Last year, many African countries, including Rwanda marked 50 years of independence. One key landmark of colonial rule, especially in former British colonies is the enigma that is land.
It was mainly the land question that started an unsavoury relationship between the colonialist and the colony. The Africans lost land to the British; they paid with their lives to regain it.
The Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya was largely motivated by the desire to regain lost land and no piece of writing captures the ferocious attachment to land than the novel Weep Not, Child by the acclaimed Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
In Ngotho (one of the protagonists) Ngugi represents many Kenyans who have lost their land to the British and the desire to get it back. The land question is at the centre of Ngotho’s relationship with his master Mr Howlands and is the main point of contention between the colonialist and the Africans.
As Ngotho tills the land in Howlands plantation, he savours every moment his hands are in contact with the soil from the land of his ‘ancestors.’ He can’t wait for the time when the ‘White man’ will return to his country so that he can regain his land.
Ngugi, through an indirect narrator, captures the importance of land:
“Any man who had land was considered rich. If a man had plenty of money, many cars but no land, he could never be counted as rich. A man who went with tattered clothes but had at least an acre of red earth was “better off” than the man with money.”
The colonialists are long gone but the land problem persists. As populations increase on the inelastic land supply, its importance is further accentuated. Land has become a matter of life and death. People have lost their lives because of this important resource.
Land is one of the baits used by the architects of the Genocide to encourage peasants to kill their Tutsi compatriots. The brazen thinking was that if ‘we can get rid of them, we can have their land.’
In 2004, the government of Rwanda moved to enact the Organic Law on Land that allows citizens to legally own land after registration. The move was geared at creating certainty of ownership and reducing land disputes among others.
As a result 10.3 million land parcels were registered and about 4 million land titles processed. Commendable job by the Rwanda Natural Resources Authority, but it is the post registration exercise that I want to dwell on. The land registration exercise has come with it a renewed awakening about the importance of land. Having a land title can, for example, afford the holder access to a bank loan. As such, intra and inter-family disputes have flared up. Many such disputes have been as a result of inheritance, multiple claims, land transactions, polygamy and boundaries. In some instances these disputes have resulted in fatal consequences like homicide.
The Rwanda National Resources Authority has so far recorded 10,600 families with land wrangles. Majority of the cases registered by the Office of the Ombudsman are land related.
The resultant challenges have called for more innovative ways to handle conflicts. Such ways include the informal justice system of Abunzi (community mediators) who are pivotal in facilitating dispute resolution at the community level.
There has been mixed reaction from the public regarding the role of Abunzi, some have doubted their impartiality and consequently opted for the classic courts where cases have dragged on mainly because of heavy backlog. During one of his visit to the Western Province sometime last year, residents requested President Kagame to provide them with a court facility.
The request attracted murmurs, not that it was a bad idea but because it was uncommon. One would have expected the rural folks to ask for water, a road or a health facility. On close scrutiny, this request points to the gap in the justice sector especially at the community level where majority of the disputes can be settled through mediation.
The institution of Abunzi is vital for the justice sector and should be given all the support it requires to prosper. The Abunzi approach of ‘seeking solutions’ to disputes rather than ‘making judgements’, is the only sure sustainable way of resolving community disputes, including land issues.
Much as Abunzi have achieved a lot in the mediation of disputes they need to be helped if they are to deliver on their mandate. The issue of capacity and material needs has to be addressed. Some of the urgent needs to be addressed include provision of office space and proper documentation of land disputes.
Abunzi should be trained as mediators and not judges. The conciliatory motive of the Abunzi should not be lost. There is need for sensitisation on the part of the public on the cost benefit of going through the Abunzi as opposed to the court process.
It is important to note that these respected members of the community work on voluntary basis. As such pledges of incentives by government and NGOs should be delivered on if they are to be motivated in their work.
There is need for a harmonised approach on the part of non-government organisations in tackling land issues, especially in dealing with Abunzi.
The writer is a journalist