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Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Land Question in the East African Federation

The following section is excerpted from Professor Mahmood Mamdani's Keynote Address to the East African Legislative Assembly Symposium, "A Decade of Service towards Political Federation," Arusha, 30th June 2011.


I heard claims in yesterday’s session that we have solved the land question by leaving land policy to each member state. Rather than solve it, I think we have shelved it.

The vast majority of East Africans are peasants. The question that concerns peasants first and foremost is that of land. Without secure access to land, there is no secure livelihood.

We have two radically opposed land systems in East Africa. Both are of colonial origin. One is freehold, where the poor are free to sell their land to the rich – even if it means they will be without any means of livelihood in the future. Then there is customary tenure, created during the colonial period. Its basis is that land belongs to the community.

Customary tenure is basically a preventive measure. It prevented the peasant from being dispossessed by market forces and secured the material basis of rural livelihoods. It also prevented the rural poor from being turned into a surplus population flooding into towns. Conversely, it prevented urban-based capital from appropriating land in the countryside.

On the negative side, the regime of customary tenure defined the community in ethnic terms, as a tribal community, and land as part of a tribal homeland. The overall effect was to narrow the African horizon to the tribe. Not only was the tribe turned into a source of security and belonging, it was also said that danger lurks beyond the tribe.

The challenge today is two-fold: Can the principle of land to the tiller (security of tenure) inherent in customary tenure be preserved in a united East Africa? Or will unity sacrifice this to freehold tenure and principles of market fundamentalism? Second, can unity create something more than a market – a playing field where the rich and powerful will inevitably dominate? Can it create a meaningful citizenship, a political shelter for the majority?

The European solution to this challenge is well known. From the 17th century, freehold tenure became the basis of agrarian accumulation in Europe. Its results too are well known. The rural poor were expelled from the countryside as a surplus population. Those unable to find jobs in urban areas were forcibly expelled to overseas colonies – initially as bandits, convicts, and rebels, then as victims of market fundamentalism. This was the story of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa.

The European option made for an urban dictatorship over rural areas. Urban areas called for autonomy. Europe’s urban-centered vision is theoretically sanctified in the notion of civil society. We have taken it over uncritically.

In East Africa, urban autonomy was historically a part of the regime of race privilege. Civil society was racialized at birth. The progressive forces in East Africa were not those who fought for urban autonomy, but those who fought to link the urban and the rural. Advocates of civil society and urban autonomy have overlooked this historical fact.

Today, the European option of expelling the rural population is no longer feasible. Given that there are hardly any empty spaces left in the world, Africa’s rural poor have no fall back except within Africa. The surplus population expelled from Africa’s rural areas cannot and for the most part does not migrate overseas. In spite of sensational stories in the press that highlight the plight of Africans who drown at sea trying to get to Europe, facts are otherwise. This surplus population is found as refugees and internally displaced persons inside Africa.

We can learn something from the Chinese example. Everyone knows that the crisis of rural areas in China is growing. The surprise is that this crisis is not bigger. For this, there is one important reason. In China, land in rural areas is not a commodity. Land belongs to the village. It is something like what we call customary tenure. Access is based on use.

The lesson for us is to look for ways of reforming customary tenure rather than abolishing it. The point should be, first, to retain security of tenure, the principle of land to the tiller – and the recognition of the village community as the custodian of land.

But the point should also be to reform the notion of the village community from tribal to residential.

It should now be clear that leaving land policy to national governments will not solve the problem. Its consequence is likely to be a migration of the rural poor from lands of freehold tenure to lands where security of tenure still obtains for peasants. A second consequence will be a growing demand in the latter areas that borders be closed to stop the flow of those local people see as a threat to their land and their jobs. We only need to think of the recent violence against African migrants labeled makwerekwere in South Africa.

The big question is the relationship of the rural to the urban – and of tribe to nation. Can one be part of a wider community without losing home and a sense of home? This takes us back to the big question, the question of citizenship.

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