Matt Kandel argues that a longue durée approach is necessary when analysing the roots of  land tensions in some African countries.

In October of 2012, I was seated with a small group of residents in a village in rural eastern Uganda. These residents were participants in my focus group interview, and the matter of discussion was land. Those present accused certain local government officials of “grabbing” land from their village and complained that their voices were not being heard by the central government. The words used by one middle-aged man to express the prevailing sentiments at the meeting were concise and without need for parsing: “We are refugees in our own homeland.”Few issues are more politically volatile than that of land in sub-Saharan Africa. The “global land grab”—a referent to the narrative that multinational companies are swooping into Africa and gobbling up land—has done the most over the last decade to draw attention to this volatility. However, land-related tensions preexisted the most recent land rush. These tensions stem from political, economic, cultural, generational, and religious cleavages; they vary between and within nations, often demonstrating distinctive sub-national—if not more localized—characteristics; and they should be analyzed within historical frameworks premised on a longue durée approach.  A longue durée approach recognizes that contemporary political conflict around land might originate from colonial or even precolonial developments.

Market stall in rural Uganda

Unequivocally, the politics of land in Africa threatens state stability, and this is particularly true for the most fragile and conflict-affected areas.  One reason for this pertains to the proliferation of conflicts over land, the majority of which unfold on the local-level within and between lineages, clans, and families. Common storylines revolve around brothers fighting brothers over land inheritances and adjacent clans vying for authority over the same wetland or forested area.

Conflicts over land that reverberate on the national-level typically directly involve state actors; they might also involve foreign actors and can create security challenges for states.  For instance, male gerontocratic control over land allocation and land use rights may contribute to the mobilization of youth-dominated militias, such as was the case with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone.  In such instances, rural youth perceptions of disempowerment and alienation are driven by the lack of access to and control over land.

Conflict over land may facilitate violence that cuts across ethnic lines.  For instance, André and Platteauconvincingly argue that landholding inequalities were a contributing factor to the genocide in Rwanda.  Furthermore, climate change—seen through prolonged droughts coupled with less predictable rainfall patterns (the latter of which affects planting cycles for rainfall dependent farmers)—is heightening competition over land, especially in areas where pastoralists and farmers both seek to access natural resources for livelihoods purposes.

Land disputes along the lines of clan and lineage—generally small-scale concerning the size of land in question—might not directly threaten state legitimacy; but, the incapacity of governments, along with non-state actors, to resolve them damages their credibility.  The prevalence of land disputes also impedes the development of effective land governance structures.

Conflicts over land that principally feature state actors (either directly or by way of partnerships with foreign actors such as multinational companies) fundamentally delegitimize the state, as the latter is directly implicated (rightly or wrongly) as a conspirator in illegitimately expropriating land from its citizens. While an extreme case, a multi-million-acre land deal negotiated in 2008 between the government of Madagascar and Daewoo, a South Korean company, precipitated a coup d’état.

The politics of land, therefore, is in part premised on direct contestations overuse and allocation rights (though highly varied regarding scale and principal actors); but, it also infuses societies in more complex ways, creating immediate and long-term challenges to state stability.

For example, election politics—notoriously violent in some countries such as Kenya—can turn on issues of land. Candidates competing for electoral support are keenly aware of how to play up land-related historical grievances of specific ethnic groups, frequently coalescing along ethnicity and/or clan. Moreover, governments in power might allocate land as a form of patronage, to co-opt members of the opposition or to empower the clan of certain ruling elites.

State infrastructure projects—critical for development in Africa and comprising large chunks of national budgets—including the construction of roads, rail, and energy installations can trigger local-level protests, as people who are settled on and/or use the land in question are often skeptical of the true intentions of their government. Skepticism also commonly stems from the fear that they will lose their only means for eking out livelihoods.

In the case of Uganda, the greatest existential threat to the state stems not from the potential for (and history of) insurgencies in the country’s North (such as the Lord’s Resistance Army), or ongoing violent conflict in the bordering countries of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; rather, it is rooted in a historic disagreement over sovereignty and power-sharing between the central state and the Kingdom of Buganda, also the most powerful region in the country and the location for the capital city. At the heart of this unresolved tension are disputes over land rights between the state, kingdom, and tenants, the origins of which date to a 1900 colonial-era land legislation.

Analyses of land politics in Africa should depart from historically informed and nuanced understandings of land right allocation mechanisms, and patterns of landholding. It is inadequate to merely argue that land scarcity and population growth might challenge state stability. For as Catherine Boone has compellingly shown through her analysis of data from countries such as Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire, neither dynamic alone explains or predicts land-related conflict, and whether they might “scale up” to the national-level and challenge state stability.

However, this is not to say that rapid population growth does not pose key governance challenges, and under certain circumstances may contribute to threatening state stability.  Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi, and Burundi are all in the top ten of the most densely populated countries in Africa.  This is a distinctly urban challenge, as major cities—some now earning the title of “mega-city”—cannot adequately absorb rural migrants into their labor markets.

Of course, the urban challenge is inherently linked to developments in the countryside: specifically, due to rising land scarcity and low agricultural yields. Younger people who inherit land through customary practices are increasingly lacking enough land to sustainably practice smallholder agriculture. In other words, rural population growth and low yielding agriculture combined, are diminishing the political, economic, and cultural significance of traditional land inheritance practices for younger generations. It is also illuminating the deepening agrarian crisis in Africa, and consequently, fueling the urban challenge.

As across much of Africa, the realization of this crisis has already set in for families in rural Uganda. When coupled with opportunistic elite and middle-class land acquisitions, this realization informs the sentiment expressed by the man I interviewed in 2012, that they are “refugees in their own homeland.” Fieldwork that I conducted in Uganda in 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2017 simply confirmed how deeply this feeling resonates amongst people. The political salience of land in Africa will only continue to rise. Analysts should not underestimate its impact on state stability.

This article was first published on Africa Up Close blog.

Matt Kandel completed his Ph.D. in 2014 at the City University of New York and is currently a British Academy Newton International Fellow at SOAS, University of London.


The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.