Is Land Inalienable? Historical and Current Debates on Land Transfers in Northern Ghana

By Lentz, Carola | Africa, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview
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Is Land Inalienable? Historical and Current Debates on Land Transfers in Northern Ghana

Lentz, Carola, Africa


The article traces the history of debates on land transfers in northern Ghana and discusses the ways in which African and European views on land tenure influenced and instrumentalized each other. Using the case of Nandom in the Upper West Region, I analyse how an expansionist group of Dagara farmers gained access to and legitimized control over land previously held by a group of Sisala hunters and farmers claiming to be the 'first-comers' to the area. Both groups acknowledge that the Sisala eventually transferred land to the Dagara immigrants, symbolically effected by the transmission of an earth-shrine stone. However, the Sisala interpret this historical event in terms of a 'gift', invoking the language of kinship and continued dependency, while the Dagara construe it in terms of a 'purchase', implicating exchange, equality and autonomy. These different perspectives, as well as colonial officials' ideas that land ownership was ultimately vested in the ancestors of the first-comer lineage and therefore 'inalienable', have shaped early disputes about the Nandom earth shrine and Dagara property rights. Competing conceptions of pre-colonial African land tenure continue to provide powerful arguments in current land conflicts, and shrinking land reserves as well as the political implications of landed property, in the context of decentralization policies, have exacerbated the debate on the 'inalienability' of land.


L'article retrace l'historique des debats sur les transferts de terres dans le Nord du Ghana et traite de la maniere dont les perspectives africaines et europeennes sur la question fonciere se sont mutuellement influencees et instrumentalisees. A partir du cas de Nandom dans l'Upper West Region, l'article analyse la maniere dont un groupe expansionniste d'agriculteurs dagara a obtenu l'acces et la legitimite du controle de terres ayant appartenu a un groupe de chasseurs et d'agriculteurs sisala revendiquant leur statut de << premiers arrivants >> dans la region. Les deux groupes reconnaissent le transfert des terres par les Sisala aux immigrants dagara, transfert symboliquement effectue par la transmission d'une pierre de sanctuaire en terre. En revanche, les Sisala interpretent cet evenement historique en termes de << cadeau >>, invoquant le langage de parente et la dependance continue, tandis que les Dagara l'interpretent en termes d'<< achat >>, impliquant l'echange, l'egalite et l'autonomie. Ces perspectives divergentes, ainsi que les idees des officiels coloniaux selon lesquelles Ia propriete fonciere revenait essentiellement aux ancetres des premiers arrivants et etait donc << inalienable >>, ont faconne les premiers desaccords portant sur le sanctuaire en terre de Nandom et les droits fonciers des Dagara. Les conceptions divergentes du foncier africain precolonial continuent de fournir des arguments puissants dans les conflits de terres actueis ; de pius, l'amenuisement des reserves de terres et les implications politiques de la propriete fonciere, dans le contexte des politiques de decentralisation, ont exacerbe le debat sur l'<< inalienabilite >> de la terre.


In the course of disputes over the redemarcation of district boundaries in the late 1980s, Sisala landowners in the Lambussie Traditional Area of Ghana's Upper West Region decided to demonstrate forcefully the primacy of their property rights by preventing Dagara immigrant farmers from the neighbouring chiefdom of Nandom from working their bush fields for three consecutive seasons. Unlike in the recent violent conflicts in the cocoa-producing forest belt of the Cote d'Ivoire, where clashes between local youth and immigrant farmers from the northern parts of the country and from neighbouring Burkina Faso resulted in the expulsion of tens of thousands of these 'strangers' (Chauveau 2000; Chauveau and Bobo 2003), the Dagara farmers were not evicted from their settlements.

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Is Land Inalienable? Historical and Current Debates on Land Transfers in Northern Ghana


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