About two thirds or 2.2 billion hectares of all cultivated land in sub-Saharan Africa are thought to be under customary tenure.
Photo: Kolle Visser/Shutterstock

The ‘new’ African customary land tenure

Most of the land in sub-Saharan Africa is governed under various forms of customary tenure. Over the past three decades a quiet paradigm shift has been taking place transforming the way such land is governed.

Notwithstanding the African Union (AU)’s 2009 Framework and Guidance on Land Policy in Africa that advocates a leading role for customary tenure in land governance, an almost irreversible process that can possibly be best described as ‘neo-liberalisation of customary tenure’ has been quietly working its way across much of sub-Saharan Africa. After almost two decades of sustained but predominantly localised and almost imperceptible change, there has emerged what can only usefully be characterised as a ‘new’-African customary tenure regime.

In a new study, Admos Chinhowu of the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester in the UK, reviews some of the evidence and analyses the ways in which this neo-liberalisation of customary tenure has been transforming relations of production and how land is governed today in sub-Saharan Africa.

The study identifies how core neo-liberalisation processes such as privatisation of rights, commoditisation, de-regulation; re-regulation and flanking have led to a formal reconfiguration of the way people relate to land. It presents a characterisation of the ‘new’-African customary tenure before sketching out evidence of outcomes associated with neo-liberalisation of customary tenure.

The paper identifies five outcomes marking out the new customary tenure’s legacy. These are: creating new class dynamics (those with registered rights and those without), altered institutional power relations (extending statutory governance), local rank order change (replacing the traditional ‘big men’ of rural Africa with ‘new’ big shots), miniaturisation of smallholder farming and the growth in medium scale farms, growing inequality and potential social differentiation.


More information:

Link to the study: Admos Chinhowu: The ‘new’ African customary land tenure. Characteristic features and policy implications of a new paradigm

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