Take lessons from legacy of land grab in Africa

land grabsBazi Bussuri Sheikh
SOMALIA’S farmland, like its neighbours, is in danger of falling into the hands of transnational companies often in partnership with governments sometimes supported by the local elites. Many of these investors target low income countries with weak internal governance and their win-win language conceals the fact that most of the farmland acquisition occurs under bizarre and non-transparent circumstances making experts to warn of the consequences (Indirect Re-colonisation of Africa’s Resources) if the practice is not stopped.

Many experts also challenged the myth that there is “unused” or “un-owned” land in Africa and most agricultural land deals target quality farmland, particularly land that is irrigated and offers good access to markets. Such discourses about empty land are deeply and dangerously misleading. This is not about anti-private investment or belittling the contribution modern agriculture has made and continues to make, but a call for investments that do not harm and follow the ethical and sustainable business principles (Economics as if People matter).

Land grabbing is not new to the continent and for centuries, communities have been intimidated to abandon or forcibly removed from their land by national and local authorities. However, the current land grab we’re now witnessing is a new aggressive land grab driven by geopolitical arising from the 2008 food crisis, hedge fund bets on rising land prices. These led many including Gulf States, several East Asian and Western multinational companies to re-evaluate their strategies and secure land and water elsewhere, essentially turning to “Offshore” food production to supply their growing populations.

It seems implausible that the government of an African country in a situation in which its own population was going hungry to preserve the right of a large scale agricultural land to export food to its lease-holding country. One might argue that African chiefs and tribal leaders in the colonial era signed away their land not knowing what they were signing away. Today, unlike the African chiefs in the colonial era, African leaders sign such contracts with the deliberation and calculation by performing the role of gatekeepers of the rentier state.

It is also ironic that these changes are underway at precisely the time that the African Union, among others has embraced a vision of smallholder-led agriculture commercialisation and a “green revolution in Africa.” The current farmland deals also has its political ramification as the world has seen the case of the land deal in 2008 between Madagascar and the South Korean firm Daewoo logistics to sign 99-year lease on 3,2 million acres of land, representing half of the country’s arable land. This deal generated more controversy and led to the toppling of Ravalomana’s government.

Therefore, we urge our national, federal and local Somali leaders not to voluntarily make us a colony again by renting out agricultural land of the country that should be utilised for the benefit of the ordinary people. This is bad not only because it takes the land away, but also because it implements a casino agricultural economic model which is socially, economically, politically and ethically unsustainable and unacceptable. This trend is as predictable as it is regrettable. There is a growing grass-roots movement in the West against the dysfunctional food system in the Western countries that is now coined as “Foodoply.” They are campaigning for a complete structural shift to reshape the food system from seed to the table (The way the food is produced, marketed, distributed and sold).

We should not be naïve about the importance of business and industry. We can all point to many worthy features of modern agriculture, but on the balance we find modern agriculture (that is controlled, top to bottom, by a few firms and that rewards only scale) wanting. The Western corporations and investors from the South need to re-evaluate their dealings with poorer African countries and fill the areas of the deal that are mostly vacant, empty of moral and spiritual content. For example, the WTO that dictates that competition is good and will weed out the inefficient producer while farmers in the West continue to receive agricultural subsidies that give them a head start in the game and are able to out-price African farmers.

Agriculture is the foundation of civilisation and any stable economy. The stewardship of the agricultural land is on the people on that land, country or a nation. One of our biggest shortcomings is our negative perception towards farming as a job and the farming community. We have neglected the truth that a farmer is a craftsman of the highest order, a kind of artist who contributes to the welfare of society in more ways than society usually acknowledges, or even knows.

Majority of Somalis do not show much interest in farming and consider it demeaning or dishonourable. We need to teach our children how to farm and feed themselves at early ages (Primary School) or fall into the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery.

Many Somali intellectuals especially the poets and artistes have warned against failing to safeguard the farmland and not giving the Somali farmers the respect they deserve. Among them was Maxamed Gacal Xaayow whose poem “BEER HA LA OGAADO” listened to by many Somalis on YouTube called for a change on the negative attitude towards the farming profession and the farming communities.

Land grabbing has hit the farming communities in Somalia hard. First, they lost out on colonisation. Second, they were victimised by many policies and practices of the Siyad Barre years in 1975 and 1980s, liberalisation prescriptions given by the IMF and finally the state collapse tragedies. The land grab by Italians had been based on overt military force, even though translated into treaties and agreements.

The second land grab of the Barre years proceeded under legal forms, but had force clearly behind it. During the state collapse in the early nineties, the land grab was continued by naked force and the militia of different clan groupings who competed for control with far more lethal consequences. It is also worth mentioning that global geopolitics and late 20th century political economic transformations (development aid as an arm of Cold War geopolitics, the arrogance of development wisdom and state agendas for maximising control and elite efforts to accumulate wealth) contributed far more to Southern Somalia’s destruction than “ancestral clan tensions.”

It is time we Somalis stop moaning about the past mistakes and get back on track to rediscover the way forward.

Therefore, Somali farmers are yearning for an effective and just agricultural land reform to short-circuit the cycle of negativity surrounding the continuing land tenure controversy. It is worthwhile to face a short- term pain for the greater gain in the future. It is difficult to address the danger of agricultural land grab from outside if we are still indulging in political infighting and inability to get out of clannish self.

It is also important to note that Somalia had a long standing Customary Law in solving land related disputes in rural areas. Most of the laws have been derived from the Islamic law.

In agriculture, Islam has not laid down any hard and fast rules to govern every affair so as to restrict the freedom of action of the people. Most of these matters have been left to the discretion of the people of each age and each place to decide the same according to their ever changing socio-economic situations. Only a few general instructions have been issued in the fields of land-ownership, land cultivation, reclamation of dead lands, peasant-landlord relationship, and irrigation. Many Somali intellectuals have made extensive research on Somali Customary law.

The aim of this piece was to create awareness of the current land grab in Africa, to safeguard Somalia’s agricultural land and to encourage a constructive debate about the solutions and the future of the agricultural sector in Somalia and its farming communities.

Every childbirth has labour and Somalia has gone through a painful labour (the nightmare of collapse) and will eventually give birth to a healthy country that is centralised by heart and federalised by land.

  • This opinion originally appeared on hiiraan.com
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