stated in its title: More people: Less erosion (Tiffen et al., 1994).

The conceptual shortcomings of this conservationist model have to be recognised as well as the invalidity of some of its predictions. It is a view that singles out only one of the several dynamics of change in relationships between people and land: the numbers game of the balance between population and land as a finite resource. The resulting Malthusian model is too simplistic. There is not just a two-way relationship. What has to be seen is a more complex set of relationships whereby people mediate that relationship through the social institutions that they set up to access this land, and in turn the methods of agricultural production, the ‘farming systems’, which guide their use of such land. Moreover, these institutions and strategies are subject to change, as we have seen, and that dynamic makes the basic numerical equation of population and land too simplistic. This more nuanced awareness also allows for the development of policies that are not just those associated with a technicist formula of adjusting population numbers (of people or livestock) to something that can be scientifically calculated, called the ‘carrying capacity’ of the land (see Cliffe, 1988; Pankhurst, 1996).

This new perspective has done much to challenge the simplistic assumptions of the ‘backwardness’ of pastoralism and, and to form an intellectual basis for development prospects among the people who practice it (Ellis & Swift, 1988; Scones, 1994). One instructive collection (Leach & Mearns, 1996) suggests that more effective conservation of the increasingly eroded resource is likely if indigenous authorities or other regulators are resuscitated, and such decentralised and participatory common management would also be more equitable (on common resource management, see IDS Bulletin, 1997; Wade, 1987). However, this ‘new orthodoxy’ on pastoralism has been slow to influence development policy makers and holders of state power, who cling to misconceptions and to policies that marginalise pastoralists. Moreover, the implication that common resource management can work if only customary mechanisms were recognised has itself been challenged by an important recent set of studies. Woodhouse, et al. (2000) argue that this body of work leaves out of its conceptualisation conclusions that had emerged in earlier decades, which recognised the social and economic impact of an agriculture increasingly commoditised, with resulting patterns of social differentiation. They go on to challenge the findings empirically on the basis of four case studies in different African countries where the outcomes of local people’s involvement in recent changes in the use of pockets of good land in generally semi-arid terrain have been far from beneficial to the local environment, have lead to the virtual enclosure of the fertile pockets, and have benefited a better-off few at the expense of the majority of Pastoralists. It is a timely caution against a too easy ‘green populism’ as the answer to common resource management, and a reminder that customary managers were not above using that power for themselves and to consolidate power on a patron-client basis – as they had every opportunity to do, and where so encouraged to do, under colonial systems of rule.’

But an emphasis on commoditisation of production and all the means of production and on differentiation offers more than just strictures against a simplistic call for decentralisation and the renaissance of traditional institutions of land allocation and management. These processes constitute one of the dimensions that is just as crucial a component of the dynamic of land tenure as land-population balance. Without delving back in too much detail into this earlier work (a useful summary that brings out its continuing relevance can be found in Woodhouse, et al. (2000: Ch.6), two insights are worth keeping in mind for our discussion. The processes of change are varied not only over time but in that they do not inevitably generate a structure of production units of a capitalist farm (or plantation) worked by a fully proletarianised labour force. Nor does the differentiation necessarily generate a social structure characterised by agricultural capitalists and farm labourers. The area just outside Nairobi where the bus journey started represents an extreme form of differentiation, whereby it was estimated that already by the 1940s some 80% of the rural population of the southern Kikuyu districts could be categorised as land poor or landless (Kershaw, 1997), while a landed gentry had also emerged. However, even there these sharp social differences did not lead to a bipolarisation into two classes. Landlessness has probably increased, partly enhanced by official policies of privatisation of land, as we shall see in more detail below, but some stabilisation of the ‘middle peasantry’ rather than shrinking occurred in the 1960s and 1970s (see Cowan, 1981; Kitching, 1980 offers comparisons with other patterns elsewhere in Kenya).

Another element in the dynamic of land tenure has been state policy. Government’s interfere in land matters, enacting new laws and regulations. First and foremost they want to secure access to land for their own use or for ‘development’. In some instances they seek to further the interests of some particular class or group – thus the settlers in Kenya, Rhodesia and elsewhere had a direct voice in colonial governments. Occasionally a government would have some grand model for social engineering in which land was a key ingredient. British planners in Kenya had a vision of a rural class structure based on sturdy ‘yeoman’ farmers employing labourers. Elsewhere the interference was more to maintain stability. In southern Africa, white governments sought to preserve their version of ‘traditional’ authority over land as a device for social control to prevent unrest.

One device all colonial governments, at least in British Africa, used to secure their own automatic acquisition of land for ‘public’ purposes was that the state asserted the right to be the ultimate owner of all land – except for all or some of that which was in the hands of settlers or businesses. Thereby, virtually all land occupied by African peasants became state land. The Italians in Eritrea were a partial exception in that they enacted state land as a category covering the semi-arid lowlands but not the highlands (Joireman, 2000). The same formula was readily adopted by most post-Independence regimes, but under a different banner. It was held up as an embodiment of that African tradition that land belonged to all, and this was used to justify control by the executive arm of government. How governments past and present then chose to administer the land used by peasants and herders varied, in particular, in how far they chose to involve customary authorities or replace them. In everyday it was these latter authorities, or even unrecognised ‘traditional’ elements, that dealt with almost all everyday matters to do with land tenure and access. Thus what the written law said often did, and still does, differ markedly from practices on the ground. Except that the common existence of dual systems often adds to present insecurities surrounding land. The power conferred on government by law was only felt by communities in special circumstances: if the government wanted to expropriate some land for a public purpose or to build a dam or road, or if government had it in mind to move people ‘for their own good’. Then it could be obtained by edict, and seldom would compensation be paid. Such practices are at last being challenged, not always successfully, by demands for new land laws, as we shall see, and by donors who are now tending to insist on ‘voluntary’ movement of people and for fair compensation when they are involved in infrastructure projects.

