Land disputes at the root of African wars

A selection of the African continent's fights over land that have turned into violent, conflict, or threaten to.

By , Correspondent

Land battles that sparked African conflicts

Western Sudan (Darfur) In the 1970s, the government eliminated the country's native administration – a quasi-government and colonial holdover of traditional elders – and rejected traditional land rights, depriving Darfur's pastoralists of access to grazing lands. When famine exacerbated disputes about land in the 1980s, violence broke out. Land grievances were never resolved, and in 2003, a rebel movement made up in part of disenfranchised former landholders revolted against the Sudanese government, which retaliated by arming bands of camel herders known as janjaweed to repress the rebellion – and promising them hefty tracts of the land, emptied in the course of the violence the militia unleashed.

The Democratic Republic of Congo Often called Africa's most deadly conflict, violence in parts of the northeast started over grazing cows in1999, when Hema herders evicted Lendu farmers after purchasing their land. Eviction grievances led both tribes to pick up weapons. As violence spread, the value of other mineral-rich lands contributed to the chaos in which 5 million people have died.

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Ethiopia and Eritrea A 1998 dispute over the dusty border town of Badme turned into all-out war, with 80,000 deaths in two years. The town became the flash point of an older argument over the border between the two countries. Both sides saw Badme as a symbol of their real economic concern: power over the port of Assab, the Red Sea trade gateway. Despite international court rulings, the countries consider the border dispute unresolved – and their presidents often rally support by threatening to resume the fight.

Kenya Many indigenous tribes lost rights to traditional lands when the British privatized land holdings. When Joseph Kenyatta, the first postcolonial president, sought land redistribution, he gave the most fertile to his Kikuyu tribe. In a later backlash, many Kikuyu were pushed off their pastures. This created ethnic land grievances that have inspired violence during Kenya's elections since the 1990s, most recently after President Mwai Kabaki, a Kikuyu, was accused of stuffing ballot boxes in 2007.

Rwanda The 1994 genocide may have been catalyzed as much by land scarcity as by ethnic tension. Africa's most densely populated country found itself nearly without enough land to make farmers trust that they and their children could support themselves. Though the slaughter of minority Tutsis was also ethnically motivated, land fears played no small part in the violence.

Zimbabwe Land grievances helped fuel the 12-year war that led to independence in 1979. But recent violence stems from land reform efforts. In the name of economic fairness, President Robert Mugabe seized white farms and turned them over to blacks, primarily government officials who knew little about farming. As a result, agricultural production plummeted, food became scarce, and inflation spiked. Mugabe held power in a 2008 election only with violent intimidation of Zimbabweans.

Combustible land disputes that could erupt in conflict

Burundi The past decade brought the return of more than a half-million refugees who'd fled violence that began with independence in 1963. Many found their homes occupied – and because laws give ownership to anyone who has peacefully occupied land for at least 30 years, many refugees lost their homes and livelihoods. Experts fear the grievance could spark renewed conflict.

South Africa At the 1994 transition to democracy, the government planned to redistribute 30 percent of white-owned farms to blacks within 20 years. Transfers are behind schedule, and more than half have failed. After an outbreak of racial violence last year, observers fear the status quo – with expectations so high, progress so slow, and livelihoods at stake – is combustible.

Southern Sudan The 2005 peace agreement that ended a 20-year fight for the south didn't resolve tensions between the nation's two land systems. Private property reform implemented in the north was rejected in the south, which continues to use traditional rules. Danger of a potential clash between parallel systems is amplified by what's at stake: The south is oil-rich.

Uganda After 20 years of violence in the north, peace is bringing people home – and disputes are erupting over who owns property. Eighty percent of Ugandans have property claims based on the traditional land system, but a generation of conflict has weakened the traditional authority, of elders to resolve disputes or enforce land rules. As the government steps in to fill the power vacuum, experts fear a backlash.

Zambia White farmers forced off land in neighboring countries, found fertile soils here, and were initially welcomed by the government (five years ago). The tone changed as some immigrant farmers agitated locals by putting down roots on traditional lands. New arrivals, especially those fleeing Zimbabwe, are closely scrutinized. Observers fear deepening tensions.

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