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Communal land under control of traditional leaders, chiefs and kings, rather than individual owners, is one of the biggest obstacles to development, industrialization and economic growth in Africa.

In most African countries, traditional leaders, chiefs and kings run communal land is if they own it. They use it for patronage purposes and punish those critical of them by depriving them of communal land rights.

Such is the tyranny of traditional leaders, chiefs and kings that in many cases fertile communal land across the continent lies empty, while rural dwellers starve or flee to the cities looking for jobs, rather than tilling or grazing the land to feed themselves.

To unlock Africa’s potential, giving communal land to individual owners should be the key pillar of land reform programs. The communal land system locks the majority of Africans into poverty, undermines their individual entrepreneurial spirit and makes them subservient to mostly tyrannical traditional leaders and kings. 

Control of communal land must be immediately taken away from traditional leaders. This would herald the greatest transformations in Africa since the end of colonialism, apartheid and white-minority rule.

It would be the single most catalytic policy, will overhaul the structure of the economy, the societal distribution of resources and bring about social equality, the lack of which is one of the greatest obstacles to development, democracy and peace in Africa.

Africa’s development, industrialization and economic growth is stunted by the fact that in many countries some people – particularly traditional authorities, and increasingly the leading families of independence and liberation movements - are perceived to be socially, cultural and ethnically of higher social status and value than ordinary citizens. 

Without individual title deeds, individual rights to property and ownership, Africa will be unable to release the continent’s untapped development potential. In fact, without individual ownership, African communal farmers cannot take “time and effort”, take risks and create “value” – namely producing at scale for the market, beyond providing for themselves and their families.

Any “value” that would be created by individual farmers on communal land is in danger of being siphoned off by unscrupulous traditional leaders, chiefs and kings. Yet, unless Africa’s vast numbers of peasant farmers shift gear and begin to go beyond producing monocrops they have grown up with or just grazing cattle for meat and milk for themselves, to add value to these or to produce new products not available in their communities and countries, Africa will remain poor, underdeveloped and needing to import basic foodstuff and other products.

At the moment most of Africa’s genuine entrepreneurs are in the informal sector producing monocrops they have grown up with or grazing cattle for meat or milk either for themselves or for surrounding communities.

These grassroots entrepreneurs need to innovate in their own contexts – producing new crops or new products, not available in their communities or country, or adding value to existing ones. But they must also look at new ways to manage their enterprises, whether pooling their savings, scaling up and adding value and securing new markets for their products.

Given the fact that most African countries after independence inherited economies without much advanced industry, skills and financial resources, entrepreneurs, who could add value to raw materials, leverage technology to come up with new methods of production, introduce new entirely new industry sectors and manufacturing products, were desperately needed.

Most African countries are dominated by a public sector and informal sector – the latter mostly agricultural. Most employment in African countries is in the informal sector, specifically agriculture, where households eke out a living as subsistence farmers on communal land, producing just about enough for their families. The formal sector, or the private sector in most African countries, is often very tiny.

During colonialism, all colonial powers used the communal system to great effect to keep Africans in poverty, debasing their value as human beings. Colonial, apartheid and white-minority governments deliberately ran a dual governance system, whereby whites were served separately by the colonial, apartheid and white minority governments and by representative institutions and laws applicable in the ‘mother country’.  

The ‘natives’ or ‘subjects’ were served by traditional authorities, chiefs and kings. The colonial, apartheid or white-minority governments’ strategy was that the traditional chief, authorities and kings would implement the colonial subjugation policy on behalf of the colonial government.

Colonial, apartheid and white-minority governments chose the traditional authorities, and if they were absent, or if the existing ones were not docile enough, they established new ones. These traditional authorities, chiefs and kings were expected to pliantly follow the colonial government line.

The traditional authorities were allowed to run communal land as if it was theirs, treat their ‘subjects’ autocratically, and interpret existing traditional customs, customary law and rules in whatever way they saw fit, as long as these did not undermine the colonial government. In some cases, these traditional would even create their own ‘traditional’ customs, customary law, courts and rules.

Any of the ‘subjects’ who would object would be severally punished, paying a heavy fine, deprived of grazing rights or even driven off the communal land. Colonial, apartheid and white-minority governments would often endorse or reinforce the most autocratic elements of ‘traditional’ customs, customary law and rules.

Sadly, at the end of colonialism, apartheid and white-minority regimes, African liberation and independence movements adopted the same dual system, this time allowing traditional authorities to rule their local ‘subjects’ on condition that they got their ‘subjects’ to vote for the independence or liberation movement government or leader.

In return for having untrammeled feudal power, African traditional authorities made sure that their 'subjects' voted for the ruling party, repressed and isolated critics of the unequal system, accusing them of wanting to be 'white', of 'rejecting' their own culture and of being 'agents' of the colonial or Western powers.

In many post-independence African countries, traditional authorities retained their power over communal land, their 'subjects' and traditional culture. They more often than not abused such powers for their own enrichment, leaving the vast majority of Africans living in rural areas as feudal 'subjects', living in abject poverty, as well controlling almost every part of their lives, and even who they should vote for.

Most traditional leaders continue with their despotism into the post-independence era, now with the support of the post-independence and liberation governments. Often traditional leaders would invent their own “customs”, “to cover-up wrong-doing, corruption or to shield themselves from criticism.

Poor, uneducated and uninformed rural communities, not knowing better accept and defend these invented “customs”. Others are forced to accept these or have their communal rights taken away

A key point of African reforms of the traditional system must be to immediately cancel the colonial-era system of a separate “customary law”, traditional customs and rules for the ‘natives’ or indigenous people, which now in the post-independence era is reserved for rural communities under traditional leaders.

All citizens of African countries must adhere to one governance system in their public and private lives – the constitutional and democratic laws of their countries. Traditional authorities must not be the sole arbiters of what traditional customs and values should be. If there is a need to arbitrate over what is ‘acceptable’ traditional customs, culture and values, these should be done by independent, representative and democratically-minded panels of experts. All African customs that undermine individual dignity and rights, gender equality and democratic values must be abandoned immediately.

Furthermore, traditional leaders, if some people want them, must only have symbolic power. However, everyone must have the right to reject even such symbolic power, or to entirely opt out of the traditional system. All decisions, they make, even if symbolic, must be on a democratic basis.

They must be held accountable and punished if corrupt, autocratic or self-serving, including stripping them of any traditional titles. People must be able to fire them.

Many Africans up to now have refrained from criticizing the negative impact of the communal land system or the untrammeled control traditional leaders, chiefs and kings have over communal land – fearing they would be ostracized by their communities.

Yet, unless African countries drastically reform the system of communal land, giving the ownership directly to individuals, families and households, entrepreneurship will remain stagnant, countries will continue to be underdeveloped and economic growth will remain stunted.

* WILLIAM GUMEDE is Chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation. His latest book is Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times.



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Comments (1)

  • ipamanning's picture

    The commons is of massive importance to Africa, to the world. To suggest it should be cut up and sold to individuals is simply rank and crass ignorance. I wonder who funds Democracy Works Foundation?

    Oct 13, 2017