Control over property essential for Africa

Sandra Joireman, a professor at Wheaton College, explains why property rights are important for African citizens.

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If someone tries to take over part of the land I own in Chicago, I can get the government to remove them, because I have clear proof that I own the property and the government protects my right to the property. However, in many areas of sub-Saharan Africa, it isn’t so easy to protect your land, your house or anything you own. Although law exists to protect people’s property, the government is not strong enough to enforce those rights.

In Ghana, people can spend years involved in court fighting over their rights to homes and land. Because they want to avoid this, many hire “land guards” — armed thugs who prevent anyone from building or trespassing on their land. In Kenya, private security firms exist to protect property where the government does not. These are private responses to the fact that the government does not enforce property rights.

Property rights are so important because people only invest in property if they know they will retain control over it. People’s lives are dependent on access to land, and if they can’t have guaranteed access to it they face difficulties in providing for themselves.

In rural Africa, unclear property ownership and a lack of strong governments make it difficult for people to prove that they have a right to farm a particular piece of land. If they cannot prove they have a right to be there, then it is easy for the land to be taken away from them, by relatives, corporations or even the government.

Those most likely to lose access to land and houses are the weakest: migrant families or households headed by women. A Ugandan friend of mine put it this way, “A woman can buy everything in a home, she can buy the land and build the house and it is still not recognized as hers.” When the state does not enforce their property rights, women lose.

For more information on the importance of property rights in Africa, you can read “Where There is No Government” and find out about what people do to protect their homes and land when the state does not.

-Sandra Joireman, professor of politics and international relations, Wheaton College