Political Struggles over Land

Land in Liberation Struggles

The Meru Land Case, mentioned above, was a struggle between African smallholders and settler farmers on a minor scale compared to that, say, in Central Kenya in the 1950s, and was pursued not through armed resistance but protest – right up to the UN, which held the Trusteeship for Tanganyika, as it then was. However, it had a special resonance in the Tanganyika struggle for Independence, and had been much in mind when I began my first period of work in Africa in 1962. Meru is in fact the name of another volcanic mountain next to the snow-covered Kilimanjaro, and in comparison is a mere 16,000 feet, topped by snow only at certain seasons. It is also the name of one of the two people who occupy its well-watered and fertile southern slopes, but who found themselves sealed off from further expansion and from access to grazing land further down the slope by an ‘iron ring’ of settler farms on three sides, and above them a forest and wildlife reserve. Meru ‘life was fundamentally changed by (this) encroachment of white farmers and plantations around them’ However, it took a generation of more before land pressures worked themselves out and translated it to political action. Colonial government policy allowed further alienation of Meru land for white farmers as late as the early 1950s, and it was this that led to the final confrontation at the UN. In recalling this old story it is worth noting, one of the general themes of this lecture, the limited extent to which there was restitution as the outcome of the political struggle. In fact, although some of the alienated land was returned to Africans, “the settler farms on Mount Meru were among the few such farms not nationalized by the independent Tanzanian government.” (Spear, 1996: 215).

Reference has already made to the Kenya ‘land and freedom’ revolt of the 1940s and 1950s. It grew out of the conditions generated by white occupation of fertile parts of the highlands, the land pressures in over-crowded ‘reserves’, which certainly came to pose a greater and greater threat to survival. But it also grew out of the pattern of social differentiation that was noted above, and which generated landless and land poor. Both land pressure and social differentiation were most acute in the Central province, where the struggle obtained its main support. These pressures gradually and over a long period did provide a political force that was a crucial part of the overthrow of colonial rule, which had been characterised not only by a white settler presence but (all too easy to forget by those who only know this period by Hollywood’s images of ‘Out of Africa’) one with its own crude and vicious form of apartheid. As late as 1960, Africans were not only barred from the main hotels but would be shooed off the pavement if they even tried to walk in front. Until that date, African peasants, sealed off from much of the best land, were also not allowed to grow the high-priced cash crops, like coffee and tea, that were so suitable to highland areas.

It has also to be remembered that the struggle mobilised particular sections of Kenya society. It was noted above that the ‘Mau Mau’ revolt (a term that was used by its opponents; the combatants preferred ‘Land & Freedom Army’) mainly emerged in the densely-populated Central Province among the Kikuyu and related peoples. It was fed by the impoverished sections of those communities: Kershaw (1997) points to the ‘landless and the land poor’; Kanongo (1987) and Furedi (1990) on the other hand see the labourers and squatters forced to find residence on the white-owned farms as providing the leading edge of the struggle.

The rebellion was eventually contained by the British colonial government at the cost of some 10,000 Africans killed, almost 100,000 detained. As part of the counter-insurgency measures roughly a million people were also displaced from their homes into ‘strategic hamlets’ – which, among other effects, made the later attempts at social engineering by land tenure reform easier to implement. These latter measures sought to establish the landed gentry and other better-off peasants, who had been ‘loyalists’ as yeomen farmers, and confirmed the status of the landless permanently. It is also the first case where policies of land redistribution from Europeans to Africans, and enacted changes in customary land tenure occurred – almost forty years ago. It is thus a test case illustrating what can happen in the long run.

Despite a land redistribution that the first President of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, described as designed “to take the steam out of the kettle” politically, contestation over land has continued for the last 40 years. There has been no mass movement but constant minor scuffles, occupations, legal disputes that target the remaining white settlers, or to redress grievances in the allocation of that land serve as a reminder of unfinished business[1]. Occasional more major flare-ups bring out the legacy of the colonial partition and post-Independence policies to deal with it by redistribution. In the build-up to the 1992 elections and following it, politicians of the ruling party from the Kalenjin group of tribes stirred up local grievances about the resettling of some 2 million Kikuyu in what they claimed was ‘their’ Province. The resulting ‘tribal clashes’ led to some 300,000 people being ethnically cleansed from their homes in the Rift Valley Province as a result of what Human Rights Watch (1993) termed ‘state-sponsored ethnic violence’.

