Land disputes may fuel another civil war in Burundi

The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 13 February 2014

Burundi4It is predicted that by the end of the next decade, most conflicts in the African continent would be caused by land disputes, despite efforts by agencies such as the World Bank supporting projects in various African countries to help build land management capacity and capability.

Whilst today’s conflicts are largely driven by political groups exploiting religious and or tribal differences to achieve political domination, the future is likely to be less predictable.

In the absence of modern land ownership laws, and state machinery and the judiciary failing to administer justice fairly and equitably, individuals and groups will increasingly resort to violence, which could spark wider proxy conflicts especially in fragile states.

Burundi is now relatively peaceful after years of civil war. But tensions are rising again, with the likelihood of another war hanging on the balance.

According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), “Unless the government revives land governance reform in Burundi, long-term peace building efforts will remain compromised.”

In its latest report, ‘Fields of Bitterness (I): Land Reform in Burundi’, the first in a two-part series, the International Crisis Group examines why reform has failed to improve land governance since the 2000 Arusha peace agreement.

burundi1The ICG says overpopulation in rural areas and poor land management, in part fuelled the civil war, and its reform was included in the Arusha agreement.

But fourteen years later, while 90 per cent of the population depends on agriculture, many suffer from malnutrition, and land disputes remain a primary cause of violence in rural areas. Solving the land problem is critical to long-term political stability and economic growth, the ICG warns.

Key issues discussed in the report

  • The 2000 Arusha agreement paved the way for an ambitious land reform program. However, the narrow focus on a new legal framework and the creation of a few local land management services have resulted in the government’s failure to deliver on its promises.
  • Land governance is still characterised by the absence of effective control over the state’s prerogatives; lack of coordination between relevant institutions; lack of independence of the judiciary; the disappearance of traditional mechanisms for dispute resolution; and gender inequality in access to land.
  • In order to revive land reform, the government should, with the support of its international partners, devise a new rural development strategy that fully integrates land policy and reduces inequalities in access to land.
  • The government should promote peaceful land dispute resolution by developing the mediation and conciliation capacities of the courts and establishing financially sustainable local land management services.

burundi“Those who signed the Arusha agreement knew that, in an overpopulated country like Burundi, the land problem needed to be resolved”, says Thierry Vircoulon, Central Africa Project Director. “However, fourteen years later, the land governance system is still unable to end the many disputes, fully secure tenure rights and contribute to peace and rural development”.

“Land reform is stalled and this is silently undermining peace building in Burundi”, says Comfort Ero, Africa Program Director. “Faced with rapid population growth, scarcity of arable land and increasing food insecurity, Burundi needs a global vision on land that will address socio-economic realities and break with bad governance practices of the past”.

Burundi, whose population lives mainly in rural areas, is facing two land problems. The first is structural and due to poor land management, particularly in a context of high population growth, which generates violence and crime.

The second is a legacy of the civil war that deprived hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced people of their properties. Only renewed focus and fresh thinking can help prevent rural criminal violence. However, instead of meaningful reform, only a review of the land code has been implemented.

The impact of the absence of a comprehensive change in land governance, especially on conflict resolution, will continue to fuel public resentment, especially for those who have been dispossessed of their properties or have limited access to land ownership.

The sense of injustice and the pressing need for land will likely contribute to future conflicts unless the government adopts a new approach.

Burundi’s overcrowded rural population is a challenge to its land management system and is the source of deep socioeconomic resentment that in part fuelled the civil war.

With one of the highest population densities on the continent (about 400 people per square kilometre) and 90 per cent of the population dependent on agriculture, Burundi needs to be a good example of land management.

On the contrary, however, bad land governance is deeply rooted and old regulation mechanisms are obsolete, thus contributing to conflict, social tensions and a malnutrition rate close to 75 per cent.

Fourteen years on, the ambitious land reform provided for in the Arusha agreement has been superficial at best and has not met expectations.

Several shortcomings explain this failure: the absence of tight control over state prerogatives, which generates abuses and increases land insecurity; lack of coordination between reform initiatives, which leads to a duplication of roles and reduces the efficiency of land institutions; lack of independence of the judiciary; inequalities in land access (especially for women); and disappearance of traditional conflict resolution mechanisms.

Burundi2Resolving land conflicts will require much more than a simple change in the political balance of power between the Tutsi elite, which has dominated the political arena since independence, and the Hutu majority, in power since 2005.

Burundi needs a global vision on land that will take into account socio-economic realities and break with bad governance practices of the past.

Preparations for the 2015 elections have started and land issues will be a divisive topic during the campaign. The government should, with the support of international partners, implement the following measures:

  • elaborate a new rural development strategy that fully integrates the land policy;
  • pass a law on inheritance to promote gender equality, to include all land users (particularly women and children) in land certification and to allow the advance registration of estates for the purposes of succession (ie, before the concerned person’s death);
  • launch a national campaign to promote peaceful land dispute resolution; and
  • develop mediation and conciliation within the courts, as well as establish sustainable local land management services.

Read the full ICG Report:

Fields of Bitterness (I): Land Reform in Burundi


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