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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 5 of 6)



As Brady sees it, the land problem is brought into relief, in country after country, by an increasingly educated and agitated citizenry, one no longer willing to tolerate what it perceives as unjust regulation or redistribution. "The genie has been let out of the bottle I would say," he says. "Local communities are now reexerting their rights."

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Jabateh, on the other hand, has found a different path to resolving his land issues. Deed in hand, he has plenty of legal rights to exert, but he thinks there's a method faster and cheaper than Liberia's corrupt court system and more humane than taking up guns: compensation. Jabateh, after all, was a refugee, too, in Guinea, and so has some sympathy for the squatters. "These families have nowhere to go," he says. "The war brought them here. They are displaced also."

ACROSS AFRICA, INDIVIDUALS LIKE JABATEH, and even entire communities, are brokering their own solutions to land conflict. Sometimes those solutions require people like Elaine Kamue. A short woman with a soft voice and a blunt way of speaking, Mrs. Kamue travels from village to village in rural Liberia, educating women about the country's new land laws – and intervening to help put the laws into practice.

Without Kamue, 55-year-old Yar Gegh would be homeless and starving. For years after her brothers had left sleepy Zuluyee, a roadside market town a few hours from Liberia's border with Guinea, Ms. Gegh remained to farm the family plot and care for her dying mother. She had, she says, little choice: "Only a woman can mind her mother."

In 2005, her oldest brother, Lawrence, came back to the village and kicked her off the family land. "He say, woman didn't own land. Woman didn't get property," she recalls. "He beat me. He [insulted] me and dragged me on the ground." The abuse and insecurity became so bad, Gegh fled from Liberia to Guinea, at a time when thousands of Liberian refugees, ready to try out life under a new, democratic government, were making the opposite trip.

Mr. Gegh admits he pushed his sister off the family land: "I told her, 'I'm here now to take care of the area,' I was a soldier-man. I was a military person. I came to take charge of the post."

Four years into the dispute, they found a solution when Kamue came to town. Kamue, who works with the local Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, a chapter of an international nongovernmental organization that works on social reforms at the grass-roots level, told Gegh about the new law. She explained her conflict with her brother, and Kamue offered to mediate.

"It took four hours," she recalls of the one-on-one mediation that usually takes an hour. Mr. Gegh agreed to give his sister a small plot to farm for food, and she invited him to live in a room in the house she'd built in town.

Ms. Gegh is one of thousands of women across Africa whose access to land, in practice, depends on men. "One of the things that has happened historically is that land got titled," Nielsen of RDI explains, "[without recognizing] all the users of the land, so it was generally titled in the name of the head of the household."

But several countries are working on reversing this problem. Rwanda is preparing legislation giving women equal rights to title; other countries are following suit. In Botswana, meanwhile, women's land rights are getting a grass-roots boost. There, men are beginning to leave their land to their daughters, in recognition of their lifelong contributions to the household economy. In fact, Botswana is emerging as a model of successful resolution of land reform, according to John Bruce, a former lawyer for the World Bank and an expert on land issues in Africa. The country has twinned tradition with modern law, allowing local land boards and their elected membership to enforce customary law in rural areas, while urban areas use a statutory system.

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