Zimbabwe offers a parallel experience whereby land was the central issue in a long war of liberation against an even more intransigent form of settler colonialism, which, unlike that in Kenya, was not contained. Parallels there were too with the search for policies for land redistribution and for land tenure reform that have been a central concern in the 20 years since the negotiated Independence in 1980.  Differences are observable, first, in the extent of white dominance of the land: whites had the better half of all the land legally reserved to them, and African communities were not just squeezed like the Meru in Tanzania and the Kikuyu in Kenya but many were massively displaced to marginal areas. Patterns of differentiation were also different, by and large not so polarised: land poor to a greater extent than actually landless. One early phase of rural political resistance was to attempts by Rhodesian authorities to enact land tenure reform, following the then standard prescription of issuing individual title in the early 1950s. This generated opposition from the land poor but also from the chiefs and headmen, faced by losing their land allocation powers, and was finally reversed as part of a more conservative strategy of containing African opposition, by reducing the groundswell of rural discontent available for backing the emergence of a strong nationalist political thrust.

The national liberation movement opted for armed struggle in the mid-1960s but got its main grass-roots boost from 1972 onwards as a classic guerrilla struggle was gradually built up in the African ’reserves’. Different emphases have been put forward as to how far this process gave expression to a ‘peasant consciousness’ (Ranger, 1985) or partially suppressed that (Kriger, 1992). It is certainly the case that most of the political mobilisation was undertaken in these areas, and many of the armed incidents were contests for control over these areas. But white-owned properties on the margins of the reserves were also targeted and by the end of the war in 1980, significant numbers of farms in these areas had been abandoned, or been occupied by the squatting of neighbouring African communities. The geographical parameters of the post-Independence resettlement programme, discussed below, were shaped to a significant extent by those abandonments and occupations, but also limited partially to them. The prospects for land tenure reform were also arguably shaped by how deeply the liberation struggle bit into the political structures in the reserves:

Though existing power structures in rural areas were challenged during the war, the conditions were not created for new structures to become firmly established. Women and young people, in particular, were unable to sustain the enhanced status they had achieved during the war. After independence, local party leaders found themselves and their claims pushed aside by bureaucracies that still wielded much of their previous power (Alexander, 1995: 190).

As in Kenya, the slowing down of the official programme of land redistribution did not lead to an end to efforts by Zimbabweans to seek access to more land – through occupations, encroachment of animals, snipping fences for midnight grazing, even doing deals with white owners for temporary use or even sale. Moyo (1995) documents the widespread evidence of the demand for land, one of the few studies that analyses the progress of land redistribution not just in its own terms but also in relation to the pressures for land. His work is thus essential reading in seeking to go beyond the headlines about Mugabe’s political manipulation of the land issue today.

An old interview I conducted in 1983 in eastern Zimbabwe with an ex-combatant, Luckmoor Musemba, might give some flesh to these generalisations about involvement of the rural poor and how far their demands were met:

‘I was born on a white-owned fruit farm, but lost my job and home when the near-by cannery was closed. I then joined the chimurenga struggle, and found myself operating in the same area. The old fruit farm was abandoned during the liberation war, and I helped form a cooperative among the squatters who were living on the farm. I used my demobilisation pay to build a house and improve the land. But some time after Independence, the former owner returned to reclaim the land and we were kicked off it. I am now living with my father but I have several brothers so have no prospect for land. I recently went to Harare to take part in a protest, demanding ‘give us land and we will produce’.

Namibia offers another southern Africa case of land as a driving force in the liberation struggle, even if it was not so central as in Zimbabwe, and the subsequent policy debate (Pankhurst, 1996).  South Africa also deserves scrutiny even though land was not such a determinant issue in the liberation struggle, which in any event was against what the ANC always referred to as ‘internal colonialism’ rather than Whitehall. But despite the differences post-apartheid South Africa has been engaged in struggles, as we shall see, to define policies for land redistribution, plus a concept they call ‘restitution’ (Brown, 1997), and for land tenure reform.

In general, we can conclude that the political impetus of people’s struggles for land, especially in the former settler colonies, has been a decisive element in national liberation and the seeking of other broader political goals. But, as we shall now go on to show, rarely have those struggles to which landless and land-poor people have contributed delivered resources to them.

Policy Struggles over Land

Land Redistribution

In all the settler colonies, where the struggle for liberation took on some form of armed resistance, demands for land provided a banner to organise around and thus the issue of redistribution or restitution of land was inevitably a crucial post-Independence policy agenda item. The extent and form of such land reform varied. In one of the first of the cases, a government-run scheme in Kenya saw the redistribution of over 1 million of the 9 million acres reserved for whites to African smallholders. That programme ran in the first decade after Independence (Sorrenson, 1967). The former large, white-owned farms were purchased and then sub-divided, and was financed by loans from the UK Government and the World Bank. The beneficiaries, who in the first few years did include some of the landless and land poor, especially from the most densely populated Central Province, were expected to make loan repayments for the land they received. Before the formal redistribution programme was run down, emphasis in selection of those to be resettled shifted to those who supposedly had greater farming ability, which meant in practice those better-off peasants that could afford a deposit. Meanwhile, many farms had been changing hands via the market with members of the new political and business elites purchasing land directly. From the 1970s this latter process accelerated as the sons of aging white farmers were often reluctant to stay on the land, and often with the further impetus from ‘squatters’ or ‘occupations’. But many of the new owners were also reluctant to pursue full-time farming; they often found it easier, and profitable, to sub-divide the land – sometimes by incorporating squatters they found there, or by forming or taking over ‘companies’ formed to buy or occupy land, or by recruiting their own tenants. But through whatever means, there was a tendency for the peasant occupiers to become at least clients if not tenants of a new class of landlords. These were the processes behind the dramatic changes of landscape seen as the bus went through the former ‘white highlands’. But the change in social relations from capitalist farmer with labourers, to smallholders dependent on landlords, was not so obvious. A casual glance did reveal a much more intensive use of land, with far more people occupying it and getting some livelihood, however inadequate or precarious, compared with the well-ordered fields set among parkland created by the white settlers.

