The Politics of Land Reform in Africa: From Communal Tenure to Free Markets

By Federici, Silvia | African Studies Review, April 2008 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Land Reform in Africa: From Communal Tenure to Free Markets


Federici, Silvia, African Studies Review


POLITICS, INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS, AND GLOBALIZATION Ambreena Manji, The Politics of Land Reform in Africa: From Communal Tenure to Free Markets. London and New York: Zed Books, 2006. vii + 149 pp. Notes. Index. £50.00. Cloth. £16.99. Paper.

Ambreena Manji's book is an insightful analysis of the logic and agencies governing land reform in Africa in the age of neoliberal globalization. Building on World Bank reports and the new laws African governments are adopting to change land relations, the book examines the shift from a redistributive statist model, dominant until the 1970s, to one stressing the formalization of tenurial property, with the introduction of titling and registration, as the thrust of land reform on the continent. A legal scholar, Manji is interested in understanding why the law has come to play a central role in the definition of land reform. She argues that this innovation is consistent with a neoliberal project wherein the law acts as an instrument for the globalization of capitalist relations and the transfer of power from the local to the global, in this case removing the control over land policy from the nation-state and local communities to international "donors" and financial institutions, beginning with the World Bank.

She also suggests that the formalization of land relations is an attempt to contain the struggles of rural people's movements which, faced with land grabbing by states, private companies, and local chiefs, and with the state's failure to address the historic injustices that are the legacy of colonialism, are demanding more secure access to land and opting for direct action through land occupations. In her view this pressure from below accounts for the populist language by which land reform is promoted, portraying it as a strategy for "poverty reduction." Manji points to the influence on the World Bank's land policy of Hernando De Soto's theory, according to which Third World rural populations are mired in poverty and economic stagnation because of the continuing existence of communal land tenure regimes which make for uncertain property relations, dampening incentives for investment and rural innovation. Hence the promise that titling and the expansion of land markets will open a new era of development and prosperity for African peasants, if only they could learn that land as such is a "dead asset" that becomes alive only when "brought to the bank" as collateral for the acquisition of rural credit and the financing of rural business. …

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