Property Rights and the African Concept of Land Ownership

By Dr. Yaw Adarkwah Antwi,

Consultant on Property Markets Property Investment, and Land Policy.
In a wide ranging lecture, Dr. Adarkwah investigated the premises of the notion that Africans have no native concept of private ownership of property as such. He cited a 1919 ruling by a British Colonial Judge in Kenya , which employed this thesis, to show why the supposed absence of private property rights in Africa has often been adduced merely to serve the interests of special interests and power-seeking officialdom. Dr. Adarkwah demonstrated that under the guise of upholding communal rights, public officials and the selfish interests they represent have frequently exploited what are known as ‘’eminent domain’’ regulations to transfer private property into public administration, often without the payment of adequate compensation.
The issue however does not stop with the injustice this official conduct promotes, but raises even broader concerns about the economic security of those who depend on the land for their livelihood. Dr. Adarkwah along this same line of inquiry notes the contradiction that separates the views of civil society and private entrepreneurs about property ownership and those of bureaucrats tasked with the administration of rules governing ownership.
He touches on the stark distinction flourishing informal sector with its pragmatic approach to property and the stagnant formal sector which remains a stumbling block to the efficient utilization of rights to physical and intellectual property, and produces evidence to show that the pragmatism of the latter in actual fact goes back to pre-colonial times. Such that, prior to European bureaucratic intervention in traditional African approaches to managing property, Africans had developed a robust and flexible system of assigning rights to members of the community.
He outlines a multi-phase situation in which during periods of high scarcity of land private rights predominate and persist until relative abundance of land, due for instance to communal dispersion or post-disaster resettlement, became the norm, whereupon communal rights begun again to make advances.
Dr. Adarkwah refers to some of the insights of De Soto’s seminal work about the efficient management of property rights as a means to foster national development, and outlines in that regard a set of general principles necessary for efforts in that direction:
(a) deepen evolved rights by standardising them — providing universally agreeable taxonomy;

(b) reduce them to writing — land documentation and registration;

(c) constrain tensions that arise from the enjoyment of competing rights — planning or zoning regulations and;

(d) provide avenue for certain, objective and prompt adjudication of conflict between right claimers and enforce contracts
(e) supply ‘missing-gap’ rights to expand markets and hence economic growth.

He admits however that: how to get politicians, government bureaucrats and traditional authorities in Africa to forgo the rents they cream from the current state of affairs and change official practices and perceptions to support and enforce private property rights is an as yet unconquered challenge that must be left to participants to confront.

To assist participants, the course covered the following grounds:
  1. Engage in the debate of the African concept of property rights
  2. Exposed to a dichotomy between the informal and governmental sectors’ conception of private property rights
  3. Understand why African governments prefer to pretend that land ownership is communal in nature in Africa .
Please see Dr. Adarkwah power point presentation here. Express permission for citing any of Dr. Adarkwah’s works should be sought from Franklin Cudjoe