Opinion – Accelerating redistributive land reform “responsibly”

Uchendu Eugene Chigbu

Anyone who used to dismiss, and I have encountered quite a few, the negative impacts of the colonization of Africa by on-shore and off-shore European settlers, needs a rethink. The only valid argument is that it shouldn’t just be about Europe. Centuries of Arabization (Arab influence) and Europeanization (European influence) of Africa, through decades of post-independence Americanization (American pressure), have all contributed to Balkanization (complete distortion) of land uses in Africa. The impact is the imbalance created in the land structure of African countries to the benefit of both European settlers and indigenous elites.

I give you some examples of how the land structures of some African countries have been disrupted by colonialist governments. In East Africa, the British annexed the central highlands of Kenya. These highlands housed the cool climate and the most fertile land, compared to the rest of the country. They introduced laws which made it possible to acquire land for a lease of nine hundred and ninety-nine years, or in perpetuity. These laws from 1896 to 1915 subsequently disposed of the indigenous Kikuyu ethnic groups of their ancestral land. This highly unwarranted land dispossession by British colonialists led to the Mau Mau uprising from 1952 to 1960. Other East African countries such as Uganda and Tanzania have their unique experiences of land dispossession by the European (and Arab) colonialists. In Nigeria, women of the Igbo ethnic group owned land rights until the British colonialists introduced Native Authority laws which declared that women could not own or inherit land in this part of Nigeria. This decision made sense then because, in 19th century Europe, women could not own property because it was (themselves) the property of men.

The British did not understand why women should own land in Nigeria. They created an anti-women law requiring that land could only be registered in the names of men. Emerging post-colonial indigenous elites rushed to this law to justify why women should be submissive to men. After all (as most would say), “this has been our culture”. Today, women are struggling to fully regain their right to own and use land in Nigeria.

Namibia experienced its own horrors of physical land dispossession at the hands of apartheid colonialist administrations, which crafted laws to annex the most valuable land portfolios. We have in Namibia today a very skewed land structure which mainly favors European settlers, and has led to gross landlessness of citizens of indigenous descent. Recognizing the need to reduce inequalities in access to land in Namibia, the government adopted land reform. The redistributive component of land reform – the crux of the matter here – is designed to ensure the resettlement of disadvantaged Namibians. Much has been said and written about the slow pace of reform in Namibia. Conferences have been held regarding the best ways to do this. I think the reform is undertaken through an appropriate action plan. I also think that given the unequal access to land in Namibia, the speed at which reform is being implemented is very slow. Moreover, I believe that the slow pace of reform presents as many opportunities as challenges. This is a challenge because many Namibians still do not have land of their own (a crucial aspect in addressing historical injustice and reducing poverty). It is an opportunity because it allows the government and other stakeholders to engage in the best ways to redress the land injustices committed in the country. I want to make a few recommendations to expedite reform responsibly. A process of “responsible land reform” is land reform that responds to the needs of all citizens in terms of design, approach and results. When there is general dissatisfaction with the outcome, it is not responsible land reform. In the case of Namibia, the slow pace of reform is an obstacle to achieving its goals. This causes our people to question its design and approach. According to the research already carried out on this question, several factors could slow down the process of reform. These include delay-causing steps involved in land acquisition and allocation (resettlement) processes and legislative concerns. There is also a lack of human capacity (especially assessors and appraisers) to conduct land suitability assessments and determine land prices. A major obstacle is that those who are supposed to offer their farms are unwilling to sell.

I recommend the following steps to accelerate the reform process. Farm owners should be more open to offering their farms for sale to the government. They should see this as an act of patriotism and a contribution to solving land injustices in the country. Everyone must make a sacrifice for the future of Namibia. Currently disadvantaged Namibians (those who were historically marginalized but continue to be marginalized today) have already made their sacrifice by enduring land injustices and poverty until today. In terms of process, there is a need to pair activities that ministry personnel can do simultaneously to help speed up the process. For example, it would be useful to introduce a one-stop-shop for all reform activities, instead of applicants having to move from office to office and wait month-to-month during the application process. Improving information services and raising public awareness of the processes involved in the reform will help citizens better understand the beginning and end of the administrative functions involved in the reform. This way they can participate, knowing what to do and what not to do.

* Uchendu Eugene Chigbu is an Associate Professor (Land Administration) in the Department of Land and Property Sciences (DLPS) at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). The opinions expressed in this article are entirely his own and not those of NUST.

2022-02-18 Staff reporter

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