The dynamics of land tenure in Africa can be analysed from three angles: land tenure systems and regimes, land tenure governance and real estate markets.
Long-term trends in the dynamics of land tenure in sub-Saharan Africa
The necessarily systems-based approach to the land tenure question has important operational consequences. First, it is difficult to influence land tenure issues through purely sectoral approaches, for example focusing only on governance policy, urban and housing policy, investment credit or environmental protection. Secondly, while land tenure governance may be considered as primarily a matter for State intervention in land tenure dynamics, in most sub-Saharan States, reforms or improvements in land tenure governance come up against structural dysfunctions in land administration, and especially the widespread corruption among institutions responsible for delivering land titles (directorates for land and property rights in particular).
In this context, intervention in land tenure is all the more problematical as the State has little or no power over most of the factors that influence its dynamics.
Harvesting rice in Ghana
Land tenure dynamics and interactions
In an overall context of State disengagement and weakened capacities as regards land tenure governance, the dynamics observed over the last three decades clearly show that private property is increasingly the norm, with the disintegration of customary forms of land management, mercantilisation of every means of access to land and a parallel trend towards fragmentation of small family landholdings and the concentration of land ownership in areas of commercial interest. Resource depletion, demographic pressure, migratory movements, increasing land prices and increasingly difficult access to property for low-income households, both rural and urban, are already patent in the increasing number of conflicts around access to land tenure. Large-scale appropriation of agricultural lands and property speculation in urban and peri-urban areas are tending to exacerbate the situation.
Four qualitative scenarios for the longer term
The first scenario is based on a continuation of current dynamics: the demographic transition continues; no notable crises in water resources and soil fertility, environmental degradation stabilises; “steady” increase in agricultural productivity and urban investment in a context of political stability and regularisation of land tenure.
The second scenario assumes a notable improvement in conditions of access to land and in their agricultural development, thanks to a growing domestic market, overall economic growth and employment generating urban income, increasing public and private investment and controlled migratory flows.
The third scenario assumes pluralist land tenure governance based on the recognition of rights to commons in parallel with a private property regime. Land tenure management is market-driven and governed by decentralisation policies that ensure the permanence of heritage management, protection of family smallholdings and regulation of foreign investments in agricultural lands.
The last scenario assumes loss of control over land tenure. Analyses of land tenure dynamics show that control over land tenure is increasingly limited to some urban and rural zones where it is of major economic interest and integrated, or becoming integrated, into formal production and trading circuits. Elsewhere, control over lands is being lost while certain areas are being “reserved” for later development. This situation has a significant effect on migratory movements and urbanisation. It increasingly upsets the balance of the environment, the economy and migration, worsens inequality and creates instability and tensions liable to degenerate into conflict. Food and land crises cause the most vulnerable states to fail, bringing risks of contagion across entire sub-regions.
The data available on the factors that influence land tenure dynamics suggest that the last scenario is the most likely to prevail, particularly in Western and Central Africa.
Implementing Land Registers © 2IE Institute
The question of land registers and secure land tenure
The population in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to grow from 860 million in 2010 to 1.1 or 1.2 billion by 2020, with very high pressure on urban lands as the proportion of city dwellers rises from 38% in 2010 to 42% in 2020 and around 50% by 2030. For example, a city with a population of 2 million increasing by 3.5% a year will, in the next ten years, need to provide 20 to 25 km2 of serviced lands to meet demand for housing. To this must be added the land required to re-house some of the populations living in squatter settlements where restructuring is under way.
Land registers only cover a very small proportion of lands, including those in urban and peri-urban areas. For many institutions, this is an obstacle to investment and exposes the populations concerned to increasingly insecure land tenure as market pressure grows. Security of land tenure is a priority in this context to protect city dwellers from eviction and also to keep investments secure. An inventory assessing landed property is essential to establish a tax system capable of financing basic urban infrastructure and services.
The most usual solution is to deliver land titles. This is presented as the best way of making land tenure secure for both investors and occupants, and is often included in the aims of projects on establishing or updating land registers. Land title awards and land registers both raise problems with implementation, whose complexity and duration are often under-estimated. Updating land titles and registers raises problems that the vast majority of governments and government departments in sub-Saharan African are not equipped to face.
Although the systematic delivery of land titles, as recommended by Hernando de Soto, has never met with any kind of success in sub-Saharan countries – or in any other developing country apart from Peru – it is still considered an appropriate tool by many African nations, development agencies and international financial institutions. This opinion seems to be motivated by ideological choices (in favour of smallholder land ownership). It is also a simple – even simplistic – response to a complex problem, hence its undeniable success with policy-makers.
Although it is possible to overcome a number of political, legal and socio-cultural problems, programmes to deliver land titles are often compromised by the lack of government capacities to implement them. For example, for a city with a population of 3 million growing at a rate of 2.5% a year and where 50% of people live on undocumented land, the government departments in charge of real estate would need to deliver 120 land titles on every working day for 10 years to regularise their occupancy. Except for South Africa, this is beyond the capacities of every State in sub-Saharan Africa.
As evidenced by a number of experiences, such as the programme to restructure squatter settlements in Senegal (success rate of only 3% from 1991 to 2007), or the attempt to convert 30 000 residence permits into property titles in Benin (0.4% success rate from 2006 to 2011). The ambitious programme for mass land tenure regularisation in Rwanda (10 million plots registered from 2007 to 2012 out of the country total of 11.4 million) has stalled due to the government’s lack of capacity to update the information collected.
The problems and constraints encountered in implementing land registers are very similar to those observed in attempts to deliver systematic land titles.
For nearly thirty years, cooperation agencies and international financial institutions have been devoting substantial means to implement or update land registers in sub-Saharan cities. A great many land register projects have been initiated, especially in French-speaking countries, but none has been effectively implemented and there has been no systematic assessment of the reasons for these repeated failures, or of the costs entailed. Such assessments now appear to be essential in order to answer a few simple questions to avoid repeating past mistakes. How many land registration projects have been initiated in sub-Saharan Africa in the last 20 years? What have they cost? Who has benefited from the funding? How many land registers have actually been set up and updated? Why are projects to set up land registers not assessed?
In most of the countries, land tenure administration and governance have both proved inadequate, bringing all of the attendant risks of launching operations that, even if they are technically well designed, can never be implemented. In the short and medium term, priority should be given to land registration measures implemented gradually as and when the need arises. The formalisation and systematic registration of titles to land is rarely possible and can have an adverse socio-economic impact on the most vulnerable populations.