In modern Africa conflicting views about land ownership cause legal, political, and economic problems. Traditional African ideas concerning the use, inheritance, and disposal of land differ sharply from those of Western nations. During the colonial era, European powers usually imposed their own ideas about ownership on their African territories, often ignoring indigenous practices. The resulting confusion about land use and ownership has had serious consequences for African nations.
Systems of Land Ownership
The precolonial system of land ownership in Africa was, in general, communal rather than individual. Most goods were produced for use by the group and not for sale. For this reason it was important for all members of the society to have access to the land, and different groups could hold different rights to a single plot of land. For example, a chief might claim political rights over a district. At the same time, a local priest might have the right to perform rituals there, while farmers and herders might exercise the right to plant crops or graze livestock on the land.
By contrast, the system of land ownership brought to Africa by the European powers was based on the idea of land as personal property. Under this system individuals possess exclusive control over land, and landowners have the absolute right to use and dispose of their land. This view of land ownership is part of capitalism.
Impact of Colonialism
During the colonial era, Europeans believed that private ownership of land was necessary to bring about modernization and development in Africa. They considered any land that was not permanently occupied or exploited to be available for European settlement or seizure. Areas that had once served as seasonal pastureland, reserves for hunting or gathering, or the inheritance of a particular family group were given to European settlers.
The seizure of communal lands disrupted traditional economies. Many farmers and herders were forced to work as tenant farmers or laborers on land taken by Europeans. Others moved to less desirable plots or went to the cities to look for work.
After independence much of the property held by Europeans was abandoned or seized by the government. This often led to confusion about who had the right to use the land. A common solution was for the state to nationalize the property, divide it up, and distribute it to new owners. However, these programs often split the land into plots too small to support their owners, and many small farmers ended up selling out to larger ones. In some instances government leaders gave state-owned land to relatives or political supporters. No matter how the land was distributed, the meaning of “ownership” remained unclear. Some people continued to follow indigenous traditions of land use, while others followed the European pattern.
Modern Africa faces a situation in which several forms of land ownership exist side-by-side. However, in most countries the law is only slowly changing to define land rights. Policies relating to land ownership remain a confusing mix of traditional and capitalist approaches. In recent years African policy makers have studied ways to work with these different systems to provide greater access to land for those who need it while still protecting the rights of private property owners. (See also Colonialism in Africa, Development, Economic and Social, Economic History, Laws and Legal Systems, Peasantry and Land Settlement.)