Elements of a similar story have played themselves out in Zimbabwe, following its Independence some 17 years later. The landless and land poor, who had been mobilised to provide the base for a long war of liberation, were among the beneficiaries of a government Resettlement Programme, partly funded by the UK Government, enabling the buying out of white farmers, if they were ‘willing sellers’. Compulsory purchase had been limited by the political compromise the nationalist movements had been pressured into accepting at the Lancaster House Conference in 1979. The pressure came from British diplomatic efforts, with some US backing, in a context where (as in different circumstances in the 1990s in South Africa), the nationalists opted for a peaceful resolution of a struggle that could not be defeated but was not yet won. Even so, there was a month-long breakdown of the talks in London over the issue of land, with British proposals to entrench the property rights of whites, which was only resolved with promises from UK and US governments to fund a redistribution programme. The British did to some degree honour that in the 1980s (Adams, 2000) by providing half the costs of resettlement schemes that benefited some 70,000 families on some 3 million hectares of land (in scale somewhat larger than that in Kenya). The US reneged on its promise. From the outset, this programme faced pressures (Cliffe, 2000) from the white farmers’ (very effective) lobby but also some African political opinion as well as external influences, all of which argued that agriculture would be more productive under the existing owners, and that redistribution would lead to a catastrophic fall-off in output, employment and foreign exchange holdings (arguments summarised at the time by Kinsey, 1983a and b). These powerful assumptions can still be seen at play in policy discussions and media reporting of recent land seizures. One response to these criticisms was to shift the emphasis to better-off peasants in the selection of those to be settled. Herbst (1989) argues that the some of the poor continued to benefit, despite being less well-connected politically than the better-off peasants who had an organisation to lobby for their interests. They resorted to the device of squatting on land in a pre-emptive way that made the resettlement bureaucracy have to respond to their needs – reminiscent in some ways of tactics used from 1999, although the squatters have been more orchestrated in these recent years.

The lie to the early view by Westerners that redistribution would spell economic disaster was in part given by the fact that some of the white-owned land was under-utilised or was vacant after the liberation war or by subsequent departures, so that acquisition is not necessarily a ‘zero-sum game’. But the actual performance of the resettlement sector also countered these predictions of doom. One would be hard put to find references to it in the widespread treatments of the current crisis in Zimbabwe by the media or by politicians in the West, but in many ways the resettlement programme begun in the 1980s could be seen as a great success. It was admittedly limited in scale; only a proportion of those in need of land actually benefited, perhaps 90,000 households over 20 years (though that amounted to a far from measly half a million plus people); some 3.5 million hectares of the c.12m. ha. Owned by whites was redistributed. But their incomes and their yields are higher than those of their neighbours left behind in the overcrowded former African ‘reserves’. They contribute significantly to national income and foreign exchange from cash crop surpluses. In some types of environments that were considered marginal for commercial cropping and were often predominantly given over to light grazing by white farmers, the land supports a very much larger number of people than earned their livings as labourers in the past. It was found after the first decade that the benefits were spread unequally. The poorest families resettled had often not realised the full benefits, usually because they did not have ploughing oxen or other resources to make full use of their newly acquired land, nor were appropriate loans available. But another decade on, studies indicate that there has been a catching up: incomes and social service provision is now more widely spread (Gunning et al., 1999).

The early evidence for this positive but well-hidden achievement in fact came, paradoxically, from one of the periodic evaluations conducted on behalf of the British Overseas Development Administration, who were helping finance the resettlement schemes (Cusworth & Walker, 1988). Indeed these researchers showed that on strict measurement of returns of income this scored higher than just about any other British aided programme of rural development anywhere in Africa! Moreover, one widely cited original sceptic of resettlement (Kinsey, 1983 a and b) had come round to documenting the programme’s contribution, on the basis of annual monitoring of the same set of schemes (Kinsey, 1999; Gunning et al., 1999). British technical experts also put forward proposals (ODA, 1996), based on this performance that gave qualified support to the first proposals by the Government of Zimbabwe for a Phase 2 of the Resettlement Programme (finalised in GOZ, 1999) under which a further 5 m. hectares would be redistributed. Despite these views of the professionals, at the political level the British Government withheld commitment to Phase 2 – even before the worst confrontations of the political crisis in Zimbabwe manifested themselves. During those events since 1999, there is no doubt the Zimbabwe leadership has opportunistically used the genuine and widespread demands of the people for a fairer distribution of land for short-term political calculations. But the British government must be held responsible to some extent for prompting the crisis by refusing support when there was still a rational, feasible plan that allowed land take-over through due legal process, and for making it easier for Mugabe to package the problem as a patriotic response to a ‘British’ issue.

