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date: 24 June 2021

Land-Related Conflict and Electoral Politics in Africafree

Land-Related Conflict and Electoral Politics in Africafree

  • Catherine BooneCatherine BooneDepartment of International Development, London School of Economics and Political Science


Land-related disputes and land conflicts are sometimes politicized in elections in African countries, but this is usually not the case. Usually, land-related conflict is highly localized, managed at the micro-political level by neo-customary authorities, and not connected to electoral competition. Why do land conflicts sometimes become entangled in electoral politics, and sometimes “scale up” to become divisive issues in regional and national elections? A key determinant of why and how land disputes become politicized is the nature of the underlying land tenure regime, which varies across space (often by subnational district) within African countries. Under the neo-customary land tenure regimes that prevail in most regions of smallholder agriculture in most African countries, land disputes tend to be “bottled up” in neo-customary land-management processes at the local level. Under the statist land tenure regimes that exist in some districts of many African countries, government agents and officials are directly involved in land allocation and directly implicated in dispute resolution. Under “statist” land tenure institutions, the politicization of land conflict, especially around elections, becomes more likely. Land tenure institutions in African countries define landholders’ relations to each other, the state, and markets. Understanding these institutions, including how they come under pressure and change, goes far in explaining how and where land rights become politicized.


  • Contentious Politics and Political Violence
  • Governance/Political Change
  • History and Politics
  • Political Economy
  • Political Institutions
  • Politics, Law, Judiciary
  • World Politics


Debates and conflicts over land rights have played a powerful role in some of Africa’s most closely studied experiments with political liberalization—including those in Kenya in the 1990s, Côte d’Ivoire since the mid-1990s, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Zimbabwe, and Rwanda from 1990 to 1994. In Kenya in 1992 and 1997, the incumbent regime of Daniel arap Moi stoked land tensions in the Rift Valley to consolidate its electoral constituencies, sow ethnic discord, disorganize the opposition, and help strengthen the ruling party’s hold on power. This tension continued as incumbents rushed to settle their supporters in key electoral constituencies in advance of the 2017 elections. In Côte d’Ivoire, from the mid-1990s to the late 2000s, national-level politicians catered to indigenous southwesterners’ land grievances against immigrant farmers to mobilize the electoral support of “true Ivoirians” in this region. In Zaire (today’s DRC), President Mobutu Sese Seko’s 1991 National Conference opened the door for politicians in the Eastern provinces to mobilize electoral constituencies around promises of land restitution. In Zimbabwe, from the mid-1990s on, President Robert Mugabe played the land issue to the hilt to bolster his nationalist and populist credentials, cement his hold on an electoral base, and destroy the opposition. In Rwanda, an ongoing history of using state power to impose, allocate, and reallocate land rights shaped patterns of political mobilization in the period of multiparty politics from 1990 through the April 1994 genocide. This process has continued since then in parts of South Sudan, Kenya, the DRC, and Zimbabwe.

In these situations, land tensions and land questions helped fuel multiparty dynamics by mobilizing voters in national-level electoral contests, defining or deepening lines of partisan affiliation at the local level, providing national-level politicians with highly salient issues that they could exploit for electoral advantage, and/or helping to foment election-related strife. Politicians told voters in some significant constituencies—and/or many voters believed—that the security of their access to land would be affected by the outcome of a national-level (or in the case of Eastern DRC, a regional-level) contest for state power. In all these cases, there have been close connections between land-related conflict and competition for elected office at the national level. If an issue is “politicized” when it becomes an axis of electoral competition, then we can call this phenomenon “politicized land conflict.” Under what conditions does this happen in African elections? This article points to the character of the rural land tenure regime as a key explanatory variable.1

Rural Land Tenure Regimes

In the early 2000s, 60%–70% of sub-Saharan Africa’s total population lived and worked in the rural areas, mostly as farmers, pastoralists, and agro-pastoralists. In two out of every three sub-Saharan African countries, over 60% of the total population lives and works in the countryside (2008).2 Yet, only 2%–10% of all land in Africa is surveyed, registered, and held under private title. If so much of the land is not held as private property, then how is access and use regulated and organized? What governs the organization of work, the division of the social surplus, and the use of coercion in these relationships?

