Preview: Property and political order in Africa

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Here at DiA, we like to keep our readers abreast of the best publications in African politics. This week we are delighted to preview a ‘must read’ from one of the discipline’s leading lights, Catherine Boone. Her new book, ‘Property and political order in Africa: Land rights and the structure of politics,’ is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. Catherine Boone is currently a Professor of Comparative Politics and African Political Economy in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Policy analysts, academics, and journalists are pointing to the increasing incidence and importance of land-related conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. Across many parts of the continent, growing competition over land access, the assertion ethnic land entitlements, and enclosure generate or heighten land-related conflict. In some places, land conflicts have exploded onto the national political stage, as in Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, DRC, and Sudan. In others places, conflict remains local and repressed in forms of ‘silent violence’ that never make the news. This rising tide of land-related conflict is very poorly understood. It seems to defy modernization theory and theories of economic development, which predicted that land politics would decrease in salience over time. There is no systematic correlation with rates of demographic increase, the prevalence of land scarcity, national regime type, or legal traditions imported from the colonial metropoles.  And it is not a result of state breakdown, or state weakness. Some of the most violent and sustained land conflicts are playing out in the richest and most intensively-governed zones of rural Africa.

Property and Political Order in Africa seeks to solve these puzzles. The book argues that patterns of land-related conflict are shaped by rural land tenure institutions that have been molded by African governments. To see the causal connections, scholars need broader, more comparative, and more political theories of rural property regimes. Land institutions turn out to be far more varied and politicized than most existing analysis has recognized.

The book advances two core arguments. The first is that governments in Africa have created and upheld rural property institutions that create relationships of political dependency and authority, define lines of social cooperation and cleavage, and segment territory into political jurisdictions. In most places for much of the twentieth century, these arrangements made rural Africa governable. It is in this sense that rural property regimes have been central in constituting the ‘political order’ that is invoked in the book’s title. The second argument is that rural land tenure institutions vary across space (and time), and thus account for patterned variations in the structure and character of land-related competition and conflict.  I argue that variation in land institutions can explain where and how ethnicity is salient in land conflict; whether land-conflict is localized or ‘scales-up’ to national-level politics; and where and how land-related conflict finds expression in elections. The analytic model and hypotheses are developed in the Part One of the book, and then probed and tested via comparative case study analysis in the remaining chapters.

Case studies are clustered around three themes. Part Two of the book, called, ‘Beyond Ethnicity: Land Institutions and the Structuring of Ethnic Conflict,’ argues that Africa’s land tenure regimes produce ethnic identity and structure ethnic politics in subnational localities and jurisdictions, and do so in ways that vary across space.  Part Three, ‘Scale: Land Institutions and the Scale of Redistributive Conflict,’ argues that land tenure regimes define the jurisdictional scale of land authority, thus largely determining the political scale and scope of land conflict. Part Four, ‘Elections: The Nationalization of Land Conflict,’ shows that the effects of multipartism on land politics have been mediated by variations in rural property regimes. Land tenure arrangements turn out to be key in explaining why land-related conflict is likely to find expression in the national elections in some places, but not in others.  Under some land tenure regimes, multiparty competition can open the door to wide-reaching redistributions of property rights.

Thirty-two provincial- or district-level studies constitute the base of the ‘medium-N’ part of the study. (The number of cases is too small for statistical analysis, but large enough to allow us to distinguish cross-case patterns.) The comparative case-study method conforms to the structure of the data: cases were developed from existing analyses of land rights processes in diverse rural localities, drawn from geography, anthropology, economic history, colonial and postcolonial rural-development literatures, land rights natural resource management think tanks, agrarian studies, and political science literatures on rural politics in Africa. The analysis then turns to a subset of twelve cases of drawn from the larger pool. They come from Ghana, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Rwanda, the DRC, and Zimbabwe. For these, the research hinges on fieldwork conducted from 2009 to 2012, including on-site archival research, farm visits, field observations, and interviews with farmers, land officers, local authorities, academics, and land activists in localities affected by rising tension around land.

The main take-away of the book is the politically-embedded and politically-contingent character of landholding in rural Africa. This is the key to unlocking the puzzle of politicized responses to growing pressure on the land.

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