Defined and secure property rights will reduce conflict in Africa

All across Africa, from the Sahel to Congo, tens of thousands of people are at war. You might think these struggles are about religion, or ethnicity, or even political differences but often you’d only be partially right. In a great many of these African struggles people are fighting their neighbours, they are not fighting because the neighbour worships God in a different way or has a different set of genes. Rather, they are fighting because this is the only way left open to them to determine who “owns” which field, or who has what rights to graze animals, or who should control the revenue from the mineral wealth below people’s feet.

Across Africa resource conflict is behind much of the violence, death, and destruction that plague the continent. The problem involves herders and farmers in the dry Sahel. It involves mineral wealth in Nigeria and Angola. Even in South Africa, some of problems of violence associated with the taxi industry can be attributed to fighting over lucrative routes: another type of resource. Resolving resource conflicts is essential to bring peace to Africa, but it will require many African governments to do something they have not, so far at least, been very good at: they must create systems of clearly defined, defendable and secure property rights that are accessible and affordable for all their citizens.

Consider the problems in Sudan: the Sudanese people have lived with civil war for decades. This fighting began even before independence from Great Britain in 1956 and, generally speaking, it pits Islamic northerners against Christian and animist southerners.

British colonial policies exacerbated fears of southerners that those in the north would oppress them. British policy also led to unequal economic development, with the north benefiting from investment in infrastructure and industry while the south was left largely undeveloped with little infrastructure and a rural, subsistence economy. Deeply frustrated, southerners rose in rebellion in the First Sudanese Civil War (1954-72) and again in 1983. The parties to the Second Sudanese Civil War have only recently reached a peace accord (2005).

In 2003, a related conflict erupted in Darfur, in western Sudan. The Sudanese Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebelled against the government’s failure to protect them from nomadic attack and the general neglect and mistreatment by the government of Darfur’s citizens. The government has tried to crush the rebellion and government-backed Janjawiid militia have brutalised civilians.

The Darfur conflict, like the longer-run civil war in Sudan, is typically characterised as an ethnic/religious clash between northern Arab, Islamic forces and southern black Christians. As with many conflicts however, reality may be more complicated.

Indeed, much of the trouble in Darfur stems from resource conflict, in this case, conflicts over access to land, traditional grazing rights, and cattle theft. Herders and farmers in the area have traditionally had a peaceful, symbiotic relationship. Herders had fairly open access to grazing land. Customary grazing rights allowed them to pasture animals on fields for a short time. Herders provided farmers with manure and milk; farmers’ fields provided fodder for the animals. Both parties gained from this trade.

However, with increasing desertification and an influx of refugees from the civil wars, demand for fertile land in Darfur has intensified. As demand increases, the value of fertile land also increases. In many situations, this increase in value will lead to greater individualisation of tenure. As far back as the mid-1980s residents in southern Darfur were responding to this increasing demand by enclosing what had been communal property. Naturally, these enclosures made it more difficult for migratory herders to exercise their traditional grazing rights. Fighting ensued. Unfortunately, the traditional reconciliation process has broken down in the face of large-scale violence.

We might expect government to provide an impartial, effective dispute-resolution mechanism to solve these problems of conflicting property claims. But few government services have ever existed in Darfur and the government has not been able to effectively delineate or protect property rights. Instead, clashes over access to valuable, scarce land (and to possession of valuable cattle) became commonplace. These clashes led to increasingly militarised communities in which allegiances based on racial and religious affiliations became more prominent.

But, at the heart of the matter, much of what underlies the conflicts in Darfur remains disputes over property. It is, therefore, imperative that efforts be undertaken to address these concerns. Darfurians may need the help of property lawyers nearly as much as they need peacekeepers and other aid workers. As the African Union and other nations implement plans to quell the violence in Darfur, they must consider strategies to clarify the property rights of farmers and herders. They should also address the need for effective institutions to protect and defend the property rights that are determined to exist. A rule of law, in other words, needs to be established in this war-torn nation. This may all prove difficult. As the 2005 Index of Economic Freedom notes “There is little respect for private property in Sudan.” The judiciary is not independent and there is no due process of law, rather summary judgment and punishment by military officials is common.

The situation remains especially perilous in Darfur, but fighting continues in Nigeria, Congo, and elsewhere in Africa. While much attention is focused on problems of religious and ethnic tension, too little time and effort are being put into solving the very real problems created by a poor property-rights environment. And sadly, unless and until the property-rights component of these disputes is understood and addressed, the fighting is likely to continue.

Author: Karol Boudreaux is a Senior Fellow at the Mercatus Center, George Mason University, USA. She is also Senior Researcher on the Enterprise Africa! joint project being conducted by the Mercatus Center, Free Market Foundation and Institute of Economic Affairs, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation or the members of the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author.

FMF Feature Article/ 20 September 2005
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