Absence of familiar property institutions in rural Africa does not mean an absence of institutions. By constitutional authority, states themselves are sovereign controllers of 90%–98% of the land in sub-Saharan Africa. Most constitutions also give governments direct powers to allocate and reallocate land to users. The lands worked by most African farmers and pastoralists are parts of “national domains” that are legally controlled by political authorities, who act in the name of the state. Coercive and legal power to give and take state land lies in the hands of African governments. Constitutions of several African countries literally vest the power to allocate land in the president. Most smallholder farmers and pastoralists hold permissive occupancy rights granted by the state, often to their own ancestral lands. These rights are generically referred to in the literature as “customary rights,” but the term “customary” can be misleading (see Berry, 2002; Chanock, 1991, 1998; Lund, 2008; Manji, 2001; Peters, 2004, 2013; Wily, 2001).

To understand prevailing land-holding arrangements, landholders’ relations to each other and the state, and how and where land rights become politicized, it is necessary to move beyond generic and institutionless conceptions of African land tenure. It is essential to recognize that state power and government policy is imbricated in all contemporary forms of landholding, including landholdings of small-scale family farmers. Generations of scholars from across the disciplines and continents have indeed contributed to this task of understanding the role of the modern state in shaping contemporary forms of land tenure. Much of this work consists of historical studies focusing on law and/or modern state formation in Africa, and a very large literature develops concepts of legal pluralism to make sense of land politics in a great diversity of forms observed at the local level.3 Drawing on this work, but adopting an expressly institutionalist perspective, this article follows the argument in Property and Political Order in Africa (Boone, 2014) to insist upon a very basic distinction between neo-customary and statist forms of land tenure (or “land tenure regimes”) and to highlight the extent to which forms of land tenure vary across space at the subnational level. In almost all African countries, neo-customary land tenure regimes prevail through most districts or subnational regions. Yet in almost all countries, there are subnational jurisdictions in which overly statist land tenure regimes prevail. The differences turn out to be very important for politics and for the politicization of land issues.

Neo-customary land tenure regimes were institutionalized under colonial indirect rule. Colonial rulers recognized some of the preexisting land rights of their African subjects as neo-customary under particular conditions, for example, if and when their African subjects belonged to state-recognized rural collectivities (officially recognized “tribes”) and agreed to live under the authority of state-recognized local authorities (chiefs) within territories designated as tribal or ethnic homelands by the state. The land rights so recognized by the colonial state were rights to occupy and use land, to pass it on to heirs, to be exempt from land tax, and to claim some compensation (usually in kind) for land expropriated by the state. Colonial rules worked to fix rural populations on the land, codify state-recognized ethnicities and link these ethnic identities to land rights in state-designated homelands, and organize state-recognized ethnic groups into governable collectivities within administrative-cum-territorial units (Chauveau & Dozon, 1987). They also promoted the creation of settled peasantries and the cultivation of food crops and taxable crops within the framework of colonial economies (Chanock, 1991, 1998; Chauveau & Dozon, 1987; Mamdani, 1996; Moore, 1991; Noronha, 1985).

Most independent African governments adopted colonial neo-customary land tenure systems more or less wholesale. Most trimmed the powers of the state-recognized or state-appointed chiefs, but continued to recognize and enforce ethnic homeland territories, ethnic land rights, and many land-related powers of state-appointed chiefs. Importantly, within ethnic homeland territories, the land rights of recognized members of the “titular” ethnic group continued to trump those of ethnic outsiders. Ethnic outsiders required the permission of local ethnic authorities to settle on the land and did so under subordinate or derivative land rights, such as tenancies. Governments and local authorities often expressly refused to recognize land sales to ethnic outsiders, although informal sales were common in some places. Ethnic insiders usually retained control over the land, usually with backing from central governments. This remains the status quo in most zones of smallholder agriculture in most countries.4

Under statist land tenure regimes (LTRs), by contrast, governments control land directly, rather than indirectly, through neo-customary authorities and rules. Central rulers do not recognize, or expressly extinguish, all ancestral or other prior claims to the land. Colonizers did so in particular zones in each African country, such as when they asserted direct control over land and land-based resources to generate revenue, settle new populations on the land, or create cities, mines, dams, or gazetted forests. However, colonizers usually risked the wrath and backlash of subject populations when they did so. In colonial Kenya, for example, the government expropriated vast swaths of fertile Rift Valley land from Africans and gave them to white settlers, who acquired farms and ranches in these zones of “statist” land tenure. The British authorities confined African populations to native reserves governed under supposedly customary (more accurately neo-customary) LTRs (see Berman & Lonsdale, 1992; Kanyinga, 2009; Onoma, 2010; Oucho, 2002).