To be sure, there were negative features of the Phase 1 programme: those settled were not given secure land rights; loans for the poorest to stock up with tools and oxen were not available; the cooperative forms of resettlement were undermined by Government; and in general administration was top-down and sometimes heavy-handed. But these could all have been shortcomings that might have been ironed out in designing Phase 2. One unfortunate element, which has been greatly aggravated by the occupations of recent months, is the low priority given to ex-farm workers in resettlement. Unlike those who worked the large farms in Kenya, who were mainly from nearby, crowded reserves in Central Kenya, perhaps half of farm labourers in Zimbabwe were immigrants from Malawi and Mozambique, and thus without social or political links – nor votes – inside the country. Their plight has significantly worsened recently (Moyo et al., 2000).

In looking briefly at the design of the parallel programme in South Africa since 1994 and its relative success, it is ironic to note that their approach was explicitly based on learning from what they considered the mistakes of Zimbabwe’s experience, which certainly existed, but which planners in South Africa considered an unmitigated disaster. One ‘lesson’ that was identified was to avoid what was seen as a government-directed programme that was seen as bureaucratic and slow. An alternative approach was adopted, partly influenced by World Bank thinking (see the collection of views in Van Zyl et al. (1996)). The formula was for a ‘market-led’ land redistribution, which in practice meant ‘communities’ would be eligible to apply for government grants (up to a fixed amount per individual member), which could be used to clinch a deal to purchase land that they had identified from the existing white owner willing to sell. This non-bureaucratic approach not only avoided confiscations or compulsory sale and was thus compatible with the free market (Deininger, 1999), but was also supposed to lead to more rapid transfer of land: the ANC government had announced a target of transferring 30% of white-owned land. Yet in the five years since its inception, the programme has facilitated the acquisition of less than 1%, compared with Zimbabwe, which succeeded in distributing 25% of the settler farms in a similar period by its ‘centralised’ methods. It has to be granted that Zimbabwe’s programme stagnated after the initial burst (until the late 1990s), whereas South Africa’s was accelerating by 1999, and did reduce a long back-log of claimants that had built up. However, while waiting for a reconsideration of policy (which has become prolonged), redistribution through these project applications was halted from then on. And the South African pattern did involve proportionately more beneficiaries. But there were basic shortcomings in the design of the programme (Cliffe, 2000): what was a ‘community’ in South African social structures so fractured by apartheid? And what was involved in their becoming ‘legal entities’ registered to have a title to land? How were they to draw up ‘business plans’ if these were required to secure a grant? In seeking solutions to these issues the government set up a complicated network of an extensive bureaucracy of its own planners and advisers, without the power to implement directly. Moreover, legal and business plan consultants who were ‘out-sourced’ to work with the communities, often provided little for their fees, and indeed had little incentive to do so under the complex arrangements. Moreover, the process almost entirely by-passed the most impoverished sections of society – those among the dense pools of rural dwellers with little land and few jobs in the former ‘Bantu homelands’.

Land Tenure Reform

We have noted above commonly held views that the answer to the insecurities about land, which derived from customary practices of reallocating farm land and open access to the commons, lay in private ownership. Moreover, this conventional view has seen this pattern of capitalist individualised tenure as not only desirable but inevitable. Observers have at various periods claimed to see actual trends towards this kind of property relations, with permanent attachment to a plot and disposal by inheritance or even sale. Whereas we have noted that while there is indeed transformation of people’s relationship to land associated with commoditisation of production and the means and circumstances of production, the dynamic is not simply and always towards private alienation of land and a free market in it. More complex forms – leasing, share-cropping, disposal of the use of land for a ‘consideration’, partial enclosure of the commons – have proved just as likely to evolve.

The premise of the conventional view that individualised ownership is a perquisite for development has also been under challenge from a range of perspectives. Even some recent thinking within the World Bank has conceded that customary forms of tenure can offer security of tenure to allow or even encourage development, and that a land market would generate landlessness and impoverishment of rural dwellers ‘prematurely’, before they can be absorbed in employment or the urban informal sector (Migot-Adholla et al., 1991).

However, Kenya offers a unique test case of some of the consequences of applying the mantra of private property relations as policy, and thus brings these arguments for and against down from an abstract level. What our bus journey could not tell us was the intricacies of people’s relationship to the land, in particular the legal basis on which people occupied those small plots of land that could so easily be seen, and the social consequences. In fact the basis was quite different on the Kenya side of the border from what seemed to be a similar pattern of tiny, intensively farmed homesteads on the Uganda side. Starting in the late years of colonial rule and continuing for 20 years the more densely farmed areas of Kenya all saw the implementation of a system of giving registered title to land people occupied, often after ‘consolidating’ fragmented plots into one farm. Further fragmentation of land was to be precluded as part of the promotion of a class of rich peasants by a new law of single heirs and by agricultural administrators imposing a threshold of a minimum size of farm below which it could not be sub-divided. This new regimen was also supposed to generate a market in land and gradually encourage its concentration in the hands of those who could make best use of it. There would also supposedly be both an incentive for people to make permanent improvements in the land, and the means to do it, for they would be able to obtain credit by offering their titles as security. The widespread adoption of this formula of individual titling of land is unique in Africa, although a few countries (Malawi, Ghana, Liberia) have applied this formula in parts of their territories.

