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Africa's continental divide: land disputes

African land reform, plot by plot, may be the foundation for solving so much else – from famine to poverty to genocide.

(Page 4 of 6)

In this and many other ways, Liberia is a microcosm of Africa's land problems. The clash between customary and statutory tenure is exacerbated by uncertainty after a civil war that – after spanning the 1990s and ending in 2003 – has left the fragile country fearful that land disputes will push its population back to violence. The population, meanwhile, is fragmented: Liberia has 16 ethnic groups, relations between some of them tense.

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"There is a bunch of confusion all over with regard to who owns what," says Cecil T.O. Brady, chair of Liberia's new land commission. Part of the problem is that traditional leaders may not have known the size and scale of the land they sold. "No villager has an idea that one acre is a football field. When they sold the land to somebody, they sold their whole villages as well."

The war adds to the confusion; there is missing paperwork and there are missing landholders.

Korkesi Jabateh's family knew that even if they survived the war, they could lose their land unless they came back with their deed.

"My father took his deed to Guinea when he fled," says Mr. Jabateh. "It was the only thing he took with him."

The Jabatehs owned a gas station in Ganta, a town just a few miles from the Guinean border, and the extended family lived in houses just behind their business. When Jabateh returned from Guinea in 2005, he found the family property overrun. Nine other families had moved into the Jabatehs' houses; two dozen more had built makeshift shelters in the parking lot of his gas station.

Clutching his deed, Jabateh would seem to have the upper hand; but it's complicated. He is Mandingo, a Muslim ethnic group that traditionally have been merchants in the area, and that pass for economic elite. Before the war, the Mandingo owned all the shops along the dusty main drag of urban Ganta, where Jabateh's gas station is. Today, most of those shops have been appropriated by people from the Gio or Mano tribes, who stuck around when the Mandingo fled during the war.

The International Crisis Group says some Mandingo are threatening to take their property back by force. Jabateh's not one of them, but he feels the tension. If he tries to force the squatters from his land, he says, "It will create noise. People will come from other areas and say, 'Don't move! Don't move!' " Then, he thinks, they will point fingers. "There will be tension, and who will be the cause of that tension? They will say, 'Mr. Jabateh, he is the cause of that tension.' "

Despite constant talk of tribal tensions, experts say that in Liberia – and in much of Africa – ethnicity is rarely the real issue. Mr. Unruh, at McGill, says ethnic conflict, or even drought or famine, are usually symptoms of a deeper land dispute. "Underneath all of that," he says, "is an ongoing land conflict, or different understandings about how land is accessed and used."

But those understandings aren't static. Across Africa, circumstances are changing the way people think about land. In some places, such as Darfur, global warming is shifting natural boundaries, inviting clashes between once peaceful, pastoral farmers and nomadic herders over shrinking pastures; in others, like Sierra Leone and Liberia, war has shifted cultural norms of authority.

"There's a big conflict between traditional leaders and the children," says Dr. Brady, of Liberia's land commission. "They're going home and disregarding the elders" who make decisions about what and how to plant on communal land, he says. "And the elders are afraid, because these are ex-combatants."

Elsewhere in Africa, the change is often deliberate and politically orchestrated. In Zimbabwe and South Africa, for example, agricultural operations have been expropriated – sometimes with compensation, sometimes without – from white farmers and given to black farmers, to rectify generations of social and economic injustice.