Postcolonial African governments are motivated by the same types of potential payoffs and constraints in maintaining or expanding zones of statist land tenure. Statist land tenure institutions can be very costly to impose and enforce because control over the land may be contested by people claiming ancestral, neo-customary, or prior-occupancy rights. This helps explain why some version of customary or neo-customary tenure prevails in most smallholder farming regions. Yet in some situations, governments will adopt and stick to the costlier strategy: in zones of statist land tenure, they have direct control over land use and allocation. Most postcolonial governments maintained the often extensive zones of statist land tenure that they inherited from their colonial predecessors—metropolitan areas, forests, game reserves, state-owned farms and ranches, public utility lands, and properties including agricultural and other estates held under private lease or title by foreign citizens or entities (Wily, 2001).

Colonial and postcolonial governments created both de facto and de jure rural settlement schemes to move rural populations from one locality to another, sometimes in the wake of expropriating their land, to promote smallholder agriculture production in particular districts, relieve overcrowding, and so forth. They usually did so on “state land”—that is, under statist land tenure regimes. On formal settlement schemes, smallholders received land allotments directly through the state, often through the direct mediation of state agents, such as district land officers or sous-préfets. Similar but more informal arrangements often emerge, such as when state agents or politicians allow landless people to illegally create farms on gazetted forestland. Under these statist-type land regimes, small-scale farmers are directly dependent on government permission and protection—they have no prior historical or neo-customary claims to the land. Rather than an ethnic or neo-customary right to land, settlers must appeal to the authority of the central state to validate their land claims.

Different Land Tenure Rules, Different Land Politics at Election Time

Under statist land tenure, the possibility of partisan alternation may raise the specter of land rights redistribution. The material stakes of an election may thus become extraordinarily high. This dynamic is highly unlikely to emerge in zones of neo-customary tenure.

Where African smallholder settler populations are directly beholden to central authorities for their land rights, they are highly likely to be mobilized by incumbents who have the power to enforce and renew their land tenure.5 For the same reason, their land rights are also vulnerable to power shifts (political dislocation) at the top of the state apparatus, including shifts that may result from electoral turnover. At the same time, where the state has worked to negate or extinguish ancestral rights to land of an autochthonous community to implant a settler population, rulers have created at least a latent constituency of people who have land rights grievances that are targeted against incumbents in the central state (Moyo & Yeros, 2005). Aggrieved constituencies’ demands for land restitution may be championed by political entrepreneurs who promise to redress historical land grievances by overturning the work of the incumbent government. On a settlement scheme, the settlers’ land rights may turn out to be no more secure than the government that provided the land access in the first place.

The redistributive implications of elections under statist land tenure go far in explaining why land-related conflict may be inflamed at election time. The move to multipartism encourages and allows those who have been on the losing end of the land competition, and whose political options have been hitherto constrained to exit or to remain loyal, to opt for “voice.” Those who have benefitted from the patronage of incumbents have heightened incentives to support their protectors. Thus, the statist nature of local land rights goes far in defining micro-level expectations about the possible consequences of regime turnover (Boone, 2014; Klopp, 2001; Kraus, 2017; Lynch, 2011; Verwimp, 2011, Chapter 8).

Will political entrepreneurs seek to take advantage of the opportunity to mobilize voters with land grievances and politically contingent land rights? The move from opportunity to action on the part of politicians depends on demographic and electoral-system variables that I do not explore systematically here. These include the numerical significance of the voter population that can be mobilized around the land issue and its political significance and electoral weight to politicians.