The reality of what has happened in Kenya over 40 years is thus very instructive, for it offers empirical testing of the arguments about what sort of land tenure can afford security to peasants and promote increased production. These arguments have emerged at particular times in the past. The late colonial period was characterised by much debate about land tenure. After three decades of indifference to land issues, debates re-emerged, with often the same arguments, in the 1990s.

The evidence from Kenya suggests that what tended to happen limited the extent of a free market for land and concentration of ownership – and in that sense confounded the worst fears of critics who saw the reforms leading to widespread landlessness and impoverishment. These trends have occurred (see Toulmin & Quan, 2000: 37 for a useful summary), but perhaps less than might have been expected. Moderating effects have resulted from a partial retention in practice of customary relations. Thus, despite changing the law of inheritance to primogenitor and the existence on paper of regulations preventing sub-division below a certain threshold, there has in fact been sub-division and some leasing to accommodate younger families, although these practices have been curtailed. And although smallholders used their titles to borrow, and often over-extended themselves and found their loans called in, they were seldom turfed off the land and so landlessness and the concentration of holdings from that market process were partially curbed. Lenders, who might include other farmers, banks, credit agencies, and government officials did not always feel strong enough politically to enforce evictions. But the consequence was that the intended availability of agricultural credit was also impaired. To oversimplify a complex situation (for a more nuanced view see Haugerud, 1983), we can say that many poor peasants lost the title to their land, but were not necessarily thrown out of their homesteads, but then they didn’t have the paper to get further credit for farming. Other people or institutions had obtained the titles, but could use them for other purposes but not farming the land as they didn’t occupy it! Among the further results was the heightened insecurity even of those who continued to occupy land to which they no longer had proof of ownership, plus the shortage of credit, which has been identified as a factor that has contributed to the decline of the smallholder part of the coffee economy, so crucial to export earnings. Thus the reforms have not worked in the ways they were intended, but even in terms of the stated aims, one summary concludes that “the process of registration (of titles) has been very costly and the real benefits ambiguous… (and) tenure reform alone is not likely to enhance smallholder production without a range of associated measures … (as well as the) damaging impacts on the position of the poor” (Toulmin & Quan, 2000: 37).

The return of debates about land tenure that re-emerged in the 1990s was a response to the growing insecurities that have come to characterise areas of African smallholding under some version of ‘customary’ tenure. There have in fact been commissions or inquiries in Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Namibia, among others (McAuslan, 1998; Bruce & Migot-Adholla, 1994) – but few have advocated the complete individualisation of tenure on the Kenya model. In Tanzania, a Presidential Commission of Inquiry (Shivji, 1994) came out with proposals that were a radical departure from inherited system, where the state had the ‘radical title’ to all land, as well as from the Kenya model. It accepted the principle that land should in some sense belong to the whole society, but, instead of lodging ultimate ownership in the state, proposed that it be lodged in civil society, and in particular the village. If government were to be involved it should not be the executive arm, but the legislature – and the judiciary, by allowing disputes that would be settled in special land courts to be appealable to the regular courts. But several years of discussion (and delay) finally lead to legislation that only partially embodied this less statist vision. There is now a law that recognises ‘village land’ and that it be registered and administered at that level, but a government Land Commissioner administers other land and has the power to transfer village land to the category of state land.

Some countries have taken the step of entrenching principles of land tenure and land rights in revised constitutions, notably Ethiopia and Uganda. In both of these countries there was pressure from within and from outside the country in favour of individual tenure but detailed proposals have only partially allowed that as one option among types of land tenure. In Uganda the Constitution did mark a major shift of principle from the colonial law that lodged title to all African lands in the state. It gave this ultimate right to the citizens of Uganda as a whole – but that principle had to be operationalised in specific legislation. That task was made more complicated because they had also to include provisions for dealing with the legacy of mailo land, a ‘feudal’ set of rights pertaining to some of the land in the historic kingdoms of the south. It was proposed that this category of land should be converted to freehold tenure – although this could undermine the security of tenure to tenants of such land. The government drafts of the proposed Bill also proposed that customary rights (which had never been recognised in the written law) be converted to freehold – citing the old, conventional arguments that such individual property rights would promote improvement and secure credit. But concentrated lobbying by a cluster of advocacy groups and NGOs, under the umbrella of a Land Alliance, did succeed in getting a category of ‘customary’ land among the several different systems of tenure that were recognised in the final draft. Existing rights of households were to be registered and provision was made for the registering of common land associations to provide communal management of grazing and other commons. All of these measures were to be administered by an independent network of district and village land boards, and land courts that would handle disputes. Those mechanisms might well have ensured impartiality and a growing professionalism in dealing with the complex issue of land. However, it is proving difficult to implement these proposals as the mechanisms are too demanding in terms of the personnel and finance they require (see Coldham, 2000; Manji, 2001).

