I recently finished Cathy Boone’s excellent new book, Property and Political Order in Africa: Land Rights and the Structure of Politics. She’s motivated by the observation that, while disagreements over access to land are endemic in Africa, some areas see the issue become highly politicized or spill over into violent conflict, while others end up with low-level disagreements that never escalate. In seeking to answer this, she looks at the way that different types of land tenure systems created by the colonial and post-colonial state tend to “bottle up” land conflict at the local level, or encourage it to escalate to the national political realm.
A very brief rendering of her argument is that land tenure systems in which chiefs or lineage heads are given the right to allocate land (often along ethnic lines) tend to keep conflict local, because no one above this level of regional governance has the right to challenge the chief’s allocation of land. Thus, people who are unhappy with their access to land can’t make claims about it within the national political system. Examples of this type of system include western and central Ghana, northern Cameroon, and western Kenya.
A chiefly or lineage-based land tenure regime contrasts with statist systems of land allocation, where the government directly assigns land to farmers, often for the purpose of raising cash crops (and frequently involving the importation of labor from elsewhere in the country). Because access to land isn’t mediated by any type of local government, people with complaints about their allocation take the issue directly to the national government. Examples of this type of system include southwestern Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya’s Rift Valley, eastern DRC, and southeastern Rwanda.
I found this analysis very useful in understanding some of the persistent conflict dynamics of the Great Lakes. In both the DRC and Rwanda, government policies led directly to the displacement of thousands of people from the colonial period onwards. This seems to have created lasting grievances in both countries that have played off each other in very harmful ways, from cycles of ethnic violence in Rwanda to the way that persistent insecurity of land tenure in eastern Congo has led to the creation of an endless array of militias. In Ghana, by comparison, chiefly land tenure systems prevailed, relatively few people were forced off their land, and land allocation does not seem to be a highly salient national political issue today. To be clear, Boone is not claiming that land tenure regimes are the only or even the primary explanatory variable for violent conflict, but her analysis of the ways that land tenure arrangements can mute or amplify tensions within a political system is insightful in ways that simple claims about ethnic rivalries are not.