Electoral systems may determine the electoral significance of a given population or a particular constituency. In Kenya, where devolution has created 47 new county assemblies constituted of members elected at the ward level, county wards have become new micro-arenas in which constituencies may be mobilized around the giving and taking of land rights. The symbolic value of a particular constituency may also matter. In the October 21, 2010, first-round presidential election in Côte d’Ivoire, for example, militants of the ruling Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI) thought that it was imperative that President Laurent Gbagbo win “100 percent of the vote in his home area.”6

Table 1 depicts the partisan alignments over land issues that emerged in five countries that experienced land-related electoral conflict in the 1990s and 2000s. It describes situations of partisan polarization in which defenders of land rights granted by the central state (in districts with statist land tenure) were challenged by political rivals calling for reallocation of those lands to other claimants (usually to as restitution to claimants advancing historical, customary rights). The table shows that incumbents defended the status quo land allocations when they themselves had authored that particular distribution of rights. This alignment emerged under the Habyarimana regime in Rwanda in 1991 to 1994,7 the Mobutu regime in Eastern DRC in 1990 to 1994,8 and the Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) regime in Côte d’Ivoire until 1998.9 By contrast, incumbent politicians renounced, did not defend, or worked to undermine status quo land allocations under statist land tenure regimes in Kenya under Moi and in Zimbabwe under Mugabe. In these cases, the incumbents turned their backs on the land allocations of their predecessors in the ancien regime and faced off against opposition parties that accepted or actively defended the earlier land allocations.10 The bitterness of these elections, culminating in violent conflict and displacements (as captured in the last column of the table), was tied directly to the land-related dimensions of the contests for political power.

Table 1. Land Conflict in the Electoral Arena: Partisan Line-Up on Land Issues



Defending Land Rights Granted by the Central State

Champion of “Customary”/HISTORICAL Rights (Restitution)

Scale of Conflict/Violence


National; Eastern prefectures


Incumbents defend status quo. MRND Hard-liners defend gains of “Hutu Revolution.”

Opposition. RPF; opposition parties supporting the Arusha Process become associated with RPF cause (“coalition objective”) (Reyntjens, 1994, p. 206).

~800,000 killed; 2 million displaced


Rift Valley Province


Opposition defends status quo inherited from Kenyatta regime.

Incumbents (Moi/KANU).

1,500 killed; 500,000 displaced




Opposition (Ruto-wing of the Orange Movement).


Commercial estate areas


Opposition defends status quo inherited from Rhodesian government.

Incumbent. Mugabe nationalist appeals target estate owners.

4,000 farmers expropriated; owners and ~300,000 farm workers and families displaced

Democratic Republic of Congo (excluding Zaire)

North Kivu province


Ancien regime established status quo (colonial regime, Mobutu regime).

New players autochthonous politicians (Hunde/Nyanga).

Côte d’Ivoire

Southwest region


Incumbents invested in status quo established by Houphouet regime.

Opposition. Gbagbo, FPI.

~5,000 displaced (1995); 20,000 displaced (1999)

Côte d’Ivoire



Opposition from 2002, Forces Nouvelles and supporting groups.

Incumbent. Gbagbo, FPI.

~300,000+ displaced

Source: Summarized from Boone (2014).

Competing (Rival) Explanations and Counterfactuals

The argument here is that under multipartism, land conflicts that are structured by the statist land tenure regimes are more likely than land conflicts generated under the neo-customary regimes to find expression in the arena of multiparty politics. This argument can be juxtaposed and compared to three rival explanations of land-related election conflict and election-time violence: (a) the proposition that land scarcity itself causes violent land conflict; (b) the hypothesis that the ethnic heterogeneity of electoral constituencies is a predictor of the emergence of election-time land conflict; (c) the argument that this kind of politicized land conflict reflects the weakness of the central state.

Land Scarcity and Land-Related Violence

Does rising pressure on the land explain the election-time land conflict that developed in the five countries in Table 1? Property and Political Order in Africa (Boone, 2014) considered approximately 30 cases of district-level land-related conflict (both violent and nonviolent) across 14 African countries. A perception of land scarcity was present in all of these cases (this was one of the case selection criteria). Scarcity per se tells us little about whether or how social tensions around perceived land scarcity will find political expression (Huggins et al., 2006). In the vast majority of cases that were examined, social tensions over rising population pressure, shrinking landholding size, and the closing of the land frontier did not become an animating force in electoral politics or fuel election-time violence. Land-related tensions linked to demographic and environmental stress are not necessarily stoked or harnessed by politicians for electoral advantage. In fact, they rarely are.