Implementation is always an obstacle, often terminal, for any land reform, as the vested interests affected by it are often in or close to the institutions responsible for acting on new laws. This has often proved true of proposals for reform of customary tenure, for even if there are very rarely landlords, other notables like local chiefs with allocative powers as well as central government may resist the erosion of their powers. Zimbabwe, where the issue of land tenure reform is often obscured because of the more dramatic issue of land redistribution, two sets of proposals in the 1990s have yet to elicit any government response let alone legislation. The first of these, the Rukuni Commission of Inquiry into Land Tenure Systems (GoZ, 1994), rejected moves towards complete individual tenure. It proposed instead that all people in the present ‘Communal Areas’ should be given certificates to use arable land and for access to common grazing, within a prescribed village area and elected land committees would administer such land on behalf of the village community.  Later proposals for a National Land Policy (GOZ, 1998), part funded by FAO and chaired by Issa Shivji, who had lead the Tanzania Commission of the early 1990s, covered all sectors, including the large commercial farms. But its proposals on customary tenure provided for even further degrees of decentralisation to communities themselves.

South Africa’s reform strategy also included land tenure reform, as well as redistribution and restitution (see above), but there too proposals have been made, the government department concerned has in fact drafted two different versions of proposed legislation without these satisfying government enough to be sent to Parliament. This indecisiveness is probably a result of leaders’ ‘modernisation perspective’ resulting in an ambiguity about customary tenure and smallholder farming in general, but complicated by tactical political calculations aimed at keeping chiefs allied with ANC or winning them over, especially those in Kwa Zulu-Natal (for differing perspectives, see Ntsebeza, 1999, Levin & Weiner, 1997; Adam, 2000; Cliffe, 2000).

Eritrea offered yet another formula for redefining land tenure in a Land Proclamation of 1994. In the immediate post-liberation war period, the newly Independent government felt an urgency to regularise secure land rights for refugees, demobilised fighters and internally displaced people that were being resettled, and for the new businesses they were hoping to attract. Land reform was in fact very much on the agenda of the liberation movement and tenure reform was introduced during the struggle in areas that were liberated from Ethiopian over-rule, in some villages as early as the 1970s. The essence of these measures I have described as a “democratisation of customary practices” (Cliffe, 1988). The formula was addressed to the situation in the highlands were traditionally land for cultivation was periodically reallocated, usually every seven years. But because of land pressures and other trends, this practice had often broken down; there often had not been land redistribution for a generation, and thus young men with families were virtually landless. Moreover, allocations, which supposedly were on the basis of need, had become manipulated by the clan or other notables who had control of the process. The liberation era reforms provided for an immediate redistribution, and put this in the hands of elected committees. In addressing the needs of young families, there was a political gain for the movement in winning backing and recruits, and in putting in place grass-roots mass organisations, wedded to the movement. It has even been suggested that this step was central to the success of the movement and to the definition of its ‘radical’ credentials (Gebre-Medhin, 1984; Cliffe, 1987). The principle of modifying and building on the familiar, inherited patterns were rejected by the post-war Proclamation, although never in the form of an explicit evaluation of the experience of land reform in the liberation period. Instead, rights of use (but not ownership) to what was declared state land were to be allocated to individuals. These were to be life-long, and therefore were supposed to guarantee security of tenure, and everyone would have that right initially, including women in their own name. But these proposals, which might be appropriate for peri-urban areas, did not fit many rural contexts. There was no provision for the extensive areas of common grazing; its implications for regions like Semhar, that had a system of inheritance were not worked out; it took land matters of allocation and dispute settlement out of the hands of villages and communities and sought to administer land through a direct relation between the individual and the state. Those provisions would in turn require a country-wide process of recognising and issuing new rights to virtually all land holdings, and in addition to the many personnel to so launch it, would require an on-going new land administration within government (Cliffe & Shivji, 1994). These resources have not been available, especially during the recent war, and the Proclamation remains unimplemented. Thus critiques that have been made (Joiremann, 1996) may have some validity in questioning the proposals, but they have been couched as though there was a reality on the ground that was being criticised, whereas Eritrean experience is one of several examples of policy proposals proving inoperable.

Whatever the merits and shortcomings of the several reform packages that are in train, hardly any of them make any provision for common land, and have rarely addressed the insecurities and crises facing pastoralists. In one case, draft legislation for land tenure reform in Namibia by an ‘expert’ envisaged recognition of five types of tenurial system, including ‘community land’, as well as individual (freehold, leasehold and rights of occupancy) and customary (Republic of Namibia, 1996; Hangula, 1995). But the former category was omitted from the amended legislative proposals that went forward. Eritrea is another country that also had extensive areas of land used for grazing (both in pastoral areas but also for the all-important oxen, other cattle and small stock in areas that were seen as ‘agricultural’). But there, again, no provision was made to retain any kind of common land (Rock, 2000). It is not clear how the extensive areas of common grazing were supposed to be administered, or indeed what was supposed to happen to this land under the proposals in these two countries. The actual consequence was to make ‘enclosure’ by individuals more likely, and that certainly has happened to marked extent in northern Namibia (Fuller & Nghekembua, 1996). The new Uganda law recognises ‘customary’ tenure but not ‘common’ or ‘communal’, although it does allow for common land associations to be formed (Coldham, 2000). New legislation has thus generally either sanctioned or done nothing to curb tendencies for larger herders to enclose commons, thereby condemning poorer herders to shrinking and thus over-grazed communal grazing, while they usually retained access to both commons and ‘their own’ land (Woodhouse, et al., 2000).

