Land Seizure, Land Reform and Land Grab in Africa


Land has been at the center of human existence, civilization and development for millennia. It was because of this critical importance of land to humanity’s very survival that that the Scottish economist Adam Smith in his book Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, qualified land as “a free gift of nature.” Throughout history, every society’s attitude towards the land has determined the nature of its development.

In the case of Africa, development has been severely affected if not halted, by repeated conflicts created by outside forces in their struggle to control African land and the wealth underneath. Under colonialism, it was land seizure. Independence saw frantic attempts to redress the imbalance in land ownership. This land reform as it was known, produced its own conflicts which hampered development in many African societies. Globalization brought in a new system known as land grab.

From Communalism to Colonialism: The end of Collective Land Ownership in Africa

In pre-colonial Africa, land was considered community property. The right to plough the land, fish the rivers, hunt in the forests was a natural right enjoyed by people of every community. This communal system of land ownership varied from society to society but the bottom line was the protection of the vulnerable members of society and the need to create balance and harmony and above all, the need to ensure the survival of the entire society not the prosperity of individuals in these societies. This was the basis of the extended family system in Africa.

The coming of European capitalism in the form of colonialism marked a dramatic revolution in land ownership in Africa, and also dealt a lethal blow to African communalism. “Where communalism came into contact with the money economy, the latter imposed itself,” says historian Walter Rodney in his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

European capitalist institutions such as mines, factories, plantations, roads and railways placed such a heavy demand on African land that the balance of land ownership in Africa was completely altered to their favour. In settler colonies, Africans were driven to disease infested and climatically hostile lands. These same Africans were not only dragged into wage slavery but in many cases were forced to produce cash crops for European markets at the expense of their own food crops. Such extreme abuses constituted the rallying point for liberation movements in Africa.

Reversing Colonialism: Land Reform and the Beginning of a New Struggle Over African Land

Land reform in Africa was the logical response to colonial land excision. Throughout Africa, there was hardly any anti-colonial struggle which was not directly or indirectly related to the land. It was for this reason that land reform processes proved very problematic in former settler colonies like Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe where settler interests had been greatly entrenched.

Land reform processes went peacefully in some countries where colonial constitutions managed to restrain even the most disgruntled sectors of the African population. This was the case with the Lancaster Constitution of Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The “willing-seller, willing-buyer” clause of this constitution offered protection to white land owners in these countries even after colonial rule. It was not the case in Zimbabwe however, when President Robert Mugabe decided to abrogate the Lancaster Constitution and its exploitative “willing seller, willing buyer clause.”

Despite the general outcry against Mugabe, even his most bitter critics in the West acknowledged that colonialism had gone to extremes on African land. This was part of the guilty conscience that prompted Britain to sponsor land reforms in the newly independent Zimbabwe. Former President Thabo Mbeki drew inspiration from Mugabe and indicated his willingness to embark on similar reforms in South Africa because of the gross imbalance in land ownership between blacks and whites.

Globalization and Land Grab in Africa

For many Africans who hoped that independence land reform would put an end to the scramble over their ancestral lands, the forces of globalization are proving them very wrong. Increasing food prices, growing world populations, shortage of arable land in other parts of the world and the drift towards bio-fuels have all combined to create a new demand for African land. Land grab as this new phenomenon is called, resembles colonial land dispossession in that it involves the displacement of Africans from their lands for agribusiness.

The only difference between land grab and colonial land seizure is that it is done with the complicity of African leaders. Ethiopia for example, a country that carries the flag of hunger in Africa, the government has sold out 7.5 million acres of its most fertile agricultural lands to rich countries and individuals. “But Ethiopia is only one of 20 or more countries where land is being bought or leased for intensive agriculture on an immense scale in what may be the greatest change of ownership since the colonial era,” says John Vidal in Mail & Guardian.

In the course of the ongoing debate about the alien ownership of African land since colonial times, adherents have pointed to the countless benefits it holds. Craig Richardson in his paper “Property Rights and Land Reform” points to Zimbabwe as a success story in postcolonial Africa thanks to the capitalist plantation agriculture it inherited from colonialism. Opponents have been very bitter. Vandana Shiva, an Indian ecologist put her argument in the following words.

“We are seeing dispossession on a massive scale. It means less food is available and local people will have less. There will be more conflict and political instability, and cultures will be uprooted. The small farmers of Africa are the basis of food security. The food availability of the planet will decline.”


  1. Cotula, Lorenzo; Sonja Vermeulen, Rebecca Leonard and James Keely. “Land grab or development Opportunity: Agricultural Investments and International Land deals In Africa.”
  2. Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,1982
  3. Richardson, Craig. “Property Rights, Land reform and the Hidden Architecture of Capitalism,” AEI, 2006.
  4. Vidal, John. “Billionaires and Mega Corporations behind Immense Land Grab in Africa.”