Ethnic Heterogeneity and Land Conflict

An even more pervasive line of argument attributes election-time land conflict to ethnic heterogeneity.11 Does the existence of ethnic heterogeneity in rural localities mean that land tensions, if they exist, are likely to find expression as ethnic conflict in the electoral arena? Each of the study zones examined in Table 1 is indeed ethnically heterogeneous. From 20%–60% of the population of the subnational jurisdictions of interest in Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, and DRC is composed of in-migrants. In Rwanda, about 20% of the national population was classified as non-Hutu in the 1980s. In Zimbabwe, politicized land conflict in the 2000s targeted the white minority. And perceptions of scarcity and ethnic heterogeneity are simultaneously present in each of these cases. Yet when we seek to explain why politicized land conflict developed in the context of elections in these cases, but not in many others, we see that ethnic heterogeneity, alone or in combination with scarcity and land hunger, is underdetermining (see Boone & Nyeme, 2015). For example, the co-presence of these two factors has not produced election-time “politicized land conflict” in western Ghana or western Burkina Faso, where neo-customary land tenure regimes prevail. Fearon and Laitin (1996) suggested that violent conflict is a rare feature of life in ethnically heterogeneous localities, and this is true in ethnically mixed, land-scarce districts of rural Africa. Where land-related conflicts over resource use divide communities along ethnic lines, as is the case in western Ghana, western Burkina Faso, and northern Cameroon, tensions generally play out as highly localized affairs, without violence. Tensions do not fuel the flames of partisan conflict in national-level electoral competition.

State Weakness and Politicized Land Conflict

A “state weakness” hypothesis holds that in Africa, national government barely penetrates the countryside, and land tenure relations lie beyond the reach of the state. See Herbst (2000), for example. By this logic, multiparty competition would result in land-related conflict where political liberalization “takes the lid off” long simmering inter-communal squabbles that had been repressed by authoritarian states.

The land tenure facts of the cases considered here directly contradict the central tenet of the weak state hypothesis. In each case, the land rights that were called into question were modern artifacts; they were created through a recent history of deep state involvement in land tenure and land allocation. Violence occurred in subregions of each country in which land tenure relations had been the most intensively governed and structured by the modern state. All of the conflict-affected areas were zones of extensive commercialization of agriculture that were marked by deep state involvement in structuring factor allocation, including land allocation, and the commercialization of agricultural output. The statist land tenure regime prevailing in these jurisdictions is itself a prime indicator of high state penetration of the rural areas in these subnational jurisdictions.

The ethnic heterogeneity in the case studies listed in Table 1 was largely traceable to state-sponsored movements of agrarian settlement or colonization. As analysts of the Eastern DRC have argued, the state-engineered “transplantation” of populations onto rural lands over which central states assert direct control, unmediated by neo-customary authorities or tenure rules, created a particular kind of land tenure regime in which the modern state was the direct arbiter of land rights at the micro level. In what Mathieu et al. (1999, p. 19) called “imposed cohabitations” in Eastern DRC, state-sponsored settlers occupied zones of statist land tenure that were excised from larger customary or neo-customary domains. Land tenure relations were largely similar to those patterns prevailing on the settlement schemes in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province or in the settlement zones of south-central and southwestern Côte d’Ivoire. In Rwanda, the postcolonial state redefined land rights and settlement patterns throughout much of the national territory, creating patterns of land clienteles and exclusion that fueled deadly struggles over state power, manifesting in both the 1991 Rwandan Patriotic Front invasion and election violence. In Zimbabwe, the Mugabe regime presented itself as reversing land expropriations and an “imposed cohabitation” engineered by the colonial state. Mugabe positioned himself in 2000 as a revolutionary and a restorer of native land rights, producing forms of land-related conflict in Zimbabwe that resembled the politicized land conflicts that exploded in the other four cases.