In general, the last decade has been marked by initiatives in a number of African countries to confront the issues of insecurity of land tenure and most of these have stopped short of a Kenya-type formula of individual freehold title to replace customary rights. Some of them have also sought formulae that might end lodging of ultimate title in the hands of the executive arm of government. It can be said, however, that no formula for such a transition between customary and reformed tenure is so far convincing in meeting what some would consider desirable: a system that affords security of tenure, that retains some degree of rights for all members of a community, and which fosters communal management of the commons. Of course, it is much too early to judge the eventual social and economic impact of those enacted changes that have been made only recently. But it is also worrying that some proposals are proving difficult to implement, and even more of concern that several countries have considered several proposals but not yet formulated a clear policy. Perhaps, one of the lessons is not to expect easy solutions or for African countries to get the formula right the first time, and thus to allow for reconsideration – by the widest public debate.


This quick tour of the different kinds of struggles in a few African countries does not begin to do justice to a topic of great complexity and infinite variation, and one that is extremely challenging intellectually in the inter-disciplinarity and sophistication of the demands it makes on those who would seek to comprehend it. Analysing the property rights of even a small plot of land, subject to multiple uses and with layered rights of use, access, disposability, can be infinitely more complex than a similar exercise for a whole sector of industry!

The fascination and challenge of the field is squared because land issues still matter very greatly. Land is still one key element in survival strategies, even if they are more diversified now, and crucial to social security in the long run. It helps to define the distinctive cohesion (or lack of it) of communities, and is in turn defined by the social structure of the community. It has been, as we have seen, a central element in major political struggles – and continues to shape them in cases like the dramatic events currently unfolding in Zimbabwe. Less evident, but also critical, is the extent to which land can be a source of ‘low-intensity’ conflict in many societies. It generates tensions within families; between siblings or between generations, depending on the remnants of the customary system of land tenure in operation. It is often the site of a struggle between contending systems of law and administration, the customary and the enacted, formal. On occasions these conflicts of interest are politicised so that they fuel major ethnic cleansing or other violent conflict. The flames of ‘tribal clashes’ in Kenya are fanned by land claims. The decade-long war between factions in Somalia, especially in the South, are not simply the hostilities of clans and war-lord militias, but concerned with fighting over access to the fertile, riverine lands (Besteman & Castanelli, 1997). But even where there is little overt conflict, access to land has become clouded with great insecurity in much of the continent.

The need to confront land issues and the chronic insecurity that surrounds them, as well as the more dramatic instances of massive inequality in ex-settler colonies, has now been recognised by governments, popular organisations and the intellectual community in a way that marks a departure from the neglect of these issues for 30 years after Independence. So far there has been more debate over land tenure reform, around official inquiries and proposals, than much actual implementation – although the Kenya experience of registering individual titles to land from the 1960s on remains an instructive cautionary tale. Governments and international financial institutions (IFIs) do still toy with the view that enacting capitalist property rights is a prerequisite for development – although they now tend to qualify this with the word ‘eventually’! In several countries proposals and the occasional experiment for an alternative or compromise formula can be found: seeking to provide greater security than in either the existing, partially broken-down customary land tenure systems or in a future fully open market in land. None of these formulae appear convincing prescriptions for finding a secure, modified and broadly egalitarian version of customary tenure.

In the former settler colonies, low-intensity struggles to access formerly white-owned land remain the norm for decades, occasionally generating major political confrontations like that in Zimbabwe. The experience of actual redistributions that have taken place offers mixed results, but it is seldom appreciated that there have been some resettlement programmes that have provided adequate returns to the economy and to the smallholders themselves. Instances where the land poor and landless, especially women, who were the ones who fought and suffered in wars of liberation and land, have gained substantial solution to their plight have been rare or at best limited.

The struggle for security and against inherited inequalities is likely to go on, and needs to be central to any plans for poverty-eradicating development, which is the current vogue among IFIs and western donors. But it matters too much to be left to those bodies, or even African governments or international NGOs. The process needs to be part of broader democratic struggles and be conducted in a way that is transparent and participatory.


Lionel Cliffe is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds.  He has worked in and on Africa for more than 40 years.  He was a founding editor of Review of African Political Economy and has published extensively on Africa and Development.



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[1] The following headlines from the Kenya press that appeared in the course of just a few days give a feel for the intensity and frequency of these continuing land struggles: “Get out or face eviction, squatters are ordered’’ (Daily Nation, 6 April 2001); ‘Herders ordered to leave forest’ (East African Standard, 13 Feb. 2001); ‘Mwachabo land survey suspended’, ‘District Commissioner orders squatters out of forest’ and ‘Destruction of wetlands decried’ (all 3 in East. Africa. Standard, 5 April 2001; ‘MP protests land exercise’ (Daily. Nation, 5 April 2001); Criticos’s squatter claims dismissed’ (Daily. Nation, 4 April 2001); ‘Gachanja (ex- Commissioner for Lands) case resumes: court told of suspect’s cash deals’ (Daily. Nation, 3 April 2001). The latter two stories involve officials.

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