The rural-urban aspect of Africa’s land politics

03 December 2021 | Opinion

UCHENDU EUGENE CHIGBU

Given Africa's current state of development pursuits, I suggest a politically practicable and yet land governance related approach to building balanced development (that is, a development that will benefit all). My suggestion is a development vision or policy that is based on achieving “equivalent living condition”. Such an approach will put into consideration the broad socio-spatial units that make up African countries. By socio-spatial units, I mean the rural (where traditional villages are mostly located) and urban (where government institutions are mostly located) areas.

“Equivalent living condition” means that every region (or urban and rural area) in a country should have equal consideration in the national development process. It entails that what is done to one part is also done to the other. This does not mean that if a skyscraper is built in a city, a similar skyscraper should be built in a village. It means giving equal consideration to both based on their development priorities as determined by them. It denotes putting a developmentally logical focus on reducing imbalances in development among municipalities irrespective of whether they are urban or rural. For instance, a rural area could have a lower-standard infrastructure (not one of no standards or no infrastructure) but benefits from the better promotion of food security or cultural development than urban areas.

Why embrace equivalent living condition as a development strategy? In all African countries, the current states of development tilt more to the urban than the rural. This is not surprising because rural and urban areas are treated unequally. In most cases, there is a stronger focus on urban development due to their relevance to government administration and high property development. Rural areas should matter too. Rural areas are the supplier of land for agriculture, minerals for export, forests, and the workforce for national development. Rural represent the purest heritage of African societies, and their hope for their economic development. Hence, preserving rural areas (by giving them similar attention as urban areas) is essential for sustainable development. If we destroy the rural areas, we destroy the very essence of Africa’s heritage and identity.

Despite that all countries in Africa are rural (by way of having more rural land than urban land), their governments have been passive in tackling the rural problem. Therefore, I recommend engaging in equivalent living condition as the way forward. However, this requires policymakers and politicians to develop a better understanding of how their political decision processes can influence societal choices of development options. For equivalent living condition to be applicable in Africa, the policymakers must engage (as a matter of habit) in asking citizens (wherever they may reside) their wishes and dreams for development (citizens participation), rather than make assumptions about people’s needs in their policymaking and implementation processes. Furthermore, they must discontinue their habit of neglecting rural areas in their national development practice. One way to change this counter-developmental habit is to engage in “rural proofing” in all aspects of development policies and implementation. Rural proofing entails screening the effects of policies and development activities on rural areas before their approval and implementation. This is crucial to ensure that policies and development activities (especially those on land and natural resources) do not benefit the urban areas alone. Factors necessary for rural proofing could include checking the effects of policies on rural financial situations, economy, infrastructure, public services, social cohesion, (participation in development activities), housing space, and land and natural resource use. Rural proofing is essential because balanced development can only be achieved if policy implementations benefit both rural and urban areas.

It is obvious that when many African governments gained political independence from their colonial masters, they never (as it seems to me) set themselves up for the challenges ahead, especially that of bridging the disparity or imbalance between the haves and have-nots in their countries. Consequentially, what we have in African countries today is a system of development disparities caused by many forms of imbalances — e.g., imbalances in the household, gender, ethnic, regional, spatial aspects of developments. Where these forms of imbalances co-exist, they make sustainable development impossible (a reason why Africa is having a turbulent spell in all aspects of its development). A focus on bridging development disparity in one aspect have always led to a loss of attention in tackling the problems in other aspects. It makes achieving balanced development almost impossible.

Land governance (that is, the politics of land channelled towards the benefit of all citizens) presents a one-stop option for tackling all these problems head-on because it embodies all these dimensions of development (household, gender, ethnic, regional, and spatial). Also, it lies at the centre of urban and rural development. Linking land governance to broader national development planning can catalyse a balance in overall national development. The biggest question is whether African national governments have the political will to treat their urban and rural areas equally when it comes to development decisions. Doing this would require pursuing equivalent living condition as a three-prong measure — as a political manifesto, development goal and land governance objective.

* Uchendu Eugene Chigbu is an Associate Professor (Land Administration) in the Department of Land and Property Sciences (DLPS) at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). The views expressed in this article are entirely his, and not that of NUST.

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