Multiparty Competition Under Neo-Customary Land Regimes

Rural jurisdictions in which the return to multipartism at the national level does not result in land-related electoral violence at the local level were more typical than the cases detailed in Table 1. In the vast majority of cases, the land tenure regime is organized around some form of neo-customary authority. These ordinary or typical cases help to support the argument advanced here by way of counterfactual: the argument here is that politicized land-related conflict is expected when rising pressure on the land fuels land-related conflict under the statist land regimes, not under the neo-customary land regimes (see Côté & Mitchell, 2015; Boone, 2017). Land-related conflict did not become an axis of electoral competition in Kisii, Kenya, offering an in-country contrast to the Rift Valley Province case study. In the cases of Western Region Ghana and Western Burkina Faso, the neo-customary authorities and land tenure regimes worked to contain or “repress” land-related conflict at the local level. By the logic advanced here, if land-related conflict did emerge on an axis of electoral competition in a rural jurisdiction under neo-customary land tenure, then this would indicate the weakness or weakening of neo-customary authority over land.


In African countries, land-related issues are most likely to be politicized in elections in conflict-prone ways in places where statist, as opposed to neo-customary, land tenure rules prevail. These places are more likely to be areas where government agents exercise high levels of discretion over land rights allocation. In these settings, past allocations by state agents may be contested by aggrieved communities. At election time, rival politicians may connect with communities on rival sides of such land disputes by promising to use state power to either defend or revise the prevailing land allocation. The implication of the foregoing is not to reinforce neo-customary authorities’ control over land or to advocate for ethnic segregation in rural homelands in African countries. These ideas are not feasible or desirable, and they are not conducive to justice, peace, good governance, and sustainable development in African countries. Rather, the importance of the present analysis lies in (a) helping to identify the nature of land rights claims and counterclaims that may structure social tension in rural districts, (b) arguing that the structure of claims and competing claims can vary across rural districts, even within the same country, sometimes in very politically salient ways, and (c) identifying situations with high conflict potential, and the land-related strategies that politicians may use—including displacement, the deliberate settlement of partisans in key rural constituencies, and promises to give or revoke permission to settle—in their efforts to mobilize, demobilize, and counter-mobilize voters. Some of the most important policy implications of this analysis have to do with efforts that African governments may take to address rural poverty, land hunger, and land-related socioeconomic tensions and stresses. These efforts have to do with addressing the political-economy needs of rural land-poor and landless: the need for accountable local leadership and representation, employment, rural livelihood diversification strategies, sustainable natural resource management, research and funding for agricultural intensification strategies that allow for better farm incomes, and better healthcare and education, including family planning (Jayne, Chamberlin, & Headey, 2014). These needs also comprise access to affordable and accessible legal services, including fair local courts, so that local land disputes, land contracts, and land transactions can achieve state-backed resolution and enforcement. This would work to frustrate the ambitions of powerful opportunists who seek to exploit the land-related vulnerabilities and grievances of ordinary rural citizens.

For the study of politics, one conclusion is that elections in African countries are often not as “issueless” as some prominent political scientists have suggested they are. Observers of political competition in Africa often describe the continent’s party politics as non-ideological, lacking in policy focus, and driven mostly by ethnic chauvinism or short-term clientelism. These descriptions can be misleading. Observers may be looking for nationwide (“programmatic”) politics along the right–left political spectrum that supposedly defines ideological cleavage in the advanced democracies. In some African settings, however, political competition may revolve around the defense of localized economic entitlements that rooted in non-market visions of political order, such as the right to land in an ethnic homeland, and in local citizenship regimes segmented by group or territory. The study of land conflicts and electoral competition draws out some of these connections, highlighting some of the ways in which territorial, citizenship, and entitlement issues may become intertwined with electoral struggles for ordinary citizens.

Ongoing research agendas around land use and land politics in Africa countries are diverse and dynamic. This should not be surprising: the stakes in struggles over land and land policy in African countries are as high today as they have ever been. Rising demographic pressure on the land, environmental stress compounded by climate change, and new waves of investor interest in farmland are driving multiple and sometimes contradictory processes of change. Current policy initiatives within many African countries aim (quietly) to revolutionize the tenure regimes by which farming and agro-pastoralist families and communities hold land by replacing the existing neo-customary tenure and statist forms of land tenure with private land titling and certification (see Byamugisha, 2013; Colin, Le Meur, & Léonard, 2009; Gay, 2014; Manji, 2001, 2004; McAuslan, 1998; Wily, 2001). One often-heard rationale for private titling is that it may reduce the micro- and local-level disputes that can stoke political tension and inhibit productive investment in land. Although much policy discourse around land tenure reform focuses on enhanced individual (or family) control over land, such reforms will also enhance government control over lands currently held under neo-customary tenure. These land law reforms are critical focal points for future research on the politics of land tenure regimes in African countries. The high stakes for both governments and communities will help ensure that these issues remain salient and possibly divisive in electoral politics.


The author thanks the Departments of International Development and Government at the LSE and the LSE International Inequalities Institute for material and intellectual support. Thanks also to Dr. Kris L. Inman of the Africa Research Initiative of the U.S. National Intelligence University for encouraging me to draft an earlier version of this piece and for editorial assistance with an earlier draft.


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  • 1. A more developed of this argument is presented in Boone (2014).

  • 2. On land under private title, see Chimhowu and Woodhouse (2006, p. 346, citing Deininger [2003]) and Boone (2014, p. 23).

  • 3. For example, Amanor (1999); Bassett and Crummey (1993); Bruce and Migot-Adholla (1994); Downs and Reyna (1988); Evers, Spierenburg, and Wels (2005); Fisiy (1992); Jacob and LeMeur (2010); Juul and Lund (2002); Kanogo (1987); Le Bris, Le Roy, and Leimdorfer (1982); Mathieu, Laurent, and Willame (1997); Moyo and Yeros (2005); Ninsin (1989); Onoma (2010); and Ubink and Amanor (2008).

  • 4. See Chauveau and Richards (2008); Colin (2013); Derman, Odgaard, and Sjaastad (2012); Joireman (2011); Lavigne-Delville, Toulmin, Colin, and Chauveau (2002); Lentz (2013); Lund (2008); Maganga (2002); Ninsin (1989); Poteete (2009); Ribot (2004); and Toulmin and Quan (2000). This work points to nuances and variations that characterize particular situations and contexts. Often active negotiation and contestation over rights is part and parcel of daily life. For exceptions, see Boone and Nyeme (2015).

  • 5. For Kenya see Kanyinga (2009); Klopp (2001); Lynch (2011); Médard (1996, 2009); Mueller (2011); Onoma (2010); Oucho (2002). On Côte d’Ivoire see Dozon (1985); Chauveau (2000); Koné (2002). On Zimbabwe, see Alexander (1994); Kriger (2007); Moyo and Yeros (2005); and on Rwanda, see Verwimp (2011).

  • 6. Interviews in Abidjan, October 20, 2010.

  • 7. On Rwanda, see Verwimp (2011); Boone (2014, Chapter 8).

  • 8. On the DRC, see Mararo (1997); Mathieu (1997); Mathieu, Laurent, Mafikiri Tsongo, and Mugangu (1999); Mathieu and Willame (1999); and Vlassenroot and Raeymaekers (2004).

  • 9. On Côte d’Ivoire, see Babo and Droz (2008); Chauveau (2000); Marshall-Fratani (2006).

  • 10. On Kenya, see Anderson and Lochery (2008); Klopp (2001); Médard (1996, 2009); Onoma (2010); Oucho (2002). On Zimbabwe, see Boone and Kriger (2010).

  • 11. Many analyses describe election-time conflict in African countries as a subtype of the more general phenomenon of ethnic conflict that is presumed to grow out of ethnic heterogeneity. Many either forego the analysis of local causes or assume that ethnic tension is, by definition, prone to burst into open conflict once provoked, as it can be by politicians. Often, the land-related dimensions of conflict are invisible, omitted from the analysis, or taken as idiosyncratic or epiphenomenal. In electioneering, land-related cues and messages are likely to be implicit, coded, in vernacular languages, and/or transmitted in person or by radio, thus not appearing in the published national political party platforms that scholars often examine in search of information about the policy content of elections.